In the field of crime fiction, a field that sometimes feels overcrowded, its wonderful to find a book with a great premise. The Fragility of Bodies is one such book. The premise of this novel is very simple and surrounds the death of children on train tracks, e.g. children knocked over by trains. This, of course, happens all over the world. Children (and adults) risk crossing the tracks when the barriers are down at level crossings. Children play at the side of the tracks. Children play on the tracks. Some might try and block the tracks for fun by piling things onto the tracks (which of course can cause a train to derail) or they might make dares, play chicken with each other and the train, etc. This is the premise for this novel, in which Veronica Rosenthal, a young journalist on a news magazine, takes an interest in the number of deaths of children on the Buenos Aires rail tracks.
Many a plot of a novel has come from the question What If? And reading this novel, you can almost see the author asking that question in his mind. What if some of those deaths, deaths that happen around the world, were not accidents? To be sure such deaths happen in poor countries more than rich ones, where safety and security standards are not as good. Also, such deaths in those poor countries are likely to be subject to less rigorous investigation. So it is in this novel. The deaths that are at the core of the narrative are of street children, kids who grew up in the slums of Buenos Aires and come from deprived homes. I’ll avoid spoilers, but needless to say, Veronica discovers that the spate of deaths she’s happened upon are no accidents. She starts to investigate and those that are causing the deaths take umbrage to her sniffing around.
There are two other aspects of this novel that I liked very much. The first is that as a former journalist myself, the way Veronica comes across the story of the deaths on the train tracks is very authentic. Journalists discover stories in many ways and more often than not its almost accidental. You see or hear something which grabs your interest, you look into the story a little more, and then you find something bigger. The most famous example, of course, is Watergate. Initially, it was reported as just a break-in. But then journalists (most notably Woodward and Bernstein) discovered more. There were many (though obviously much less dramatic) examples of this in my own career in current affairs television. We would look into an issue only to find something much bigger beneath the surface. In The Fragility of Bodies it’s the suicide of a train driver. He’s left a note expressing remorse for the children he’s killed. Veronica looks into this and discovers he’s referring to children that he ran over when driving his train. Soon she learns that a lot of train drivers on the same line have had similar experiences and her investigation spirals from there. This, as I say, is very realistic to how journalism works. Often a journalist finds one thing, that leads to another, and another, and before they know it the story they are working on is completely different from what they had imagined.
The second aspect of this novel that I very much like is its lack of a serial killer. That probably reads like a really weird thing to write, but bear with me. I’m going to have to be very careful here not to divulge spoilers, and I won’t say anything else about the plot, except to say that the deaths are not caused by a serial killer. To me, that’s excellent, because a real bugbear of mine is the number of serial killers in crime fiction. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy some serial killer books and films. I’m not saying I’ll never read or watch one again, nor am I saying that I’ll never enjoy one again. When such stories are done well, they can be tremendous. But there is something a little lazy about the number of authors who churn out serial killer stories. Apart from the fact that serial killing is actually incredibly rare, it’s also just not very imaginative. So it’s refreshing when one comes across a novel that doesn’t include a deranged psycho killer to push the narrative on.
My one criticism of this novel is that some of the plot is contrived. Veronica Rosenthal is the daughter of a very powerful and politically connected lawyer. She uses this to find things out and I found this a little grating. It’s almost a get-out-of-jail-free card, the author able to have Veronica find anything, get out of any predicament, by playing this ace. Basically, the author uses this to dodge any difficulties in his plot. This was most obvious in the last quarter of the novel where the action sped up and she started to call in favours with increasing frequency. It felt like the author had pushed himself and his protagonist into a corner and had no way of extricating themselves other than the use of this trick. Personally, I would have kept the pace of the first three quarters and had this a book about the journalists’ method. I would have foregone the action at the end and made it more akin to a legal thriller, where the tension is more in the revelations than kinetic violence.
That said, this is a very good book and one I enjoyed immensely. I would definitely read more by this author and hope that more of his work is translated into English.
James Pierson 4/4
The Fragility of Bodies by Sergio Olguín
Bitter Lemon Press 9781912242191 pbk Jul 2019