The Foodie Detective: The Pepe Carvalho Novels by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

Meet Pepe Carvalho, the book-burning, gastronome private eye in Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s much-loved novels. By Malcolm Forbes.

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“Sherlock Holmes played the violin. I cook,” so explains Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Barcelona detective, Pepe Carvalho, in Murder in the Central Committee, one of 19 crime novels in a series that arced from the fallout of the Franco era to the early years of this century, and made the author one of Spain’s best-loved writers. Montalbán knew that a fictional detective needs a trait or two, the more idiosyncratic or far removed from his daily work the better. Holmes did play the violin, but also smoked a pipe, boxed, injected cocaine, and lost himself in his chemistry lab. Montalbán endowed his Catalan gumshoe with an equally impressive set of quirks that are aired and explored in each book. When not solving fiendish mysteries, Carvalho the bachelor gourmand is both cooking and appreciating fine food, indulging in amorous interludes, engaging in political debate, and, oddest of all, burning philosophical books. Accounts of these eccentricities often make for more interesting reading than the cases he is investigating, but both have contributed to the books’ widespread European popularity. The English-speaking world appears to be playing catch-up, a matter that will be rectified with Melville House’s reissue of five of the best adventures.

Most of the series’ components are in place by the end of the enticingly titled first book, I Killed Kennedy. However, it is only in a later entry, The Buenos Aires Quintet, that we get anything resembling an answer as to why Carvalho routinely makes a pyre for books, sometimes even specifically buying them to burn them. Shrugging off charges of fascism, he replies, “For forty years I read book after book, now I burn them because they taught me nothing about how to live.” What’s more, “Culture doesn’t teach you how to live. It’s nothing more than a mask for fear and ignorance.” In the same book Carvalho describes three key recurring characters who over the years have helped him out of many a scrape: “My girlfriend is a call girl. My technical assistant, waiter, cook and secretary is a car thief called Biscuter. My spiritual and gastronomic adviser is a neighbor called Fuster.”

In contrast, Carvalho seldom reveals anything about himself, divulging only when pressed. Montalbán prefers to create an air of mystique, betraying no clues to his detective’s appearance other than a receding hairline. Of his past we learn only that he is an orphan, and that he studied philosophy and joined the Communist Party. After a stint in the CIA he became a private eye. Such bare bones would have rendered him a dull, even blank, cipher, too cryptic for his own good; thankfully, though, Montalbán rescued Carvalho from blandness by adorning him with a string of intriguing foibles.

His days as a red radical behind him (not to mention a spell in prison for his subversive antics) Carvalho now proclaims himself apolitical. And yet politics, mainly of the left-wing variety, pervades these novels and still permeates Carvalho—perhaps no surprise given Montalbán’s own position as a leading member of Catalonia’s communist party, the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya. We encounter characters called Anna Marx and Vladimiro. A love interest in Argentina is a left-wing Perónist. Carvalho’s third outing, The Angst-Ridden Executive, plays out as Francoism is being dismantled, with Catalonia emerging from decades of curtailment and censorship and struggling to reassert itself culturally and politically. Carvalho, on the hunt for the killer of that eponymous executive (who also happened to be a “pinko”), explains at one point how the country is “coming out after years of silence and persecution.” Montalbán shows that silence is long gone by using violent demonstrations between rival factions on the Ramblas as a backdrop to the main events. In the classic locked-room mystery Murder in the Central Committee, we are told that “since Franco’s death, politics has descended on us like the plague.” When Carvalho has had his fill of communist functionaries and their bickering and backstabbing, he cheers himself by burning a tract by Engels.

Politics seems to assail Carvalho, forcing him to take up former cudgels and defend his corner. On the other hand, carnal and culinary delights are actively, passionately sought out and succumbed to. Montalbán was a famed gastronome and food writer (author of the delectable Recetas inmorales—“Immoral Recipes”) and once again we see the writer projecting his own attributes on to his protagonist. In Buenos Aires, while being won over by New World wines and asado, Carvalho discovers the typical Argentine woman is “a mixture of guilt, sex and melancholy.” In The Angst-Ridden Executive he admits, “It was only women and good food that saved us all from going mad under Franco.” Later, asked whether he likes sports, he replies, “Only sports that involve the imagination. Eating and sex.” He enjoys a bowl of raspberries for dessert and then muses on their “clitoral look” (an image transformed in Murder in the Central Committee when “two breasts leapt out with two raspberries on the end”).

Carvalho is reluctant to head to Madrid in Murder in the Central Committee, but in the end is swayed by the prospect of restaurants offering shellfish, tripe, and lamb kidneys. Montalbán swerves off frequently to have his hero admire a dish or even regale us with a recipe. They are always asides, never central to the plot, and yet Montalbán gets away with it because he writes so well on food, as opposed to when his characters truly hamper the pace by spouting soapbox diatribes, their monologues spilling out into prolonged and rabid speechifying. In Carvalho’s world we will gladly have food rammed down our throat, but not propaganda. Murder in the Central Committee also includes a helpful glossary of Spanish dishes and political parties, but the former is easily more palatable than the latter.

And then there’s the business of solving crimes. Carvalho must track down killers but the more engrossing cases are those involving real puzzles. In Off Side, he is hired to find out who is sending a top Barcelona soccer player death threats. In The Buenos Aires Quintet, he is trying to locate his missing cousin at the behest of his uncle. Along with descriptions of mouth-watering meals are eye-watering depictions of violence. Carvalho shuttles between small-time pimps and industrial bigwigs, lowlifes and highfliers; tip-offs come from indiscreet porters and careless pillow talk. In Argentina his trail involves boxers, “dirty war” torturers, and Jorge Luis Borges’s supposed love child. Carvalho often finds himself up against people wielding colossal power and influence, resulting in exciting David-and-Goliath bouts. Also, throughout the series, Montalbán has fun by having Carvalho align himself to fictional role models. He self-consciously tries to ape the mannerisms of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. When he gets too close to the truth he is warned off: “Stop trying to play James Bond.” In Buenos Aires he settles on one idol: “I used to imitate [Philip] Marlowe,” he confesses, “But now I’m too old. My model is Maigret—he’s timeless.”

Like most well-drawn detectives, Pepe Cavalho has outlived his creator. Montalbán died in 2003, prompting considerable mourning in Barcelona and countless accolades from literary, political, and journalistic circles. Unlike Ian Fleming and Arthur Conan Doyle, Montalbán didn’t grow sick of his creation, but there are hints in the later books that Carvalho was wearying of himself. In Southern Seas, he finds himself in a moment of doubt, questioning the nature and worthiness of his profession: “We private detectives are about as useful as rag and bone men. We retrieve from the garbage can that which doesn’t yet belong with the garbage, or that which, on closer inspection, was never garbage in the first place.” Even his beloved Barcelona, despite its glorious Olympic makeover in the ’90s, falls under his jaded gaze, becoming “a city turned into a theater in which to stage the farce of modernity.”

But regardless of his outlook, or in fact because of it, we gladly accompany Carvalho through the decades, on escapades that are as thrilling as they are absurd. What’s not to like about a detective who, at the end of a hard day’s sleuthing, rustles up a duck ragout at 1 in the morning and then sits down to eat it? “What would cooking and life be without mystery?” a character asks him on his mission in Buenos Aires. Montalbán’s detective throws himself into both cooking and life, and instead of being confounded by mystery, he relishes it.