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"Webster...makes his scenes easy to visualize, uses believable dialog, and plays out the investigation in an assured manner. The author’s marvelously structured mystery not only reveals the complex politics behind bullfighting but also introduces us to colorful, tragic, and empathetic characters. The city of Valencia is a character as well, so strong is the sense of place...With its rapid pace and wonderfully flawed detective, this vibrant novel has tremendous appeal."—Library Journal (starred review, debut of the month)
"[A] remarkable first novel, a baffling mystery...Webster makes the bullfighting integral to the plot rather than a mere backdrop, effortlessly conveying the role of the sport in Spanish society. The well-rounded lead—cynical, willing to bend the rules, emotionally wounded—should be more than capable of sustaining a long series."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Max and his police assistants are intriguing and well-drawn characters, and the Valencia setting is unique and well described." — Booklist
"Webster’s insights into bullfighting shed light on aspects of the Spanish character, lifting this debut and its bleak and brooding protagonist above the ordinary." — Kirkus Reviews
"Or The Bull Kills You is a superb Spanish police procedural starring a somewhat cynical dedicated cop who steps into the bullring, a place he loathes. The country's culture and heritage, the city, the two faced politicians and the sport provide strong pillars to a terrific whodunit as Camara feels the fishbowl effect as he works a case from inside the bullring with figuratively everyone in the stands watching his investigation." — Midwest Book Reviews
"A sensational debut. Gripping, sexy and above all evocative of Spain's dark underbelly, it's a must-read crime novel."
— Tarquin Hall, author of the Vish Puri mysteries
"Webster has penned a great book."
"This inner journey of one of the most attractive figures to enter recent detective fiction is set amid a splendidly authentic Valencia...Like the best detective stories, this book becomes a scrutiny of our own most powerful drives and secrets." — The Independent
"For its nifty plotting, great descriptions and the most enchanting new detective I've come across in a good while, I award this novel both ears and the tail."—The Guardian
Either you kill the bull, or the bull kills you
Saturday 11th March
Chief Inspector Max Cámara of the Valencia Cuerpo Nacional de Policía cast a dark eye over the other guests at the Bar Los Toros, and sniffed.
Stopping by the Jefatura after lunch had been a mistake.
‘Cámara, there’s no one else around. You’ll have to stand in for me.’
The idea had been to run in quickly to see if he was owed any leave. Fallas was coming, Valencia’s pyromaniac spring fiesta, and he was hoping to get out of the city until it was over. But he could still hear Pardo’s voice as the commissioner raced through the door, his wife waiting for him outside in a taxi with their three-year-old. There had been no time to remind Pardo he knew nothing about bullfighting, or that he hated it: a daughter with suspected meningitis took precedence over everything. Still, someone else could have stepped in. Maldonado, perhaps. He would have revelled in the pomp and glory.
As it was, though, he had ended up standing in as president of that afternoon’s corrida, wondering to himself if there was anyone in the country less suited to the job. Pardo loved it – one of the perks of being a top policeman in a big city. Cámara had sometimes imagined him sitting up there in the balcony, the grave, unsmiling face, all the responsibility of the spectacle on his shoulders as representative of the Ministry of the Interior – the branch of government that oversaw bullfighting. He was convinced Pardo enjoyed it even more than the few times he managed to appear on TV at the successful conclusion to a case. Anyone foolish enough to go near him the day after a fight would be regaled with unnecessary detail on whether one or two ears – if any – he had ordered be cut off each dead animal and given to the matadors in recognition of their performances. Sometimes they even cut off the tail as well and presented it to the torero as a trophy, but Pardo didn’t go in for that: it was rare. And a bit showy.
It could have been a disaster, but two others had sat with him in the presidential box – one an expert on bullfighting, the other, Cámara discovered to his surprise, a vet – to guide the president in his decisions. Cámara allowed himself to be steered by these stern-looking men. They made it clear they were unhappy that Pardo hadn’t made it himself, sending a subordinate with no knowledge – or even apparent interest – in los toros.
‘When did you say Pardo found out about his daughter?’ one of them – the vet – had asked. His heavy, inanimate face stared out at the crowd, as if Cámara were to blame for the little girl’s illness. And the two of them sucked on their cigars, veiled behind clouds of blue smoke: still, lifeless shadows on the outer reaches of his line of vision. Thank God they hadn’t been invited to the Bar Los Toros.
