The Spanish Connection

By Richard Lipez
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 29, 2009


By Robert Wilson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 422 pp. $27

Robert Wilson's pungent thriller brings back Seville police inspector Javier Falcón for what the author says is the very last time. It's hard to imagine, though, that the brash, conflicted Falcón won't start knocking around restlessly inside Wilson's head and need releasing in a fifth installment of this exciting, morally complex series.

In "The Ignorance of Blood" Falcón grapples with savage Russian mafiosi, Moroccan terrorists, petty Spanish bureaucrats, sex-slave traffickers, blackmailers, extortionists, kidnappers, a crooked judge, an angry lover and a mixed-up CIA agent. It's a miracle that Falcón manages to emerge from these sometimes bloody encounters with body and soul only partially mauled.

At the start of this latest case, Falcón is still plugging away at solving a bombing from the third book, "The Hidden Assassins," in which an apartment block and a day-care center were destroyed, killing men, women and children. It's been less than five years since he suffered a spectacular mental breakdown, and a jailed judge alerts him to present dangers by telling him, "See you in the loony bin, Javier. Save me a place by the window." The divorced Falcón -- his wife found him hopelessly cold and neurotic -- has discovered emotional renewal with smart, confident restaurant owner Consuelo Jimenez, a witness in an earlier case and the mother of an 8-year-old sweetie named Dario.

But when Falcón closes in on certain criminals, little Dario is kidnapped in order to control Falcón. Child abductions are almost always unendurable in fiction, and this one is no exception. There's a scene with a child's screams heard on the telephone that is so horrifying that Wilson doesn't repeat anything like it, and in fact later breezes by certain details of the kidnapping as if he found it just too sickening to write about.

None of the widely assorted malefactors here is anybody you'd want to run into on a trip to southern Spain or Morocco, where most of the action takes place, but some are even more bloodcurdling than others. The competing criminal Russian gangs do things such as hacking to pieces a possible snitch in a scene reminiscent of the Christopher and Paulie meat-packing-plant episode of "The Sopranos." But the grisly scene in "The Ignorance of Blood" is not darkly funny like "The Sopranos," just really disturbing. Four of the Russian goons "wore heavy gold watches on thick wrists and had messily tattooed hands that looked hardened by the breaking of facial bones."

For all the physical mayhem in Wilson's books, though, it's the psychological violence that most creepily sticks with you. Wilson has an unnervingly believable way of getting Falcón into situations where he has to make morally impossible choices. To cite one wrenching example, he can save the kidnapped boy's life or betray some people who may not be guilty of anything at all. Consuelo is a marvelously drawn character, too, made desperate by the kidnapping of her little boy, and at the same time full of understanding for Falcón's crushing dilemmas. Nobody should ever have to be torn the way these two are, yet Wilson shows convincingly how it can happen.

Another fully realized character -- who appears with frustrating infrequency in the novel -- is Falcón's best friend, Yacoub Diouri. He's a Spaniard who was himself kidnapped as a boy and raised in a Moroccan family. Now he has many secrets of his own. Yacoub is (or is not) spying for Spanish intelligence on the GICM, a violent Moroccan Islamist group, and he is (or is not) pretending to the GICM to be planning a terrorist attack on Spain, and he is keeping all his clandestine activities a secret from his son, whom the GICM may be trying to recruit. Oh, and Yacoub is also having a homosexual affair with a member of the Saudi royal family. With people like Yacoub in his life, it's no wonder Falcón goes about in a constant state of heightened wonderment and suspense, just like readers of Wilson's fast-moving labyrinthine thriller.

Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. "The 38 Million Dollar Smile" will be published in September.

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