Title: Betty Boo
Author: Claudia Piñeiro
Translator: Miranda France
Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press, London (2016)
ISBN: 978 1 908524 55 3
There are three epigraphs at the beginning of Betty Boo, the highly enjoyable mystery novel (her fourth to be translated into English) by Argentine author Claudia Piñeiro. One is a quote from Ricardo Piglia’s Target In the Night.
“The story goes on; it can go on; there are various possible conjectures; it’s still open; it merely gets interrupted. The investigation has no end; it cannot end. Someone should invent a new literary genre, paranoid fiction. Everyone is a suspect; everyone feels pursued.”
The epigraph is a nod to the sense of unease (a sense that never materializes into the actual paranoia and fear Piñeiro valiantly tries but falls short of conveying) that the murder of one of their own creates among the sheltered residents of an exclusive neighborhood in Buenos Aires – where all who enter and exit the premises (guests, domestics, residents) are closely monitored at the gates. The victim is a rich and influential man and the murder scene staged to appear as a suicide. What makes the events newsworthy is that this man, Pedro Chazarreta, buried his wife five years before under equally suspicious circumstances. He had initially been, and in the eyes of the public remained, a chief suspect in her death.
The protagonist and, for the novel’s purposes, lead “investigator” is Nurit Iscar – the titular Betty Boo. Her nickname is inspired by her physical resemblance to the 1920’s cartoon character. Nurit is… rather was… a successful mystery novelist dubbed “the Dark Lady of Argentine literature” up until five years ago (right around the time of the death of Chazarreta’s wife) when a disastrous affair with a married man, her subsequent divorce and a series of scathing reviews of her most recent novel led her to withdraw from the literary world. That last novel had been a departure from the crime stories readers had come to expect from her. She’d written a much more personal work – a love story based on her affair. Since its public rejection she has stopped writing her own material and survived financially by ghost writing the memoirs of society ladies with illusions of grandeur. She is fifty-four and her two sons will soon be graduating from university. She is not unhappy, but has allowed her creativity to become dormant. There is a hole in her life. She is surrounded and sustained by a small group of women friends – all of whom understand this and want her to return to publishing her own work.
And so when her former lover approaches and asks her to write a series of columns on the Chazarreta murder for his newspaper Nurit, after some convincing, agrees. She will move into a house in the gated community where the murder occurred. From there she will observe and report on events from the inside, using the proximity to tap into the residents’ paranoia for her stories about the case. As far as an angle goes, it’s a good one.
At the same newspaper Jaime Brena, a journalist who sat behind the crime desk for decades, has recently been replaced by a young, wet-behind-the-ears upstart who knows more about social media than about actual reporting. When a call comes about this latest turn in the Chazarreta case Brena grudgingly hands it over. And yet… old habits die-hard and he forms an alliance, a friendship even, with the Crime boy. They – Brena, the Crime boy and eventually Nurit – will come to pool their resources and together attempt to follow the trail of a murderer with a very specific list of victims.
Jaime Brena tidies his desk, gathers up his papers, switches off the computer then notices just as he’s about to go that the ruler with which he instructed the Crime boy to simulate his own throat-slashing is lying on the floor under his chair. Jaime Brena has had this ruler ever since he first came to El Tribuno. He has a tendency to form slightly fetishistic attachments to certain objects. He picks it up and puts it back in the drawer. Looking up, he sees that the Crime boy is still working at his desk, and he goes over to him. How’s it going? Fine, says the boy. I’m just finishing up. OK, I’ll see you tomorrow. Jaime Brena starts to walk away but after a few steps he turns back and says: Can I ask you something? Yes, of course, says the boy.Who would you like to be like? What? Says to boy. Who would you like to be like, who’s your role model, your favorite journalist? Ah, from here or anywhere? From here, kid, here, and in Crime, because if you’re going to write about Crime that’s where you need to look for your role model. I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it. I got into Crime a bit by chance; my role models are in other areas. It shows, kid. Not to bring you down, but it shows.
Betty Boo is a better than good book. Piñeiro is a solid storyteller who avoids gimmicks and tricks and instead concentrates on the careful plotting, character development and psychological insight that distinguishes the best mystery writers. Her plot reminds me a little bit of the British writer Anthony Horowitz (who wrote sequels to Sherlock Holmes and James Bond under the auspices of both the Doyle and Fletcher estates). Both authors explore issues and ideas, even politics, but only as far as it serves the story. Their plots are meticulously constructed, built block by block like a case for the prosecution, and frequently stray into lurid (but not ridiculous) territory.
As for characters, Piñeiro has managed to populate Betty Boo with multi-generational cast – Nurit, her girlfriends and Brena are in their 50’s. Their thoughts and concerns ring true to their age, as do their actions. And the same can be said for the younger characters, like the Crime boy and Nurit’s sons. They possess the clichéd “arrogance of youth”, but their self-absorption makes them no less likeable. The dialogue is sharp and interesting. Individual voices stand out. Quite an accomplishment, since Piñeiro compresses and contains her dialogue within the same paragraph as the action, abstaining from the use of quotation marks. This simple, little stylistic tick transforms the rhythm of the text into the rapid patter of old pre-code Hollywood movies. These are wonderfully engaging characters who are fun to be around. Their conversations are genuinely interesting, not just for the information, but for their humor and warmth they convey.
Claudia Piñeiro’s currently has three other novels translated into English. All three are published by Bitter Lemon Press. None appear to be or have sequels.