Map of Blue Book Balloon

7 August 2018

#Blogtour Review - The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories by Teresa Solana

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories
Teresa Solana (Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush)
Bitter Lemon Press, 15 August 2018
PB, 208 pp

I'm grateful to Bitter Lemon Press for an advance e-copy of this book and to Anne for the opportunity to take part in the blogtour for the book.

This is a collection of very sharp, often fantastical, and always entertaining stories, many of which place women's viewpoints or positions to the fore. These stories manage to have, at the same time, a cool mastery of the everyday and also - when Solana switches context slightly or brings in some detail previously avoided - their own deliciously skewed viewpoint, a bigger picture that comes into focus.

For example, the titular story, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer, seems a very playful piece - at first.  A serial killer apparently strikes among a tribe of Neanderthal people. Over a period of months, three men are found at the back of the cave with their heads beaten in. The chief appoints one of the tribe to investigate. Solana touches on the conventions and language of the traditional detective narrative, hitting deliberately anachronistic notes (such as references to autopsies, psychological profiles and scientific evidence, or the order "Come on, Mycroft, [the name of the 'detective'] stop being such a Sherlock and get cracking". Underneath, though, there is a more serious mystery - one that affects the balance between the men and women of the tribe. Can it be that the deaths are connected with this? can the secret be preserved?

Another story that turns on the relations between men and women, The Son-in-Law sees an elderly mother become concerned by the way her son-in-law is treating her daughter. Notable for its well thought-out detail, as well as the macabre twist at the end, this story shows how ways will be found runs oppressive social structures and feeble law enforcement to ensure justice.

Still Life No 41 represents another theme in the book - the self-obsessed protagonist, who sees everything very much from their own point of view. Here it's a gallery director, and she's the most self-centred and entitled character I've met in a story for a long time. Running a gallery because of the influence of her daddy, she has to accept blame when things go wrong. We start the story feeling some sympathy - she's lost her job - but as the awful details emerge all this drains away, at least nearly all. Solana is good at showing a piece of terrible behaviour but still keeping the reader sympathising. So for example, in Flesh-Coloured People, a young woman woman has witnessed a shooting. She's being interviewed by the police about this and her inner monologue suggests, again, total self-absorption - from a distancing narrative about the ethnicity of the killers to a coldly calculating plan to select mugshots at random so she can get away to attend a concert. But then... well, Solana shows us something about Eulària and the effect of what she's seen that suddenly puts the rest of the story in a different context.

Flesh-Coloured People is one of a group of stories subtitled Connections, which are loosely described here as "Barcelona Noir".  ("...that delinquent scenario of intrigue on seedy side streets, in warehouses on the city's outskirts or down-at-heel bars...") They are interrelated and form a larger, loose narrative. So for example the next story, The Second Mrs Appleton, is linked to Flesh-Coloured People as well as being a self-contained little tragedy of its own, turning on the relation between a British diplomat and his trophy wife. It's a sad little piece, showing neither partner in a very good light and raising sympathy for all concerned (including the first Mrs Appleton).

Happy Families and I'm a Vampire are two stories that - while not connected - share a common theme: they both explore class in a modern Catalonia that - thanks to that element of the an elements of the supernatural - literally has deep roots in the past. In one case, we have a 900 year old vampire, in the other, a family (tribe? coven?) of ghosts haunting a country mansion who have, some of them, been there for hundreds of years. In both cases, there is a struggle to come to terms with the present day. Both stories are witty and spare, allowing one to fill in the details from popular mythology and focussing on peculiar local features (like German bombing in the Civil War) that matter to the story.

Paradise Gained is another of the Connections stories, and I spotted the connection which ties together Sergi's crime boss Uncle with the earlier stories. Rather than being noir as such, Paradise Gained has a slight atmosphere of Ealing comedy as criminals try to hide a large quantity of cash. Mansion with Sea Views has a more direct connection, and brings up a theme of concealment, of long-hidden crime and of knowing where the bodies are buried which goes back to that idea of a hidden history, of crimes suppressed. Rafael is a darker figure than Sergi, more adapt at concealment, sharper to suspect, a man with secrets.

I Detest Mozart is one of the most standalone stories in this part of the book, its connection with the others being limited to two characters having a nodding acquaintance. But in its theme - the relations between men and women, secrets, the toxic politics of the Franco era poisoning the present, concealed crimes - it is squarely in line with the rest and its portrayal of an elderly widow whose life has, literally, been stolen by these things but who has created her own way of getting by - is both tender and chilling.

Birds of a Feather is also less 'connected' (I think). It's the story of six women serving time (which gave a nice resonance, for this UK reader, because of the long-running sitcom, albeit that was about prisoners' wives). The new arrival, referred to as "posh pussy", is stand-offish as well as apparently wealthy - making her an easy target, you'd think. But appearances can deceive...

Barcelona, Mon Amour and But There Was Another Solution are more closely connected both with each other and with the wider 'connection' theme, and together they represent something of a climax to the sprawling underworld theme of the collection. In Barcelona, Mon Amour a woman who has made her living as a translator for criminal syndicates is called back to Barcelona to undertake one last job, prompting her to reflect on why she ever thought she wanted to moulder in the countryside. It's as much a tribute to the life of the city as it is a perfect vignette of the gangster life. But there was Another Solution gives us almost a different view of the same events. The chief protagonists of the two stories never actually meet, but at the same time they are living around and profiting from the same events in different ways, almost a microcosm of the Connections stories as a whole.

Overall, these are excellent stories giving a very distinct view of life in the 21st century, haunted as it is by the recent and less recent past. I should also mention the translation by Peter Bush. This reads excellently in English, ranging in tone to suit the story from the slightly fatuous in the more comic of the stories to a steely note in the noirish parts.

For more information about Solana and about the book see the publisher's website here.