Actually, Cámara wasn’t quite sure why he had been invited himself to this award ceremony for Jorge Blanco, the star of the afternoon. All three matadors had come close to blending into one for him – each one finishing by slaughtering the bull. Only the reaction of the crowd had alerted him to possible differences. The first had been given a mixed welcome. What was his name? Cámara dug his hands into his pockets looking for the glossy programme that had been thrust at him when he arrived at the bullring. He stared into the face of a man in his mid-thirties, dark sideburns stretching down his cheeks: Alejandro Cano. The crowd had whistled at him at the end of his first fight, while his second had gone better: applause, and perhaps a trophy ear; he wasn’t sure now.
The second matador had been cheered almost from the start. That one he did remember more clearly: the one they were waiting for now in the Bar Los Toros. Jorge Blanco, the man who had single-handedly saved Spain’s national fiesta from oblivion. Or at least there had been comments to that effect. His face had even appeared recently on the front page of El País; he was becoming a hard man to avoid. The crowd loved him, applauding every move with the cape, every triumphal swipe with his sword. He had rescued the old values of bullfighting, they said. Valour, strength, and a true life-and-death struggle with the animal. Down there, on the sand, Blanco put his balls on the line like no other bullfighter.
Cámara had pulled out his handkerchief twice for him the first time – meaning two trophy ears – then again with his second bull, the fifth of the six that made up the afternoon. His advisors had twitched at that point: perhaps he’d overdone it, but looking at the jubilant spectators – almost 13,000 people; the place was full to capacity – he’d decided to err on the side of generosity, the policeman in him considering the crowd-control options should any reluctance to award severed ears on his part lead to a riot.
At the end of the afternoon, Blanco was festooned as admirers threw flowers and cuddly toys to him. A live hen caught Cámara’s eye as it was hurled down into the ring, Blanco’s assistants handing it to the matador to lay his hands on before they threw it back to the crowd and, hopefully, to reunion with its owner. That night, he imagined, someone in Valencia was about to feast on chicken that had been blessed by the great man himself before having its throat slit.
Cámara remembered Blanco’s keen steady eye, his slightly upturned nose, heavy eyebrows and pained, almost tortured air. There was no standing on ceremony about him, no dedicating the fight to one of the bullfighting grandees down in Sombra – the expensive seats. Each fight had gone to the crowd itself, and they loved him even more for it.
Cámara glanced down at the last photo on the flyer. It was the young Antonio de Mora’s first proper bullfight, they’d said. At some stage before his first bull there had been a mini-ceremony of sorts down in the ring where Cano had acted as his godfather – a rite of passage from novillero, or apprentice, into fully fledged bull killer. The crowd was generous, applauding after each despatched animal, but there were no ears today for de Mora. Blanco was the man, and once the whole thing had finished some of the crowd rushed into the ring and carried him off on their shoulders through the main door – la Puerta Grande – and out into the street. That was the greatest honour for a bullfighter, his companions had told him before taking their leave, a last impassive handshake before joining their aficionado friends.
Cámara stood on his own for a moment in the presidential box, wondering how quickly he could get out of there before anyone noticed him, when the owner of the Bar Los Toros introduced himself and asked him to join them. He was president of a peña taurina – a bullfighting appreciation society – he said, and they were giving Blanco an award for the previous year’s performance, as doubtless they would be doing next year for what had just taken place that afternoon. It would be an honour for them if today’s president himself could be present. Cámara had been on the point of turning him down; he’d already made other arrangements.
‘I’d be delighted.’
The words had come out with curious ease.
Now, as he sat in the grubby surroundings of the Bar Los Toros down a street at the back of the bullring, with a quickly vanishing glass of Mahou lager in his hand, he began to wonder. The owner was talking to the barman, leaning in to make himself heard above the noise of the TV set bolted high in a corner and a dozen conversations bouncing off the red-painted greasy walls. Blanco still hadn’t shown up, while conversation with the two dozen other people there was proving difficult: something about the chief inspector, perhaps his clothes, just the way he was, told them he wasn’t an aficionado, not one of them.
If any of them had focused on him at all, they would probably have described Cámara as an unassuming man, with short, dark, slightly ruffled hair crowning a high forehead, a larger than average chin, dark brown eyes and a crooked, fleshy nose – the kind of person who no doubt could look after himself, and had possibly had to do so on more than one occasion. More perceptive observers of the forty-two-year-old might notice other details: strong yet thoughtful hands devoid of any rings, bracelets or watch; an observant expression in his lively brown eyes; and a vulnerability only partially masked by his broad shoulders and powerful physical presence. He was a man you would pass without a second glance down a street in broad daylight, but who might cause you some unease were the same situation repeated at night.
