Translated by Miranda France
This intriguingly titled noir reprint from Bitter Lemon Press came emblazoned with a quote ‘An Argentine Patricia Highsmith’. That’s an awful lot to live up to, given that Highsmith was famed for her dark twisty plots, told without unnecessary embellishment, but, there’s something in that epithet, and Piñeiro is highly respected for her crime and mystery novels. Her latest one to be translated into English, Elena Knows (which I have on my TBR pile), was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize earlier this year.
Although this novel only has 315 pages, which isn’t a lot for a crime novel – Piñeiro’s style has few paragraph breaks, and no concessions to speech punctuation at all. I have to admit that the style took me a couple of chapters to get into for there are a lot of words on each page. However, the text is never less than clear and readable, just physically dense. Once it clicked I found this novel an absolute delight to read and devoured the rest of this cleverly constructed mystery.
It begins with the discovery of a murder. A maid arrives at the country club where she works, gets through security – this is a gated community for the rich – and starts cleaning her employer’s house. It’s a great scene-setting opening, instantly pitching us into this world of haves and have-nots and the over-zealous jobsworths the haves employ to police the have-nots.
She gets to the lounge where she discovers him dead in his armchair, his throat cut. Chazaretta was an industrialist, said to be involved in merky dealings, and three years previously his wife had been murdered – it was quite the cause célèbre – many believed he was involved, but Chazaretta was never indicted for the crime. The city police chief is called to the scene, although its not strictly within his jurisdiction, and he tips off Jaime Brena, former crime-desk lead reporter of El Tribuno newspaper.
Brena has recently been demoted to being a fluffy features writer so that the paper’s editor can bring in a young journalist to man the crime desk – whom Brena calls ‘Crime boy’. Brena is contemplating retirement, but is not so mean that he doesn’t pass on the police chief’s tip-off to his youthful replacement. The paper’s editor, Lorenzo Rinaldi, realises they are onto a scoop, but also comes up with a novel way of approaching the investigation that will keep them ahead of the game – by putting someone into the Maravillosa Country Club to write opinion pieces about the residents and the lifestyle of those who live there, to get the word on the street so to speak. Who should he invite to write it? Enter novelist Nurit Iscar, who has been a ghostwriter since her last novel, which had a change of direction from bestseller crime to romance, flopped bigtime after a scathing review in Rinaldi’s paper. At the time, Nurit was Rinaldi’s lover, but he can think of no-one better than Betty Boo, as she was nicknamed, for the job. Her girlfriends advise her not to get involved with Rinaldi again, but it’s too good an offer to pass up, so she moves into the house of one of Rinaldi’s contacts at the Club.
With Nurit’s colour pieces, and Crime boy’s investigations powered by the internet, mentored by Brena who naturally as an old hack favours footwork and talking to people, El Tribuno is indeed ahead of the rest of the press. Then, when one of Chazaretta’s colleagues who also lives in the Country Club dies in mysterious circumstances, Nurit, Brena and Crime boy are right in the middle of things. These deaths must be murders, but who is doing them and why, and will there be more?
I loved the way that Piñeiro made this novel more than just a straightforward noir. It’s also a strong character study, with Nurit at its centre. Rinaldi circles around her, keen to resume a relationship, but she is wary and also growing in a meeting of minds with Brena as the story goes on. She’s a beautifully realised character, middle-aged, worrying about her figure, defiantly single but open to opportunity, a good friend, but also a blocked novelist who writes other people’s stories for them. The riddle of that bad review will be teased out later in the novel too. Brena, in his early sixties, is an interesting man, and turns out to be a generous friend to Crime boy (who is never named), and Karina, another younger journalist on the paper who is in a bit of a pickle having discovered she’s pregnant, he becomes surrogate father, or kind uncle to both.
The story winds the character study around the crime, as they work, both together and separately, to decipher what’s going on. It’s cleverly done, and while the plot of the crime may be inspired by Highsmith, Piñeiro makes you really care about the main characters, writing at length about them. I also loved the meeting of minds and methods between the Crime boy and Brena, the former soon wanting to be able to impress the latter and also to prove that technology can help save shoe leather!
Betty Boo would make a wonderful TV series with the combinations of newsroom and country club, journalism v reportage, murder and romance. I really enjoyed the book and now naturally want to read the rest of Piñeiro’s crime novels that have been translated. Highly recommended, but do take the time to allow the writing style to click.
Source: Review copy. Thank you.
Claudia Piñeiro, Betty Boo (2011, transl 2016) Bitter Lemon Press paperback, 2022. 315 pages.
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