Scenes of Crime: Valencia
“Every story would be another story, and unrecognisable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else…”
Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings, 1984
Never a truer word uttered as we’ve been finding out recently with Brought up in England, Jason Webster has lived for several years in Valencia, the setting of his Cámara novels. His acclaimed non-fiction books about Spain include Duende: A Journey in Search of Flamenco and Sacred Sierra: A Year on a Spanish Mountain. It’s fair to say he’s an expert. We asked him to tell us a bit more about why Valencia and Cámara go hand in hand.
Jason Webster on Valencia:
‘It has received some bad press recently. As continued economic crisis and corruption cause the country to implode, journalists around the world have caught on to the fact that Valencia represents everything that has gone wrong with Spain in the past few years. New hospitals stand unfinished from when the building money ran out; chemists are low on essential medicines; schools have to turn off the heating in winter to save cash; canoeists speed down a new, flooded metro line because the government cannot afford to put any trains in it; weeds grow out of the tarmac at an empty new airport as it waits for a plane to land; politicians sit in the dock, accused of taking kick-backs from when all the lovely EU money was sloshing about. There is no more America’s Cup and no more Formula One races. The glory days of just a few years ago are very definitely over.
‘Do you want to understand the current situation in Spain?’ the locals ask. ‘Just come to Valencia. We’ve got all the answers here.’
Traditionally, Valencians have rarely been held in high esteem by their fellow countrymen. The city was at the centre of the Spanish Renaissance, is the birthplace of the national dish – paella – and enjoys a rich culture in music, medicine and horticulture. The Holy Grail itself (the real one according to Pope John Paul II) is housed in the city’s maginificent Gothic cathedral. Yet still other Spaniards view the place as being a bit superficial and unsophisticated, an image typified by the city’s most important fiestas – Fallas – when vast, brightly-coloured papier-maché statues are constructed in the streets only to be burnt down days later. Everything is done for show: nothing is made to last. The recent public building disasters and political scandals only help to enforce the image.
It is not the whole picture, of course. I lived there for twelve years and it is fascinating and beautiful, a relatively undiscovered Mediterranean gem. The people are friendly and jolly, the weather is beautiful and the food is divine. But the darker, broken and corrupt side of the place is ideal for writing a crime series.
Max Cámara inhabits a Valencia that is similar, if not quite identical, to the real city. He eats in restaurants that actually exist, walks down streets where you’ll find them on a map, and hears, sees and smells the kinds of things that anyone in Valencia does. There is quite a lot of paella eating (it is almost a religion for locals); traditional fiestas punctuate the calendar and sometimes get in the way of his investigations; common sites as he moves around the city and surrounding area include orange groves, brothels with bright neon signs, glimpses of the Mediterranean in the gaps between tower blocks, estates of upmarket villas with swimming pools in their back yards, and Third World slums where semi-naked Gypsy children scramble over piles of rubbish and debris.
Yet his Valencia differs in important ways: the ruling party is not the same as the one currently in power; when the Pope comes to visit he shakes holy water not over the site of a recent Metro crash but on the rubble from a collapsed block of flats – and Cámara’s former home. And so on. Real events in the city sometimes help shape the novels, but they are transformed and become part of my alternative version of the place.
‘There aren’t a huge number of murders here,’ the head of the city’s homicide division tells me. ‘But we do have the best murder squad in the country.’
The comments come over a long Sunday paella lunch. Esther is not Valencian – she was born in Madrid – and is one of the few non-locals I have met who has taken to the place. Her team’s record is impressive – a clear-up rate last year of over 95 per cent. It helps create a feeling that Valencia is safe – relatively, at least.
Despite her success, though, there is real danger. Valencia is not quite Ciudad Juárez, but violence and the threat of violence are there. Enough, certainly, to provide Cámara with material for his next case.
And his clear-up rate? Well, it’s pretty good so far. Certainly enough to put the bad guys away. That’s no easy thing in Spain, where the judicial system is so slow and creaky that many accused walk free because the statute of limitations has run on their crime.
And then there is the political interference in police work to deal with as the age-old struggle between conservatives and progressives is played out in every aspect of public life, the wounds of the Spanish Civil War never quite healing. Some of Cámara’s colleagues get caught up in it at times, but he manages to steer clear.
In a very Spanish way he is, in the end, both a picaresque rogue and a Quixotic dreamer, obeying a moral system all his own.
He is an anarchist detective.’
Dead Good thanks to Jason Webster for sharing his thoughts on Valencia as the setting for his new novel The Anarchist Detective.
Listen to Jason Webster talking about his novels on SoundCloud.