An introduction to the Max Camara detective novel series by Jason Webster…
‘Why crime?’ I’d written four travel books on Spain, and was now starting something new – a series of detective novels set in Valencia, my home for the past decade or more. The question often asked, however: Why?
For me the answer was obvious: I love a good crime novel. And a detective, an investigator, engages with the reader in a powerful way. Faced with a puzzle, a mystery, and usually One Helluva Mess to sort out, he or she picks a way through it all, discovers clues, hints of something, until eventually finding resolution – at least in some form or another. Willingly or not, a detective is a seeker-after-truth, a person trying to find meaning and design in the surrounding chaos. Echoes with the experience of simply being human, I thought, were very clear.
But there was also much I wanted to say about Valencia – a vibrant, edgy but often overlooked Spanish city (the third largest after Madrid and Barcelona) and now the birthplace of my own two sons. Ian Rankin has said he reads certain crime novels as an alternative to guide books when visiting new cities. Much can be said in fiction that can’t be expressed in travel writing, because fiction fits more closely to how we experience the world around us – not as facts and events, but as impressions and sensations that are later crafted into stories by our imaginations. Becoming a crime novelist was a natural step.
And there was no lack of raw material. A high court judge and couple of friends in the Spanish National Police filled me in on the everyday workings of my hero – Chief Inspector Max Cámara of the Valencia Grupo de Homicidios. But meanwhile, skimming through the local newspapers felt like strolling through a gold mine. Apart from the usual tales you might expect of drugs and vice in a major Mediterranean port city, on every page there was a cast of operatic politicians and officials, most of them up to their necks in allegations of corruption and wrong-doing. Then there are all those open wounds from the Franco years and the Spanish Civil War that no one wants to mention. The problem was not what to write about, but what to leave out.
And I wanted to say something more about the Spain I know; my publishers were shocked at first that Max Cámara is a dope smoker, until I pointed out that it would be less realistic if, as a policeman, he never touched the stuff.
Cámara (pronounced like the English word ‘camera’) is also a lover of flamenco, an aficionado of traditional Spanish proverbs, and something of an anarchist. A contradiction, perhaps, to be both an agent of the state and anti-state at the same time. But that is the Spain I live in – a country that can make little sense, yet which, if you let it soak into you, offers up unexpected jewels in its endless complexities – a place where almost nothing is what it seems.
Or the Bull Kills You by Jason Webster is published by Chatto & Windus, 3rd February 2011