The late great Robert B. Parker had this to say about the work of mystery/thriller/espionage writer Sam Reaves (aka Dominic Martell): “Sam Reaves is too good. He makes me nervous.” Reaves is the author of seven noir mysteries set in Chicago and of three espionage thrillers, under the name of Martell, set in Barcelona and other parts of Europe. These works, Lying Dying Crying, The Republic of Night, and Gitana–featuring Pascual Rose, former terrorist and then counterterrorist and finally reluctant gun for hire–are, according to Booklist, “spy fiction of the highest order.” Reaves has recently released these works in very affordable e-book format and they are prime examples of excellent espionage and thriller writing. Looking to be transported to another time and place? Want to stay up deep into the night wondering how the hell Pascual is going to get out of this one? You can’t go wrong with Reaves/Martell.
Sam, it’s a real pleasure to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. Could we start things off with a discussion of your connection Barcelona. How did you come to live there or become interested in it?
I first went to Barcelona on a junior year abroad program in college in the early seventies. Franco was still alive, Spain was backward and repressed, and I was a wide-eyed kid with good Spanish and little knowledge of the place it came from. What I knew about Spain was Hemingway, Michener and El Cordobés. On my first night in the student dining hall I heard somebody ask for the wine by saying Dona’m el vi, si us plau and I realized I had a lot to learn.
Catalan was only one thing I learned—for a small-town kid from Illinois, a great cosmopolitan port city was Wonderland. The academics were the least of it; the practical lessons in navigating the streets and the friendships, some of them lasting to this day, were the real payoff. I did some growing up in Barcelona; it gave me a sense of vast horizons and worlds to conquer.
I left Barcelona at the end of that year with a real pang of loss and separation; the place had gotten under my skin. When I went back two years later, Franco was gone and Spain was democratizing. The political and social picture was getting complicated as the Catalans revived their language and culture. In regular visits over the years I watched the city change, culminating in its coming-out party with the 1992 Olympics. The EU, the euro and the current crisis have since complicated things further, with a spike in separatist sentiment and grave questions about the future of Spain’s regions. I’ve been seriously interested in Barcelona and its fortunes for nearly forty years now, and the only thing that’s certain is that it will always be one of Europe’s great crossroads cities.
What things about Barcelona make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Not many places have Barcelona’s mix of stimulating physical environments, cultural dynamism and flat-out good-time vibe. Barcelona is a provocation to the senses. The Ramblas sweeping down to the harbor is one of the world’s great streets; Gaudí’s hallucinatory Güell Park on the heights above the city has to be seen to be believed. Barcelona has the best-preserved medieval core in Europe in the Gothic Quarter and one of the great successes of modern renovation along the Barceloneta waterfront. The stolid middle-class Eixample, the regular street grid laid out in the nineteenth century, was one of Europe’s first experiments in urban planning and has matured into one of its most congenial cityscapes. Higher up, the neighborhood of Gràcia with its narrow streets retains the charm of the village it once was.
But the soul of a city is what the people make of the physical setting, and when it comes to culture the barcelonins have attitude. Their resentment at being governed from Madrid gave them a prickly sense of apartness and an appreciation for rebelliousness in all its forms. There’s a municipal tradition of innovative architecture and public art. Music and theater are diverse, edgy and everywhere. And the street life is famously boisterous.
Barcelona is not Disneyland; like any great city it has crime and vice and poverty. And a good thing, too, from a crime writer’s point of view. As befits a port city, in Barcelona crime is cosmopolitan. With all due disclaimers about ethnic stereotypes, there are Arab muggers, Russian gangsters and the whores they run, South American drug barons, Gypsy pickpockets and the usual substratum of home-grown delinquents, including the tycoons in the corner offices picking your bank account instead of your pocket. Terrorist cells and fascist plots have been uncovered. For a crime writer, Barcelona is a rich ecosystem.
