The Fragility of Bodies is a powerful tale of murder and corruption set in Buenos Aires; it feels troublingly plausible. It will thrill readers with a taste for dark, gritty, real-world crime fiction. This novel is distilled single malt noir, a gripping reflection on the woes and angst of Argentinian society. The tragic cheapness of the lives of the poor and the impunity of the rich are evident. This is an insightful, bruising, and, even, shocking novel. This is a deeply unflattering but realistic portrait of modern day Argentina which has never escaped it’s rotten past.

If the world were a better place ‘up-Lit’ might have some meaning but it isn’t so the fiction best suited to accompany life’s rich tapestry is noir. Noir is a window into the soul of a society; it’s people and it’s values and nowhere is the fiction of a nation more heavily weighed down by its recent past than Argentina. The nation is haunted by the ‘disappeared’, over 30,000 people who went missing under the military junta (1976-83), but also the Falklands/Malvinas war and Peron. The legacy is corruption, abuse of power, inequality, poverty and moral decay. To add insult to injury, the financial crisis of 2008 hit Argentina very badly. Both Argentinian crime and literary fiction are infused with a bleak sense of fatalism and cynicism, the very essence of noir, and The Fragility of Bodies is firmly in this tradition; realist, grim and savage. There’s an atmosphere of foreboding from the first page, Buenos Aires is a dark and dangerous place for anyone interested in justice and truth.

Fill my nostrils with the stench of political corruption and drench me in the blood of the innocent victims of unfettered power and greed, but also show me a person prepared to stand up for the victims and I’m happy. This is my kind of story. This stylish thriller explores the underbelly of Argentinian society, exposing the meanness and cruelty of poverty and an uncaring and powerful ruling elite. The heavy presence of shadowy controlling forces overhangs The Fragility of Bodies.

From the moment Veronica Rosenthal gets the whiff of a story about deaths on the railways she has no idea what she is up against or where it will go. Her bloodhound instinct will lead her into trouble. There are men who will stop at nothing to prevent this story emerging and there are men out there ready to do their bidding with no concern for the ‘why?’ only ‘how much?’:

‘1, 2, 3 and 4 were small-time hoodlums, exclusively dedicated to causing damage by injury, intimidation or murder. That was their core business. . . . Their actions were well defined.’

The Fragility of Bodies is the first thriller in a hard-hitting new political crime series featuring investigative journalist, Veronica Rosenthal. She has no faith in the politicians, or the judges for that matter, even through her father is one. Her own role as a journalist is to seek the truth behind a story. The dark tones of a true noir are evident from the first words. A man commits suicide, it seems like an open and shut case, the judge is happy to put it to bed, no one seems to care about Alfredo Carranza’s story (why did he do it?). That is, until Veronica Rosenthal decides to take a look at the loose ends surrounding his death. This suicide begins the journey into the abyss, the noir streak is a mile wide.

1000 Calle Talcahuano is like any of the office blocks in that street, doctors, psychologists and discreet prostitutes occupy the offices. Alfredo Carranza has decided he can’t go on any more and he has chosen this building to jump from. Carranza is haunted by terrible memories:

‘I killed them. All four of them.’

No one noticed him enter the building and take the lift to the roof. He can’t handle the fact that the last victim was a child. Carranza stands on the edge of the building but can’t bring himself to jump so he takes the gun out of his pocket and puts it to his head. His last thoughts are of his family…

Veronica Rosenthal’s life is a bit chaotic but she’s a good journalist, she works for Nuestro Tiempo. Her last story was big, a prescription drugs scandal involving pharma laboratories, doctors and hospital dispensaries. She’s looking for a new story, something big, politically dirty maybe. That’s when she notices a small squib on the wire about the suicide of a railway worker and it intrigues her. Doors open for the youngest daughter of Senior Judge Aarón Rosenthal and his colleague, Judge Romanin, in charge of the Carranza case, let’s her see the file. Carranza was a train driver on the Sarmiento railway, over the past three years four people have died in front of a train he was driving, all recorded as misadventure. The company paid for a psychiatrist but each incident affected him worse. Only the fact that the family badly needed the money kept Carranza working. His wife thinks he was depressed in the run up to his suicide, but as he wasn’t to blame why did Carranza feel so guilty? A natural human emotion or something more? Veronica is interested in the fact that Carranza seemed to know he would kill the unnamed boy, how is that possible? Veronica feels that the judge has settled for the suicide theory but cares little for what is behind it. She gatecrashes Carranza’s funeral and snatches a brief conversation with his sister; however, the real answers lie inside the rail company itself. Veronica charms management and gains the trust of Lucio, a train driver, he has been driving when six people have committed suicide:

‘Sometimes you see them quite a long time before, or you realise that the guy on the edge of the platform is going to jump when the train passes.’’

He and Veronica form a bond, eventually he shows her what it was that finally broke Carranza’s spirit.

Christian Arrùa , El Peque, comes from a villa miseria on the edge on Buenos Aires, a shanty town. He has a talent for football and it might just save him from the streets, he has been spotted by a coach and Rivero seems to believe in him. Like all ten year olds, he dreams of playing for Boca or River one day, and like a lot of ten year olds in the miseria, he’s already started down the other path open to kids like him – crime (a few pesos robbing a neighbour). Rivero isn’t what he seems though, he’s not a man young boys should be entrusted to…

Veronica’s investigation uncovers a startling racket, a deadly game in which the rich and powerful of the city see the poor as pawns to be sacrificed for their amusement. The rich live in a protected bubble, it could be a parallel universe. Noir fiction tells us that right can overcome wrong, but don’t expect a happy ending and never expect resolution. Can Veronica make a difference? Will she ever get to tell her story?

Olguín is an accomplished and stylish storyteller and Veronica Rosenthal a memorable character, one it’s easy to imagine spending more time with. This first novel suggests the making of an extremely exciting, and possibly important, crime series. The mood and atmosphere is beautifully conveyed in Miranda France’s translation.

Paul Burke 5/4

The Fragility of Bodies by Sergio Olguín
Bitter Lemon Press 9781912242191 pbk Jul 2019