Thursday, March 22, 2018


DEATH GOING DOWN by María Angélica Bosco, tr: Lucy Greaves (Pushkin Vertigo, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Frida Eidinger is young, beautiful and lying dead in the lift of a luxury Buenos Aires apartment block. It looks like suicide, and yet none of the building’s residents can be trusted; the man who discovered her is a womanising drunk; her husband is behaving strangely; and upstairs, a photographer and his sister appear to be hiding something sinister. 

When Inspector Ericourt and his colleague Blasi are set on the trail of some missing photographs, a disturbing secret past begins to unravel…

More than sixty years after it was first published as La muerte baja en el ascensor (Death Takes the Elevator), this Emecé Prize-winning debut from the 'Argentinean Agatha Christie' is now available for English-speaking readers for the first time (it had also been re-issued in Spanish in recent years, as part of a collection bringing 'significant titles' back into print).

This is an intriguing read that gives a flavour of post-war Argentina and the tailend of the 1940s-1950s Peron presidency. Unusually for Latin American crime fiction, it leans strongly towards classic Golden Age murder mysteries in tone, pacing, and atmosphere, with some local flourishes, rather than hardboiled crime detectives or social novels packed with police and political corruption.

Because of that, it can read a little slow or dated at times, but it is an interesting book from a talented and rather overlooked author. Bosco (1917-2006) became famous in Argentina later in her writing career for her strong female protagonists, upturning macho Latin stereotypes, and the way she tweaked mystery conventions - but this first novel of hers has a more traditional feel, starring a 'thinking male detective' (though that was unusual in of itself in Latin American crime).

Inspector Ericourt is an older, experienced Buenos Aires policeman who seems to work slowly and methodically but is often a few steps ahead of where he seems. His younger colleague, Blasi, is keen as mustard; more impatient, action-oriented, and with a tendency to jump to conclusions.

Together they investigate the death of a young woman, discovered by a drunk man in the elevator of an apartment block in a wealthier part of post-war Buenos Aires. Some signs point to suicide, but that raises questions and mysteries in of itself. Who is the woman, why was she in the building? Was she upset after visiting someone there? Is her death evidence of a dangerous liaison, or something else?

DEATH GOING DOWN is a slim novel, but not necessarily a quick read. It's more absorbing than page-whirring, as Ericourt goes about his investigation in a very measured way, looking at the residents of the luxury apartment block and others who knew the dead women. There are plenty of suspects, secrets, clues, and red herrings for fans of classic Golden Age mysteries to enjoy.

More deaths follow, and secrets are poked at until Ericourt gathers the survivors together to re-enact the crime and unmask the killer. Clearly not ground-breaking in format for English-speaking readers, but it was a much lesser-used trope for Latin American writers (given that readers over there were traditionally much more distrustful of their police forces, so classic detective fiction was a rarity).

There's nothing particularly stand-out with the 'puzzle' aspects of DEATH GOING DOWN, but I enjoyed the insights Bosco gives readers into post-war Argentine life. Modern readers may pounce on suspicions about German and other European immigrants in Buenos Aires, or wonder why a death by cyanide poisoning is considered more likely to be suicide than murder (answer - it was quite a common method of suicide at that time), but Bosco's short novel, written in the 1950s, gives us an idea of how things were seen then, as opposed to an historic mystery novel set in those times but written by a modern-day author who has the benefit of hindsight but a lack of firsthand knowledge.

A good read, that brings an overlooked crime writer to English-speaking audiences. From what I've read about Bosco, I understand her later crime novels were bolder and more ground-breaking, so I certainly hope that Pushkin Vertigo will continue to bring out more of her oeuvre in English..

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for newspapers and magazines in several countries. In recent years he has interviewed 200 crime writers, discussed the genre onstage at books festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, and has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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