The Angst-Ridden Executive

The Catalan poet, playwright, and essayist Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939–2003), was also a crime novelist who was acquainted with crime: political and recreational. Jailed for four years under Spain’s fascist Franco regime, the leftist writer cultivated an understandably — and exquisitely — ironic view of zealots in particular and humanity in general. Indeed, it is easy to see Montalbán in the detective he created, Pepe Carvalho, an intellectual, ex-Communist veteran and gourmand who is at home only in his beloved Barcelona.

Carvalho is at the center of nineteen novels, many of them set in post-Franco Spain. His youth and his glory days are behind him. As one character in The Angst-Ridden Executive observes, they were  “…the best years of our lives — if you leave aside the political persecution, the brutality…and the darkness ruling the country.” Such cynical humor peppers this lean thriller in which Montalbán strikes the perfect balance between European cerebral and American noir. He also reins in the lengthy political and philosophical digressions that deflate other Pepe Carvalho novels: Murder in the Central Committee, for example, and to a lesser degree The Buenos Aires Quintet.      

The Angst-Ridden Executive may be dark but it is also sprightly, shuttling as it does between the USA and Spain while Carvalho investigates the death of Antonio Jauma, a Spanish industrialist. By chance, he knew the man. Carvalho and Jauma once met on a transatlantic flight, discovered tastes in common, and shared an unlikely American road trip with an enigmatic German business associate of Jauma’s. Now Carvahlo recalls scenes from this American odyssey — California, for example, with its “…beautiful Anglo Saxons, white as the sand on the seashore, and always casually dressed, as if life for them was always casual” — as he attempts to track down the businessman’s murderer. He is assisted, as usual, by Biscuter, a rough Catalan version of Jeeves, and by Charo, a prostitute girlfriend, both of whom are more cartoon figures than characters.

The novel’s murder suspects, however, and even its minor corporate and political figures are convincingly menacing, while the murder mystery itself is complex but not outlandish. It leads Carvalho not only into the past  — an inevitable destination in post-Franco Spain — but almost prophetically into the future. This may be the 1970s, but the riots in the streets, the desperation of the poor, and the combined heft of the state and the corporation seem eerily familiar. “Democracy cannot permit the use of a strong hand,” a loutish entrepreneur tells Carvalho, “but in order to succeed it needs terrorism in the background, a dirty war, which drives people into the arms of stabilizing forces that appear to have clean hands.” And this, it turns out, is where the key to Jauma’s murder lies: in the foul territory ruled by corrupt politicians and patrolled by uniformed thugs, the seasoned variety who have the ability “…to pass from a blow to the forgetting of that blow in an instant, in the confidence that the person on whom it landed has no choice but to play along.”  Another breed that Montalbán seems to have known only too well.