I had published four crime novels set in Chicago which were not exactly setting sales records, and my publisher had asked for something different. I had wanted to set a book in Barcelona ever since I’d lived there; it was just too good a setting not to use. So I went looking for a story which could only take place there. I’d been impressed by John Le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, which portrays the underground of European radicals drawn to the Palestinian cause, some of whom drifted into terrorism. I had also read about a woman who had tried to defect from ETA, the Basque terrorist organization, only to be killed for her pains. And suddenly my character was there: Pascual Rose, repentant ex-terrorist, product of a failed international marriage, raised in Bohemian fashion in Barcelona, Paris and New York, who drifts into the radical underground and ultimately into a Palestinian terror group, only to have a change of heart when the cold-blooded ruthlessness of the endeavor becomes apparent. After defecting and betraying his comrades in lengthy debriefing by the CIA and Mossad, he goes to earth in Barcelona under a new identity provided him by the spooks. As you might expect, he finds it hard to leave his past behind, and each book in the series shows Pascual dealing with some threat from his past which has caught up with him, all while striving to atone for his sins and reconstruct his integrity. Barcelona, his childhood home and the source of what sense of identity he can muster, is central to this process. Pascual lives in poverty in the lower Gothic Quarter near the port but maintains tenuous family links on his mother’s side up in the Eixample, which represents the safe bourgeois life he simultaneously despises and yearns for. He is more comfortable with the bohemian and outlaw elements that people the narrow streets down by the port, but they provide cover for enemies, too. The streets are alternately Pascual’s refuge and a landscape teeming with threats.
In a lot of books, the action could take place anywhere; a dark alley is a dark alley. And no doubt some of the scenes in these books are generic enough to happen anywhere. But I did try to be conscious of location in every scene: what’s Pascual looking at as he stares out the window of a bar at Urgell and Provenza? I also tried to incorporate unique local elements, as when Pascual slips out the discreetly placed back door of the Café de la Opera, a famous escape route for deadbeats and cheating husbands since the place was built. An author who wants to convey a sense of place has to strike a balance: throw in too much local color and you’ve written a travelogue instead of a thriller; neglect the setting and the book is colorless and generic. I tried to put in just enough vivid detail to evoke the place without slowing the pace. And I was always scrupulous about making sure the choreography worked: when I wanted Pascual to slip over the back wall of the garden behind the villa, I actually went to look and see if it was possible to get there on foot. It was.
How does Pascual interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
This was an interesting issue for me, as I hadn’t been back to Barcelona in a few years when I decided to write Lying Crying Dying. I solved the familiarity problem by making Pascual a returning exile, coming back to his lost childhood home and finding some things unchanged and others new. This perfectly tracked my experience coming back to research the books twenty-five years after living there as a student. Pascual is an outsider in Barcelona but with memories of the way things used to be. I tried to weave these changes into the plot when possible, as when Pascual searches out the old retired sereno of his mother’s neighborhood to ask him for help in finding a place to hide. The serenos were watchmen who used to patrol Spanish cities at night. They held the keys to apartment buildings; if you came home late at night you had to track down the sereno to let you in. The serenos were phased out over the course of the seventies. But I brought back old Ferrer to help Pascual out of a jam.
Of the novels you have written set in this location, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
“He can see the whole city spread out beneath the turquoise sky, from Tibidabo to the Maremagnum, a chaotic Pollackian canvas of a city crowding the edge of the wine-dark sea, the summit of splendour and a sump of vice and the only place he has ever been happy. From the cable car swinging gently high above the harbour the noises of the vast city are muted and it seems an abstraction rather than the locus of three million human mysteries. Pascual can make out individual strollers on the Ramblas, tiny and unreal.”
I grew up reading the great English thriller writers: Buchan, Ambler, Household and their successors. Eric Ambler in particular was skillful at conveying a vivid sense of place economically. Istanbul, the Balkans, Malaya, the south of France—Ambler brought them to life. I have gone back to him again and again to study how he did it. He was sparing with description but he always seemed to find the key detail that nailed a place. He knew that suspense requires tight, concise writing and so he mastered the art of saying a lot in a few words. Nobody did it better.
What’s next for your Pascual?
I more or less retired Pascual at the end of Gitana, but I didn’t send him over a waterfall, and as far as I know he’s still alive. I’ve actually given some thought to giving him a post-9/11 role, as he could be an asset to an intelligence agency with his good Arabic and experience in clandestine affairs. But I’ve got several projects ahead of that one on my to-do list, and unless there’s a sudden spike in demand for Pascual adventures, he may stay retired. My current Dominic Martell project is a noir thriller set in Algiers in 1961, at the end of French Algeria. It’s in the hands of my agent and I hope to see it in print before too long.
Sam, thanks much for taking us to Barcelona.