The Ignorance of Blood

In his 2003 novel, The Blind Man of Seville, the British writer Robert Wilson introduced us to Javier Falcon, a Spanish chief inspector who confronted not only crimes that were often rooted in Spain’s history but also secrets from his family’s past. Three outstanding Inspector Falcon novels followed: The Vanished Hands, The Hidden Assassins, and now The Ignorance of Blood, the concluding volume. But it was clear from the outset that this was not a straightforward crime series (Wilson himself calls it a quartet of interlocked books). Falcon is too introverted a hero and the world he inhabits too unstable for the reader to be left with a sense of ease, let alone comfort.

Yet there is nothing hard-boiled about this fiction either. For all their brutality, Wilson’s novels are psychologically complex and overwhelmingly compassionate. His characters are never merely types or his scenes merely set pieces. In The Ignorance of Blood, for example, the interrogation of a monstrous killer — a predictable climax in any thriller — quickly veers off course. “?. you must understand that this is my job,” the assassin, Sokolov, tells his polite interrogator, “I was given the names of people I was required to kill, but I did not always remember them.” When reminded of a recent victim who was dismembered with a chain saw, Sokolov replies “The two who did that were animals, but they were brought up on brutality. They know nothing else.” A tidy scene becomes untidy as Wilson makes us contemplate, however briefly, the inner lives of two incidental sadists.

Contemplation is, however, a rare luxury in The Ignorance of Blood, a relentlessly tense novel that opens with a visceral jolt and never loosens its grip. On a sultry September night, a Russian Mafioso rich in cash, cocaine, and incriminating sex tapes is fleeing one crime syndicate to join another when he is killed in a freak road accident outside Seville. Falcon is called to the scene and soon uncovers a fresh case of sex slavery, extortion, and the blackmailing of local officials. The case may be fresh but it is not new, not to Falcon. In his world there are no entirely new cases. There are instead old sins, long memories, enduring — and often fatal — connections to the past. Here, as in previous novels, Wilson elegantly folds these persistent themes of blood and memory into his serpentine plot, allowing the links between past and current crimes to surface incrementally and elliptically.

The Russian Mafia case, we soon learn, is somehow linked to the massive bombing that shook the city of Seville in June, a crime that Falcon has publicly sworn to solve. That connection leads Falcon back to Ernesto Calderon, the instructing judge who was forced off the bombing case when he was arrested for the suspected murder of his wife — who happened to be Falcon’s ex-wife. All of which sounds unlikely when summarized. But these individual dramas, so memorably developed in earlier Falcon novels, are efficiently revisited in the opening chapters of The Ignorance of Blood, and readers new to the series will soon grasp the shape, if not the full weight, of the puzzle’s separate pieces.

“Personal crusades, Javier, are not advisable in police work,” the imprisoned Calderon tells his visitor, Falcon, “Every old people’s home in Spain probably has a retired detective gaping from the windows, his mind still twisted around a missing girl, or a poor, bludgeoned boy.” Falcon’s mind nonetheless remains fixated on the conspiracy behind the Seville bombing; one that involves Muslim extremists, a Spanish far-right Catholic political party, an American corporation with evangelical affiliations, a corrupt intelligence branch and now, Falcon suspects, the Russian Mafia.

Falcon’s crusade becomes truly personal, however, when one of those tentacles reaches out for the young son of his girlfriend, Consuelo. That moment marks a turning point in the novel. Wilson’s style has until then been almost brusque (there are all those connections to explain) and his scenes cinematically intense. The Mafia murder of a possible informer, for example, is all the more sickening for being sketched rather than portrayed. Discovering the carnage, “Falcon turned away with the slaughterhouse image burned into his mind?.The saliva thickened to an eggy slop in his mouth. He sucked in the black night air, thick as bitumen.”

Yet it can get worse. And it does. When Consuelo’s son is endangered, we experience the accelerated momentum of a sudden and terrifying descent. This disturbing sensation is only intensified by a brief change of location, from Seville to London. There we see Javier meeting once again with Yacoub Douri, a reluctant intelligence agent who has infiltrated a North African terrorist group and who both reports to and confides in Javier. Far more than a spy, Yacoub is the closest thing that Javier has to a brother, and their conversations provide rare moments of reflection, both personal and political, in an otherwise driven novel. But even as Yacoub reveals himself to Javier and as Javier in turn tolerates the insults of British intelligence officers, Consuelo’s world back in Seville implodes and horror intrudes.

Robert Wilson has said that he exposes his characters to psychological trauma in order to make them change (Falcon had a breakdown in 2001), but in The Ignorance of Blood he brings Falcon close to destruction. There is no time, in this fourth novel, for the psychotherapy sessions that in the past provided respite and illumination to him and to other key characters. Here the villains, some of Wilson’s finest, largely set the pace and dictate the next move. Meanwhile fragments of espionage, terrorism, Mafia, and political corruption coalesce around Falcon’s desperate investigation; one with a child at its center and his own salvation at stake.

The wonder here is not that Wilson manages his complicated plot so gracefully and convincingly — past novels have proved him to be a master choreographer — but that he does this while creating scenes so vivid that they force us to breathe the same air that Falcon breathes and to inhabit the same world of exhaustion and dread. Emerging from one confrontation, for example, Javier walks “out into the suffocating night, full of the uneasy susurrating of the trees and the low, distant threat of the city grinding out its future.” (Seville continues to be a palpable presence in these novels). Yacoub, on a dawn mission at sea, notices that “The horizon quivered as if a meniscus had to be broken for the red orb to push up into the sky.”

Towards the end of this final novel, Falcon observes, “Blood does something to an atmosphere: electrifies it so that other humans know to tread with care.” Here the trail of blood — spilled and unspilled –that Wilson has so carefully laid down in his Falcon quartet fades into the background as reporters crowd in for a climactic press conference and Falcon’s superiors bask in unearned glory. “Mystery gone,” Falcon sourly reflects, “quest terminated. All that remained was an overwhelming sense of loss and pointlessness.” For him, perhaps, but certainly not for Wilson’s fortunate readers.