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Introducing DCI Guillermo Downes

Argentinian-born detective Guillermo Downes was first introduced to us in James Marrison‘s chilling debut novel The Drowning Ground. James himself has lived in Argentina for almost eighteen years, and here he tells us how the location influences his work and inspired his main character.

“DCI Guillermo Downes is an Argentinian who was forced to flee from the military junta in 1982 and escaped to England. Half English and half Argentinian, Downes is primarily an outsider and he views the Cotswolds and the English from the outside looking in.

DCI Guillermo DownesDownes is very Argentinian in character. He has the dark, often cynical sense of humour so similar to that of the English. He can be reckless, impulsive and he trusts no one, especially policemen and other figures of authority – a very Argentinian trait born from deep experience. He has an in-built berserker mode which is something you need around here if you ever want to get anything done or need to get though any red tape. It’s a good skill to have as a DCI.

When trying to develop the character, I used some of my own experiences of living abroad to create that same sense of not quite fitting in. Downes looks different, and people automatically sense that he is not local – something I often experience living here in Buenos Aires. It gives him an aloofness and, due to his own experiences back home, a certain guardedness when it comes to others.

Strangely, despite what happened to him in Argentina, he still feels homesick – and instead of diminishing, the feeling actually gets worse as he ages. As I mention in the book, it’s as if a part of Downes has stubbornly refused to adapt, and the longer he stays in England the less English he becomes. It’s an odd feeling and I often feel it myself, but of course it’s the other way around for me. It’s a very Argentinian trait, this feeling, and it gives Buenos Aires its mournful appeal. The homesickness of the emigrant who can never go back is etched into the very fabric of the city itself. And it’s in his own house too which, over the years he has turned – almost without being aware that he was doing it – into a kind of shrine to his old life back home.

The Sleepless Ones by James MarrisonBut while he misses home he is still haunted by dreams of a green Ford Falcon or el Falcon Verde, a symbol of terror during the military junta. The military used the Falcons because of their size, their big boots and the fact they never broke down. They were often used for abductions. Many who were last seen being escorted into the back of a Ford Falcon were never seen again. Downes keeps a close eye on events back home and is always on the lookout for news regarding those who were involved in the abduction and torture of Argentine citizens during the so called “Dirty War” where an estimated 30,000 people went missing and were never seen again.

The hardest part about writing The Drowning Ground was getting the leading man right. To begin with the novel was actually a straight horror novel but as soon as I came up with Downes the whole story began to fit into place.

I think though that the inspiration for him came a long time ago when I was writing a novel when I first came here. I was woken up at three in the morning as they brought in General Jorge Rafael Videla who had been dictator of Argentina from 1976 to 1981. He had been convicted of crimes against humanity many years ago and they were transferring him from prison and putting him under house arrest in the building across the street from my own. I had just arrived in Argentina and didn’t even know who he was or why there was an angry mob outside the building being kept at bay by a line of policemen.

When I was trying to think up a new character for The Drowning Ground many years later I remembered that moment. It was the thought of what would happen to someone who had to escape their own country – if they had to leave someone behind and they never knew what happened to them. It’s something that haunts Downes, and many others like him, because they will never really know the fate of their loved ones. They could have been buried in mass graves or thrown into the Atlantic from airplanes. Nobody knows exactly that happened to them. It means that Downes lives in an almost permanent state of hell. There is no escape from the past for him or from his homeland.”

James Marrison

James Marrison is a journalist whose writing has appeared in a number of national newspapers. James now lives in Buenos Aires, which provides the inspiration for his lead character, Argentinian-born detective Guillermo Downes. The Sleepless Ones is James’s second novel, following on from his début novel The Drowning Ground.

Follow James on Twitter.

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