The mystery could run and run, and not just that of the author’s identity: Spellman, the so-called ‘voice of the Far South Project’, who assembled the 2006 casebook of Argentinian private investigator, Juan Manuel Pérez, together with witness depositions and a graphic diary by associates of the missing avant-garde Uruguayan theatre director, Gerardo Fischer. Nor, indeed, the motives and circumstances surrounding Fischer’s disappearance, which become increasingly labyrinthine as the tale unfolds, involving experimental theatre, the criminal underworld of Argentina, ex-Nazis in hiding, the corrupt Italian masonic lodge P2 and Hizbullah, with international arms-dealing, a dodgy adoption agency and police corruption thrown in for good measure. But the fact that the book is one element of a multi-dimensional project incorporating two websites - with additional text, audio and video clips and opportunities for readers’ input - is an innovative expansion of the connections between traditional publishing and new technologies and offers the possibility that the story’s mystery could continue forever.
To all extents and purposes, Far South is a detective novel featuring a classic, quick-witted, down-at-heel investigator with a shady history. A reader who knows his Pessoa and his Borges, Pérez is divorced, attracted to almost every woman he meets and enjoys wry, monosyllabic exchanges with his trusty sidekick, Rangel. Inevitably he becomes involved with Ana, a member of the artists’ colony which commissions him to find Fischer. As he realises that the case is more dangerous than it’s worth, the distinctions between the professional and the private become blurred. His relationship with his father, a serving cop, comes under pressure and raises issues of loyalty, trust and truth. The more personal the quest becomes, the less certain we are of what is true and the more we see Far South subverting the genre it celebrates.
Gerardo Fischer’s disappearance could be a criminal or political act in a country where the desaparecidos were a tragic feature of life under the junta in the 70s and early 80s. But there is also the possibility that Fischer has staged it himself: he has ‘previous’ in this respect and his power as an artist derives from ‘taking people right out to the edge … (he) makes people drop their masks and be real for once in their lives.’ The investigation leads Pérez and the reader to understand that the more we pursue the real, the more elusive it can be. Constantly sharing his questions with the reader, Pérez makes the connection between the role of the private dick and the artist when he considers his relationship with Ana: ‘I was a digger in the dirt of human lives. But wasn’t that what she aspired to as an actress?’
Beautifully written in the lucid, direct style that has become the hallmark of some of the best crime fiction, Far South almost serves as a masterclass in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction: dialogue indicated only by ‘said’; sparse use of adverbs; concise description of characters; no prologue (though it includes an epilogue to superb structural effect); no use of ‘suddenly’; few, if any, exclamation-marks, and so on. But Spellman is no student of Leonard, as his three previous novels, in very different genres and published under another name, attest. As a writer in both guises, he is his own man, adjusting his style to his form and purpose. The intense, overheated atmosphere of remote Argentinian sierra towns and the vibrancy of busy Buenos Aires are evoked through sharp detail. In portraying the roll-call of characters embroiled in the story, Spellman deploys simple brushstrokes of significant physical appearance. And yet the absolute precision in describing the process of cleaning a M1911 pistol, mounting a horse, or negotiating a roadworks construction-site, for example, show an authoritative writer fully in command of his material.
Far South is an intriguing read, its mysteries deepening at every turn. As befits its genre, there are numerous twists, surprises and cul-de-sacs, but the abiding feeling is that the act of investigation, whether as artist or detective, generates more questions than answers. And in any case, approaching the truth does not necessarily dispel the mystery. If the world of art and theatre is ‘phantasmagoric’, Prez asks, ‘how much more illusory was this world than the world I’d been used to: the world of cops, and thieves and killers?’ This is compelling fiction that chips away at one’s sense of illusion and reality.
The reader is not duty-bound to access the QR codes and website links by smartphone or computer, of course. The printed text offers a visually attractive, pleasantly tactile experience of reading in itself. But taking the extra step into the virtual world of the Far South Project is very worthwhile, bringing additional layers of possibility to the reading, and raising further tantalising speculation about why the book received a Creative Wales Award: what exactly are Spellman’s connections with Wales? And don’t some of those faces and places in the videos look strangely, mysteriously familiar?
A shorter version of this was published in the Insider column, Western Mail, on Saturday 3 March 2012.
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