An english interview

Crime doesn't pay

     This year writer and lawyer Lorenzo Silva won Spain's oldest literary award - the prestigious Premio Nadal - for his novel El alquimista impaciente. He talks to Alex Johnson about crime fiction, Ally McBeal and why his prizewinning protagonist is a foreigner.

     Modern crime fiction is much less about whodunnit then turning the detectives in charge into carne y hueso. It's the little details that count for so much, from the opera and real ale diet of Colin Dexter¹s Inspector Morse to Lawrence Block's creation Matthew Scudder who always takes 10 per cent of whatever he earns from a job and puts it in a random Manhattan church's poor box. In Spain, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's creation Pepe Carvalho is probably better known for his cookery recipes and fondness for tossing great works of literature into the fire than for his crime clearup rate. Indeed, although Lorenzo Silva's sergeant Bevilacqua always gets to the bottom of the case, what remains with you after reading about this thirtysomething detective is his hobby of  painting model soldiers ­ but only of defeated armies.

     "Bevilacqua is not a predictable character," agrees Lorenzo Silva, "but he is a credible one. He's not the traditional sergeant you associate with the Guardia Civil yet he is a possible one because many young people who have been to university in Spain but haven't found a job have been attracted by the idea of a fixed income and want to make a living." And the model soldiers? "He identifies with them because he feels he is on the side of the defeated, the murdered. He believes his first duty is not to society but to the victim. What he and his partner Chamorro have in common is that they wouldn't regard themselves as 'winners'. Not only have they both been unable to fulfil their first expectations and forced to rebuild their lives [Bevilacqua trained to be a psychologist and Chamorro failed to get into the navy], they don't feel that solving a case or putting guilty people in jail solves anything. It means nothing to the person who is still dead at the end of the day."

     These feelings of inadequacy are even reflected in his unusual name. Bevilacqua, named after an athlete the author happened to be watching on television, has a Uruguayan background with Italian origins. "The main reason to choose a foreign name was that in my mind, Bevilacqua is a moral foreigner in the world he inhabits. The foreigner is the one who sees things from outside, who doesn't manage to feel particularly involved. But Bevilacqua is also Spanish which enables him to see a subject from another viewpoint too."

     El alquimista impaciente is the second outing for the Bevilacqua and Chamorro team. The first, El lejano país de los estanques, won the Ojo Crítico prize two years ago and Lorenzo was runner-up for the Nadal in 1997 with La flaqueza del bolchevique. In fact only one other crime novel has won the Nadal and that was back in the 1960s. Is there still a sense in Spain that crime fiction is not 'real' literature? El País appears to think so ­in its review of El alquimista impaciente they seemed to query the literary credentials of detective novels in general.

     "It was a strange review because it was also very complimentary about the book," says Lorenzo. "I assume they have some sort of prejudice against crime stories although I realise that when you win a prize, many people want to criticise both it and the winner. But this feeling is nothing new. In the 1930s in America and Britain the intellectuals also said that it was low level stuff. And the funny thing is that it's just the same 70 years later. Of course not everybody feels this way. I've had a couple of reviews written by professors of Spanish and other important critics and they've recognised that a crime story can be a good novel. One of them said that 'It's time to say that in his best moments, Chandler is better than Hemingway'."

     Lorenzo believes Chandler is one of the 20th century's best writers, partly for his readability, a subject which is important to all his own works. "I write about crime because I was a crime reader myself. Chandler has provided writers with plenty of inspiration about how to write a good novel, one that the reader is able to read. That's something that you can't say for many more 'respectable' writers such as James Joyce.

     "I don't want to live in an ivory tower thinking about nothing other than books, writing books about books. I believe that the best stories come from the street and what a writer needs is a good eye and a good ear to see and hear what happens to the people who surround us. I want to write about subjects that matter to people."

     Bevilacqua's creator has plenty of opportunities to see how the real world turns because away from his writing desk the genial novelist is also a full-time lawyer in Madrid with electricity giant Unión Fenosa. Bearing in mind he's now almost into double figures with his books, he's obviously a busy chap. On the plus side, this gives him a strong degree of financial freedom. "Writers need to make a living out of what they write and that can affect what they do. But I can write what I like without thinking about the money. I would prefer to have more time for literature but I'm happy with the arrangement I have at the moment." But surely there's a fairly obvious drawback too?

     "Yes, co-ordinating my time is my personal nightmare," he laughs. "But it's good for me as a writer. It's important to experience the outside world and I get to meet people from many countries and cultures which helps in approaching stories from a different viewpoint. Many of the writers I like best have been foreigners ­ Conrad, Kafka, Chandler.

     "I'm always working on a lot of things in my mind, several novels at a time. It's the only way because I haven't much time to actually write. I have six or seven in mind at the moment including one or two historical novels. A couple of others could be Bevilacqua stories and another an urban novel whose main character would be a woman."

     At the moment he is working on the final part of a trilogy set in Getafe aimed at young adults about three girls on the brink of adulthood. "You have to make a special effort because although they are beginners in reading, they still demand some level of quality. But I always try to make things easy for them. That doesn't mean that I tell easy stories but I don't want them to feel they're going to have a hard time getting to grips with the book. I'm very aware that I'm writing for the readers of the future and for people who are exactly at the moment when they will become readers or not. If they're 16 years old and not reading, then it's really difficult to change that habit when they're older.

     "I'm optimistic about the future of reading in Spain. I have to be otherwise I would not be doing what I do. I don't think that reading in 10 years time will be something enjoyed by the majority of the population but perhaps it has never been that way, perhaps it will always be a minority activity. Yet there's something there which makes it really strong, something very personal. At the same time that the Encyclopaedia Britannica has moved to the Internet there are more and more novels being published. Even Bill Gates says books will always exist."

     The one subject he's not tempted to write about is law. "In my novels, lawyers are often not very admirable. I like to try to make some criticism about my social environment. But I think legal fiction is too often boring or stupid fantasy. For example, I can't stand Ally McBeal. The arguments are silly and based on oversimplifications."

     Unlike Vázquez Montalbán, Lorenzo's novels haven't yet been translated into English but with the current vogue for all things Hispanic, does he think that could change? "Spanish writers have a reasonable success in translation in French, Italian and German," he says. "I'm not a very important writer but I've already been translated into French and have offers too for German. I think the British and Americans seem a bit reluctant to look at Spanish writers. Latin American ones are a different story because of their countries' relationship with the US. Can my books be understood by the British? I think so." I point out that Javier Marías and Arturo Pérez Reverte already seem to have cracked the problem. "Well I'd say that Javier Marías is really a British writer writing in Spanish and Pérez Reverte an American writer writing in Spanish," he says, smiling.

     Although Lorenzo has never had a face in mind when he was writing the Bevilacqua stories, moves to bring the detective to the screen are in the pipeline ("perhaps Jordi Mollá would be good - he's a bit young but he's so good"). The jump from the page to celluloid is a big, and not always a happy, one (although it was the making of Morse), but the thought of a Bevilacqua industry does not appeal to Lorenzo. "I will write about him again," he says, "but only when I have something fresh to explore about him and something new to say."

     This article first appeared in The Broadsheet magazine, April 2000. You can read an abridged version of it on


Copyright, Alex Johnson and The Broadsheet, 2000


Cedido a cualquiera que lo use sin ánimo de lucro
Copyright, Lorenzo Silva 2000-2005