Book Notes: Javier Cercas’s Terra Alta

Hispanic literature is the best in the world, yet it hasn’t been able to produce a readable mystery / police procedural. I’ve read all sorts of mystery novels in Spanish starting from the ones published in the 1950s, and they all stank. Their main problem isn’t even the plot or the mystery itself. It’s the language. For some reason, nobody knows how to write a mystery in Spanish without sounding extremely pompous.

I don’t expect much from the genre. I’ll read any mystery novel if it makes me want to find out “whodunit.” But mysteries in Spanish didn’t meet even my extremely low expectations.

Until Javier Cercas’s Terra Alta.

Cercas had published a mega-bestseller in 2000 which gave rise to the boom of the Spanish Civil War novel that still hasn’t fully died out. Since then, Cercas tried himself in every genre and flopped dramatically every time.

I never gave up on him, though. If the guy can unleash a torrent of Civil War obsession, he can do a lot more. For 20 years, I read every excruciating word Cercas published. And this week I discovered that I’d been right to do so! Cercas has written the first readable mystery/police procedural in the Hispanic world. It’s sappy, and he sticks his Civil War obsession into it, but it works!

The reason why it works is that the language is very simple, basic even, and as a result Cercas avoids pomposity. Mind you, the novel is still very sentimental. But it’s eminently readable.

Javier Cercas has finally found his genre, and I hope he keeps writing in it. And I have found a mystery in Spanish that I didn’t hate.

2 thoughts on “Book Notes: Javier Cercas’s Terra Alta

    These are in English, not Spanish, but I have absolutely loved Mycroft Holmes, Mycroft and Sherlock, and Mycroft and Sherlock, the Empty Birdcage, by Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse. I loved Sherlock Holmes stories as a teenager, and I think these three are even better than Conan Doyle himself


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