As he sat at the bar at the edge of the group, wondering whether to make a last attempt to talk to some of the other guests, a proverb – one of the dozens his grandfather used to repeat – floated through his mind: Más vale estar solo que mal acompañado – Better to be alone than in bad company. He shouldn’t have come.
The last mouthful of beer disappeared from his glass and he looked around the room. The other guests looked to be pijos to a man – rich, well-dressed conservatives: people he might have to mix with at work on occasion, but rarely chose to spend his free time with. The other side of Spain, the other tribe. He leaned back in his chair. Five more minutes and then he’d go.
To kill time, he decided to play a game to see if he could work out who some of them were.
An elderly man sat at a table dressed in heavy tweeds, his hair slicked back and with a well-heeled country air about him. Cámara felt certain he was a bull breeder. He checked his flyer again. The bulls for the fight had come from the Ramírez farm, their symbol a large capital letter ‘R’ with a cross running through the lower right tail. Cámara had noticed it burnt onto the haunches of some of the bulls earlier on. Was this the man who had bred them? For a moment Cámara observed his thin, downturned mouth, large hooked nose, small untrusting eyes. His hair was almost white, and gave him a distinguished air, albeit in a slightly studied way.
Cámara moved on, scanning the room.
One face seemed familiar now – a woman standing at the centre wearing a red low-cut dress and exceptionally high, strapped silver heels. Cámara was sure he had seen her on TV, with her bee-stung lips and tightly stretched bronzed complexion. She looked like the kind of person who appeared on the gossip programmes, screaming out the intimate details of their love lives in a constant search for higher and higher doses of media attention. Carmen Luna? Wasn’t that her name? If Almudena had been there with him she would have told him her life story by now. Cámara searched his memory for some reference to her. If she was here she must have something to do with Blanco. Weren’t they engaged? Rumoured to be getting married soon? Blanco couldn’t be more than thirty-five years old. There was no way Carmen was less than fifty. On a good day.
He watched for a moment as her eyes darted about the room clocking all the men who were looking at her.
Another woman – the only other one there – was standing on the far side of the bar. She was slightly stockier than Carmen Luna, and wore a pair of tightly fitting jeans. Her hair was cropped short and highlighted, while a pair of large brown sunglasses perched on top of her head like an Alice band. She smiled broadly as she talked to a couple of men leaning in towards her, both captured by her energy, an attractive force more powerful than mere good looks. In fact, she wasn’t pretty in any conventional sense, or at least not in Cámara’s mind. Her nose was a little too long and sharp, her figure a little plump, while the slight gap between her two front teeth meant she was never going to star in any toothpaste commercials. And yet it was clear from her poise that she was used to being in the company of men, and enjoyed it.
Cámara watched her for a while trying to work out who she was, but nothing, no clue, came to mind. Yet something about her was familiar. For a moment she noticed him looking her way and smiled, before turning back to her companions. Cámara stood up and headed to the bar to get himself a last quick drink. Time was beginning to drag. And still no sign of Blanco.
The door opened and all heads turned expectantly. A tall man in a dark suit appeared, and Cámara was immediately struck by his resemblance to the elderly bull breeder he’d identified earlier. A few voices called out in greeting – ‘Hola Paco!’ – but he could sense the collective groan around the bar: it wasn’t Blanco. After shaking a few outstretched hands, the newcomer went and sat beside the bull breeder, where the physical similarity between them was even clearer: the same hooked noses, the same small eyes. Even his hair was slicked back in the same style. This was almost certainly the old man’s son. Paco Ramírez? The two of them quickly locked in conversation, the younger talking in a low voice into the other’s ear.
Cámara turned away and stared up into the glass eyes of the bull’s head mounted on the wall behind as the barman poured him another beer. The horns rose up in straight, parallel points from its temples before splaying out at the ends. ¿Yo también tengo cuernos? he thought to himself. Do I have horns as well? He checked himself; where had thoughts of being cuckold arisen from all of a sudden?
He looked at the time on his mobile phone: it was already gone nine o’clock. They’d been there for almost an hour. He thought for a moment about Almudena and their plans for the evening. He’d texted her from the bullring to say he’d be running late. Come round when you’re finished, she’d answered. Perhaps he should just slip out now. No one would notice.
The barman placed his drink in front of him as the sound of shouting came from the street outside.
‘Those bloody anti-taurinos again,’ the barman mumbled. ‘Think they’re going to frighten us off with their rallies.’
