An American Gastronome In Barcelona

Barcelona Skyline is a story that bounces around a good deal, geographically speaking, though most of the action takes place in and around Barcelona. In the United States, there is Reno because I needed the gambling and the casinos, and Reno is much more attractive than Las Vegas with its Disneyland glare. And the area around Reno, as I remember, is actually quite beautiful.

An American Gastronome In BarcelonaAnd I used Chicago because my family lives near there, and though I’ve lived in Barcelona for decades, it’s a place I’ve been back to often. My wife and I stay in a hotel on the Near North Side, which is, curiously enough, quite near a place where I went to school for a couple of years, a long time ago. Part of the story in Barcelona Skyline concerns the art business, and, as it turns out, there is a little area on the Near North Side that is full of very interesting, stylish little art galleries—just what I had in mind for the novel.Barcelona, like most big, old cities, is an excellent setting for a crime novel, but I didn’t particularly want to use well-known tourist attractions or even much of the picturesque gloom of the old part of town for background—mostly, I suppose, because a lot of writers, myself included, have done that before. I was more interested in exploring the area around Barcelona, the little towns along the Mediterranean coast, the luxury housing developments up in the hills that are often largely inhabited by foreign residents. These places have long been known as favorite refuges for retired British gangsters. Nowadays, there are plenty of Russians as well, among various other nationalities.There’s no point in writing a novel somebody’s already written, and the challenge involved in avoiding that becomes greater when you’re talking about a crime novel with a detective. One way to go about it, it seems to me, is to rethink the genre, starting from the beginning. The work of a private investigator is, after all, a business. He or she is providing the client with a service. So it’s not really about solving cases, it’s about giving the customer what he wants. The investigator may very well not know precisely what the customer is going to do with the information he provides, and he may figure he doesn’t need to know, or perhaps that he’s better off not asking. He may not even know who it is he’s really working for. And so, every now and then, he may find himself in that nasty gray area where stories happen.

I decided to invent a detective who is a Chicago restaurant owner who just does a little detective work on the side, a guy who is more interested in food and wine than in detective work. Spanish readers will recognize here a tribute to the great Barcelona crime writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who would always include at least one recipe in each of his novels.

Then, too, in Spain, food is a serious matter. Meals are often lengthy affairs. In restaurants, deals are made, people talk at the table over the wine or the cognac with the coffee after the meal—about politics, business, love, philosophy, life—so it seems natural to me to have a good deal of eating in this novel.

Another somewhat different aspect is that my detective, Elso Bari, is working for the bad guys. He may not like it, but that’s the way it is. Elso is apparently amoral, smart, and tough, but in the ultimate analysis, he’s just a kind of mercenary. He’s not in control of the situation; the situation is in control of him.

Elso Bari’s reactions to his circumstances are complex and often apparently ambiguous. The critic William Empson identified ambiguity as part of the essence of poetry, and the crime novel—like that other great American invention, the Western—at its best has its own particular kind of poetry. Ambiguous, I suppose, because, in keeping with the tradition of the crime novel that goes back to Dashiell Hammett, I prefer to try to express emotion through what the character says and does, rather than through what I can say about what the character is feeling or thinking. Some readers may find this a bit stark, but it’s the only way I know to tell a story.

David C. Hall (b. 1943) grew up in the Midwest and lived in different parts of the United States—working jobs that ranged from the Forest Service in the Oregon woods to cooking pancakes in Seattle—before arriving in Barcelona in 1974. In Spain, he became involved in the surge of political activity in opposition to the Franco regime. He worked as an English teacher and later as a translator, and was active for several years as a trade unionist. His first crime novel, written in English, was published in Spanish as Cuatro días (Four Days) in 1984. Billete de vuelta (1990) appeared in the United States in 1992 as Return Trip Ticket. Hall won the Semana Negra short story prize in 1991 and the Pou de la Neu short story prize in 2008. His latest novel, Barcelona Skyline, won the 2011 City of Getafe Crime Novel