The books at hand is Ballad of Dogs’ Beach: Dossier of a Crime by José Cardoso Pires, published in Portugal in 1982 to acclaim and prizes, translated by Mary Fitton and published in English in 1986 to somewhat more muted acclaim. I vaguely remember this book getting some attention long ago. It is a good one, but a tough nut.
The novel begins with a body – it is, in some sense, a murder mystery. We are reading a police document, apparently, “BODY OF UNKNOWN MAN \ found, Praia do Mastro, 3rd April, 1960,” followed by fifteen numbered descriptive details (“10 perforation of oesophagus”) and then a note on the surroundings: “Shreds of clothing at no great distance, torn by dogs.”
But then the document ends, followed by white space. A distant third person narrator takes up the description, looking at the stray dogs and rubbish and an out-of-place travel poster “in English: PORTUGAL, EUROPE’S BEST-KEPT SECRET.” Now there is an example of what we call foreshadowing. The Portugal of Salazar’s rigid dictatorship is full of secrets, although many of them turn out to be badly-kept.
A detective novel needs a detective. There he is, on page 5, Inspector Elias Santana, nicknamed Graveyard. Pale, near-sighted, digestive troubles, and one weirdly long and polished pinky fingernail, which creeps out the main female suspect for the entire book. He is who we spend the book with, when we are not leafing through the dossier:
‘Today’s the day we receive a kick in the pants from the corpse, my friend. How’s that for a novelty?’
In the cage, listening, was a lizard. Either listening or feigning sleep, you couldn’t tell. He was a big lizard, the colour of sand, and Elias called him Reptile. He lay as if permanently poised for flight, head motionless, neck extended, long black claws spread and gripping strongly.
‘And you, with your reptile thoughts,’ Elias told this one and only confidante, ‘you could not care less.’ (7)
The kick in the pants is that the corpse turns out to be an army officer who had been arrested for his part in an attempted military coup but had recently escaped. The case is political, the secret police will take it over, and it is unclear why Graveyard should bother making an effort to solve the case.
He does solve it, though, almost immediately, because of the lucky capture of one of the conspirators, the victim’s stunning mistress. Not that the reader learns the answer. Every piece of information is delivered obliquely, in the wrong place, wrong in an ordinary detective novel, which, to my joy, Dogs’ Beach is not. The mystery of this mystery is the motive of the detective. His questions are his own. He does not blow the lid off of a conspiracy or take down a corrupt general. He explores his folder of documents, and the crime scene, and Lisbon (Dogs’ Beach is an outstanding Lisbon novel) looking for something only incidentally related to the case.
As a detective novel, the whole thing is likely a failure. As a political novel, a novel about life under a stagnant and oppressive regime, it is a great success; I have never read a book quite like it.