No one else seemed to be paying any attention, assuming them to be another bunch of kids setting off firecrackers for Fallas. But Cámara listened as a barrage of whistling and calls of ‘murderers’ – ‘asesinos’ – filtered through the walls. Someone out there was playing a drum.
There was a kick to the door and it opened with a crash. Conversations stopped, and everyone turned to look. The doorway was empty, and across the street, election posters for the mayoress grinned back at them, while fiesta lights blazed down from their wire supports above.
‘¿Qué coño? What the fuck?’
There was a bewildered murmuring from the guests before a huddle of people burst through the doorway and into the bar. On their chests were emblazoned drawings of a bull with a red line painted through it, while two of them were holding a banner with the words ‘Blanco asesino’ painted in dark green letters which they struggled to unfurl in the cramped room. Without moving from his position at the bar, Cámara looked over and quickly counted: there were nine of them, with perhaps a straggler or two outside. Most were in their twenties, one or two slightly older. Almost all of them were wearing jeans, with walking boots or trainers, and brightly coloured shirts and jackets. No sign of any of them carrying a weapon.
Once inside, the demonstrators pulled out their whistles and started to blow, splitting the air with a tremendous sound, while someone banged a drum with a slow, stomping rhythm. Above the noise, a tinny voice echoed out from a loudhailer, the words angry and violent but incoherent in the racket. Cámara spotted the would-be spokesperson – a girl of about twenty-five, her hair in dreadlocks and pulled back in a loose bun.
Some of the guests had stood up and were gesticulating aggressively at the intruders. Ramírez, the bull breeder, sat where he was, his skin reddening. The owner of the bar was rooted to the spot, an expression of panic on his face. Cámara looked for Carmen Luna, but she seemed to have disappeared. Instead he found himself being watched by the short woman with the highlights in her hair. He felt sure she knew who he was, and her wry, knowing smile seemed to tell him that he was the only one there who could deal with the situation.
He placed his drink back on the bar and walked towards the intruders. They were now inching their way forwards with a growing group momentum, and there was a danger of imminent physical contact with some of the guests.
Cámara stepped in and quickly placed himself between the two opposing forces. The whistling intensified, as though to blast him out of the way, before finally subsiding as the intruders paused to take their breath. Cámara grabbed his chance.
‘Venga. Come on,’ he said, gesturing towards the door.
The girl with the loudhailer stood to the front and looked him up and down. She seemed curious: he didn’t fit here. The absence of an expensive watch on his wrist, his uncombed hair, the short sideburns framing his face, the stubble on his chin showing that he hadn’t been as careful as he might have been when shaving that morning. By the looks of it he should have been on their side.
‘Who are you?’ she asked.
‘It’s time to go,’ Cámara said. ‘You can carry on outside.’
From behind, Cámara could feel the eyes of the guests on him, wondering if he was capable of solving their little crisis. In front, the demonstrators decided it was time to increase the noise levels again, and the cacophony started afresh, the whistling piercing his ears like needles. Yet instinctively he could tell, as he watched them jumping and waving their arms, stamping their feet to the sound of the drum, that they had not come here seeking any more than this – a minor discomfort, a show of strength, despite their limited numbers. Their intention was to embarrass and annoy, not cause a fight or a riot.
He raised his voice.
‘I’m a policeman. I want you to leave.’
The girl gave him another quizzical look.
‘Policeman? So what are you doing here standing up for these murderers?’ She pointed at Ramírez and his son. ‘You should be locking them up.’
There was a surge in the group as she spoke, a lurching, unconscious step forwards. Cámara put out his arm and held them back. They felt his strength, like a rock. It would be difficult to get past this one.
‘I need you to leave,’ Cámara repeated, his voice lower this time. ‘Now.’
A shout came from the back, while two of them took up their whistles once again, but the girl with the dreadlocks remained silent, flaring her nostrils as she looked into Cámara’s eyes. Moments passed and neither moved, but then, with a slump of her shoulders, she sighed. The others began to read the signal and started backing slowly, very gradually, away.
A final cry of defiance, until there was just the girl left, and a young man standing beside her; he was taller than the others, with a slim, muscular build. He grinned mockingly at the people in the bar, then turned and walked out into the street, leaving the girl on her own. She cast a disgusted eye about the room, and turned to Cámara. Tilting her head up, she blew him a kiss, then spinning round she swept her arm out over one of the tables nearby, sending glasses and cutlery crashing to the floor, before running out to join the others.
Cámara felt a powerful reflex in his leg, a desire to lunge after her and pull her in. But he held back, his jaws tight, fists clenched. The stand-off was over. Peace, albeit of an uncertain kind, had been restored.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning, he saw the barman holding out a glass of brandy for him.
