God knows there’s no shortage of novels like this. A mystery centering on a love for books? I feel aggressively pandered to. I respond to booky thrillers as I would a girl wearing a Princess Leia gold bikini, resentful of the assumption that they’ve totally got my number.
So I approach literary thrillers with a raised eyebrow, which doesn’t descend unless 50 pages go by that don’t suck.
And I’m happy to report that such a thing eventually happened with The Shadow of the Wind, a solidly written, sorta-Gothic literary bestseller that had critics hailing Carlos Ruiz Zafón as an equal of Byatt and Eco, some even going so far as to say he surpasses Dickens. I wouldn’t canonize it by any means, but The Shadow of the Wind is one the strongest examples of a literary thriller I’ve come across.
Daniel Sempere, son of a modest Barcelona bookseller, comes into the possession of a one-of-a-kind novel, The Shadow of the Wind, penned by a little-known virtuoso named Julián Carax. You know that one novel that seems to bond forever with your book-loving soul? This one becomes Daniel’s, and though he’s offered a small fortune for the book, he won’t part with it. Soon a mysterious figure appears who, hell-bent on annihilating Carax’s legacy, burns every copy of Carax he can get his hands on, and he will have Daniel’s with little negotiation. Investigating the stalker, Daniel finds himself entrenched in a labyrinth of what can only be scandal and murder.
Early on, this book didn’t have me. It pulls the same nonsense that The Historian (a vastly inferior book) did, applying artificial suspense by having its villainous marauder appear in some window or alleyway and do nothing.
Reader: Carlos, it’s been three more chapters and you haven’t progressed the central conflict at all.
Zafon: ‘… a-a-and then out of the corner of his eye he sees that same man in the dark suit! Dun-dun-dun!’ Ah, yes, you were bitching about something?
Reader: Yeah, that’s not conflict. That’s just you pressing the Dun-dun-dun button at the end of each chapter.
Zafon: You know what? Eat shit.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s probably a nice man in real life.
The Real Twist? It’s Pretty Good.
Some have called this novel overlong, which I wouldn’t say, but do I see this being a better mystery if it hit the ground running with Daniel age 18 and referencing some of the younger, formative experiences in flashbacks. The thing is, Zafon wants this to be both a thriller and a coming-of-age tale, but an insistence upon the latter dulls the suspense of the former. The two genres are somewhat incompatible, so it’s great as neither, but Shadow of the Wind’s Bildungsroman elements do lend it a winning poignancy, and the mystery being uncovered is good and twisty.
The characters are well drawn albeit with a couple puzzling exceptions. Daddy issues abound in Shadow of the Wind, yet the protagonist’s actual daddy manages to be a non-entity. The narrative finds little use for Mr. Sempere and leaves him languishing on the shelf like a science book in Kansas. Its main villain, the inspector known as Fumero, is marked by his grins and giggles as he threatens to boot one’s teeth out, but once the story progresses he lazes into your garden-variety asshole sociopath.
But by and large, the tragic and conniving people surrounding Daniel enliven this book. The designated scene-stealer is Fermín Romero de Torres, the rakish hobo who turns out to have been a spy during the civil war (for the losing side, hence his hobohood). Whether he’s handing out Oscar Wilde-esque insults or schooling Daniel in the enigma that is the fairer sex, he’s an endlessly entertaining sidekick.
I said earlier that this book had a Gothic feel, and that’s mostly due to the setting. With its gaslamps and gargoyles overlooking dark alleyways, 1950s Barcelona may as well be 19th Century. The Carax backstory takes us back another 20-30 years, and besides being pre-civil war and WWII, it feels no different. This novel has a powerful sense of place, and because of that place, it’s suspended in time.
A pleasant surprise. I honestly wouldn’t mind cracking open the prequel even though the characters I met in this one will be mostly absent. The Shadow of the Wind spawned two follow-ups now, the latest having just appeared this summer, so fans of this novel still be gettin’ their Zafón.
Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry.
Read it if:
1. You’d like to have your cynicism of literary thrillers thoroughly tested.
2. You have no such cynicism.