Black Wolf by Juan Gómez-Jurado

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Black Wolf by Juan Gomez-Jurado front cover

Translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia — Black Wolf follows on from Spanish author Juan Gómez-Jurado’s highly rated Red Queen, which is set in Madrid and forms the basis of the Amazon Prime series launched earlier this year. Comparisons have been made with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, primarily due to some similarity between protagonist Antonia Scott and Lisbeth Salander. However, this is an entirely different pan of paella – in a delightfully unexpected way.

For a novel that’s packed with action sequences, shoot-outs and a fast-pacing plot, it’s rather unusual to also have characters who are so well-developed and charismatic that they completely steal the show. We haven’t encountered two as fascinating and complex yet endearing characters as Antonia Scott and Jon Gutiérrez in quite some time. They are the foundation of what, so far at least, is a multifaceted and highly readable series.

Antonia’s mind is frequently likened to a jungle filled with monkeys leaping from vine to vine. The only way she can successfully control and use her above-average IQ is to take a pill that regulates her dopamine levels and helps her control external stimuli. Antonia became addicted as a result of her training by the Red Queen project, a secret and experimental police unit led by a man called Mentor that operates throughout Europe.

The unit was established with specific goals in mind: tracking down terrorists, paedophiles and violent criminals who are elusive and free from the constraints of law and bureaucracy. The backstory of Antonia’s recruitment and her teaming up with disgraced police officer, Jon Gutierrez, is covered in Red Queen, which you will undoubtedly want to read.

Her reluctant sidekick is a homosexual police inspector who, as we are repeatedly and wryly reminded, isn’t fat and lives with his mother. Jon appears to be the complete antithesis of the stereotypical cop. He hates high-speed chases (especially when he’s the passenger) and fishing dead bodies out of rivers, but he also despises emotional speeches and goodbyes. Jon is there more or less to save the socially awkward Antonia from herself. Despite their often fraught and prickly relationship he cares deeply about his brilliant but emotionally stunted colleague.

Their case begins in the Costa del Sol where Russian gangster Yuri Voronin is killed. His pregnant wife Lola Moreno manages to flee but time is running out for her because she is diabetic and needs her insulin. Plus, kingpin Aslan ‘The Beast’ Orlov, has hired the Black Wolf, a female assassin, to eliminate her. Antonia and Jon must find Lola before anyone else does. Competing against a criminal syndicate spanning 13 countries and a relentless assassin is no easy feat, especially if you add in two hostile detectives.

Tonally, Black Wolf isn’t the darkly serious kind of crime writing associated with writers like Larsson, and on that level the comparisons are unfounded. It’s not all laughs and giggles, but there’s ample action to keep up the momentum.

There is also Antonia’s wider story arch to pull you in. When she joined Red Queen she wasn’t fully aware of the risks involved – those became clear when her husband was injured in a shoot-out and ended up in a coma. She feels guilty and virtually lives at the hospital, much to the chagrin of her 93-year-old grandmother, who lectures Antonia by quoting Elsa from Frozen.

Antonia has also lost parental rights over her son Jorge. In addition to dealing with her diplomat ex, opinionated grandmother and comatose husband, she’s trying to track down the elusive Mr White, the man responsible for her husband’s situation.

Black Wolf, like its predecessor, is a fresh breath of air. It is clever and witty without trying too hard. Its wry, self-deprecating tone, combined with a seemingly effortless, no-nonsense writing style, sets it apart from others in the genre. It’s no wonder Juan Gomez-Jurado is regarded as one of the most successful Spanish thriller writers working today. Now we’re looking forward to White King, due to complete the trilogy in March 2025.

For another crime novel translated from Spanish, try My Favorite Scar by Nicolas Ferraro.

Pan Macmillan

CFL Rating: 5 Stars


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