‘You might want this,’ he said.
The owner of the bar sauntered over, all smiles now the crisis had been resolved.
‘We’re indebted to you, Chief Inspector.’ And he held out a cold damp hand to shake.
‘Tonight is not the night, but those sons-of-bitches need teaching a good lesson, if you ask me,’ the owner said.
Cámara returned to the main group, many pressing forwards to pat him on the back. He nodded and smiled, cursing that it would be more difficult now to leave unnoticed.
The woman with the highlighted hair was the first to break the newly found bonhomie.
‘I’ve just called Blanco on his mobile,’ she said. ‘He’s not answering. He should have been here by now.’
She looked over at Cámara, and this time he remembered who she was – Alicia Beneyto, a journalist on the local newspaper El Diario de Valencia.
‘I’m just wondering if he’s having difficulties getting here,’ she said. ‘Perhaps the demonstrators have put him off. Would it be a good idea to call for backup, Chief Inspector?’
All eyes were back on Cámara. He’d saved them once. Now it seemed he was expected to pull their missing guest of honour out of a hat as well.
Before he could say anything, the door from the street opened again and in stepped a Policía Local – a municipal policeman – his dayglo jacket flapping in the breeze just above the hilt of his revolver.
‘Chief Inspector Cámara?’ he called out.
Cámara walked over. The young policeman’s breath was shallow and cold.
‘Chief Inspector. There’s something you should see.’
Jorge Blanco’s naked body was slumped in the middle of the empty, unlit bullring. He was curled into a ball, his legs tucked underneath his body, and a pair of bright yellow and red banderilla darts hung from the centre of his back, their sharp fish-hook points ripping at his flesh as they flopped to the ground. Higher up, towards his shoulders, a red-handled matador’s sword had been thrust into his ribcage, still swaying as the upper half of the blade caught glimmers of the street lights outside. A Spanish national flag was tied around his neck like a noose and lay mingling with congealed dark black bloodstains in the sand.
Cámara felt an icy weight sink in his guts, and a fierce, electric buzz beginning to crawl up his spine. The Municipal who had brought him was coughing and hacking some yards behind, trying not to throw up. Outside in the street, cars streamed past and Fallas music blared, the city still unaware of the storm about to break over the cold corpse curled up at its heart.
Cámara’s phone bleeped. It was the duty officer back at the Jefatura.
‘The científicos are on their way,’ he told him.
‘Pardo?’ Cámara asked.
‘He’s been informed. You’re the nearest officer to the scene.’
There was a pause: no need to say it, but the duty officer felt compelled to spell it out.
‘It’s your murder, Cámara.’
OR THE BULL KILLS YOU. Copyright © 2011 by Jason Webster.
Posted December 29, 2011
The first third of this book reminded me of Robert Wilson's four superb intertwined mysteries featuring Javier Falcon that were set in Sevilla. Therefore my expectations were getting higher but fell flat during the last third of the book. Mr. Webster does a very fine job of setting the atmosphere of the Valencia fallas but needs to develop both his plot and his characters. He seemed to spend more time describing the Spanish bull fighting mystique than adding depth or intricancy to the story. All being said I will read Mr. Webster's next mystery since it was entertaining.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 30, 2011
In Valencia, Spain dynamic matador Jorge Blanco has brought a fervor reawakening in bullfighting's popularity. However, not everyone is enamored with Jorge or his sport as many locals find it barbaric and cruel. Politicians rant in favor of banning bullfighting as they believe that is a key ticket to obtaining or remaining in office. However, someone takes the opposition to a new level by recognizing the threat by charismatic popular Blanco.
In a bulling, the matador's naked corpse is found with darts in his back, a sword in his ribs, and a Spanish flag pulled tightly around his neck. Nobody on the VPD staff wants the volatile high profile homicide investigation assigned to Chief Inspector Max Camara; his plea of a conflict of interest due to being against bullfighting is ignored. A second similar murder occurs increasing the pressure on Camara to solve the case by the same politicians who also demand the inquiry stay away from their election campaigns.
Or The Bull Kills You is a superb Spanish police procedural starring a somewhat cynical dedicated cop who steps into the bullring, a place he loathes. The country's culture and heritage, the city, the two faced politicians and the sport provide strong pillars to a terrific whodunit as Camara feels the fishbowl effect as he works a case from inside the bullring with figuratively everyone in the stands watching his investigation.
Posted December 30, 2011
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Posted February 8, 2012
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Posted October 25, 2012
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