JUST WHEN THERE have been murmurs about reader disenchantment with the blood and gore of Nordic noir in a post-pandemic world, an award-winning Spanish variant has shot up to the top of the bestseller list in Spain and looks set to replicate its success world-wide.
Red Queen is the first of a trilogy where Juan Gomez- Jurado introduces us to Antonia, a woman who allows herself to think of suicide no more than three minutes a day. But even those three minutes are interrupted by Jon Gutierrez, a disgraced gay policeman under suspension for falsely incriminating a violent pimp — a charge that would’ve made him a hero figure if a video and social media hadn’t intervened. The suspension would be lifted, Jon is promised by a mysterious figure, if he convinces a particular woman, Antonia, to get into a car.
But Antonia refuses. Grieving and guilt-stricken, she blames herself for the fact that her beloved husband Marco is in a coma following a near-fatal shooting. She spends her nights in the hospital and her days holed up in a bare apartment. Her boss, who runs a covert unit that handles sensitive criminal investigations, wants his star investigator back.
Jon’s task is to bring Antonia in to solve the kidnapping and murder of a rich teenager. The boy has been found dead, his corpse drained of blood in one of the family homes in the ritziest gated community of Madrid. When another billionaire’s daughter Carla is kidnapped, the duo has only five days to find her before she dies a gruesome death. The parents refuse to divulge what the kidnapper has asked of them. As more obstacles pile up — a truculent investigator-in-charge who resents the duo’s involvement, a dogged newspaperman out to fix Jon—Antonia has to piece together clues apparent only to her eidetic memory and trap the killer before it is too late.
This is a fast-paced thriller with thankfully less gore than a normal Nordic noir defined by shockingly violent crimes, and a tortured detective with a painful past.
Despite a slight dip in the final bit of the novel, Gomez-Jurado has put together an eminently readable and twisty novel. His writing technique—telling us the backstory through dialogue and action in a separate section—keeps the reader in the present of the story. The violence too is written from the perspective of the victim, and it is the threat of violence that heightens the tension without making it gory.
In evolutionary biology, the Red Queen hypothesis proposes that species must constantly adapt, evolve and proliferate in order to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing species. Gomez-Jurado applies this hypothesis to the noir arena, with Antonia having to adapt and evolve continually “to keep up with the bad guys”.
Antonia’s solutions to every problem thrown at her are left-field clever. For instance, in the exam to select candidates for the covert force, the Kobayashi Maru problem is posed. The captain of an oil rig, Kobayashi Maru, is awoken by an assistant in the middle of the night with the news that an oil tanker is headed their way and they are in danger of an imminent collision. Antonia’s solution, given only by one in seven million, connects brilliantly with her detail-oriented mind, and establishes her credentials as a genius. Not surprisingly, she gets the maximum score and is snapped up by the covert organisation.
Even her love life with her husband has a quirky game. “To find impossible words, words that define beautiful, untranslatable feelings, those requiring a whole paragraph in Spanish. When either one found a word like that, they offered it to the other as treasure.”
We hear these days that after experiencing the isolation and a depressive state created by Covid, readers aren’t interested in the gory and the macabre, that they want feel-good books like cozys and uplit. Red Queen smashes these assumptions by giving us a mash-up of Nordic noir and an old-school detective with a neurodivergent mind.
THIS FASCINATION WITH neurodivergent characters can be seen in the success of Nita Prose’s The Maid, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, among others. And in the film and television worlds, we have the popular Benoit Blanc (Knives Out), Sonya Cross (The Bridge), Benedict Cumberbatch (as Sherlock Holmes), among others.
In evolutionary biology, the Red Queen hypothesis proposes that species must constantly adapt, evolve and proliferate in order to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing species. Spanish author Juan Gomez-Jurado applies this hypothesis to the noir arena, in Red Queen, with Antonia having to adapt and evolve continually ‘to keep up with the bad guys’
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Red Queen works primarily because its neurodivergent protagonist piques and holds the reader’s interest. But unlike a convivial Hercule Poirot, Antonia’s psyche belongs in the tradition of a Sherlock Holmes with his Asperger’s Syndrome. Antonia is brilliant in her chosen field and has an incredibly detail-oriented mind with a phenomenal memory. The strangeness of someone who allows herself a prefixed time to think of suicide immediately makes the reader want to delve deeper into how she thinks and sees the world.
Antonia, though, is no Lisbeth Salander. There are shades, of course: a cold father for Antonia while Salander was a ward of the State that went on to brutalise her. But a loving relationship, with an English grandmother and a beloved husband, humanises and makes Antonia an emotionally identifiable character.
In Jon, we have a Basque Watson, neuro-typical and gay. He doesn’t understand how her brain works, how she comes up with the solutions. Though we inhabit Antonia’s skin in the realm of her guilt over her husband’s coma and her behaviour toward her young son, and in the neural deluge she experiences from her detail-oriented mind and absence of filters, we don’t see how she figures out the connections between the clues or what she sees as clues until later. In this, Gomez-Jurado skilfully crafts the narrative to adhere to the tradition of veiling the workings of a master-detective’s mind.
Red Queen also works because along with a genius-protagonist, Gomez-Jurado has successfully woven in the other ingredients that thrill a mystery reader: a diabolical antagonist, a twisty game and a ticking clock.
In Doyle and his successors, while Holmes-like detectives become the symbol of justice and law, there is an implied connection between their autistic traits and the master-criminal who too seems to occupy the autistic end of the spectrum. In The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, here is Holmes on Moriarty: “My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.” He often uses terms such as “genius” and “wonder” to describe Moriarty’s crimes. Gomez-Jurado has cleverly used a similar trope of a genius opponent in Red Queen. Readers tend to read up; they prefer books that are more intelligent than themselves. This clash between minds of equal ability, minds that are far more brilliant than our own, makes for scintillating reading.
Watching a genius detective power through the mystery is similar to watching a magician create illusions. We enjoy watching magic even though we know our senses are being deceived. Like a good murder mystery, it is all about misdirection and suggestibility, but we still watch and wait for the reveal. Psychologists point out that from an early age, we are drawn to what we don’t understand. Our fascination with magic stems from trying to reconcile what we have seen with what we know is not possible. A similar imperative operates in the crime fiction arena and accounts for the popularity of neurodivergent fictional detectives.