AUGUST 24, 2022
MELCHOR MARÍN, THE HERO of Javier Cercas’s Even the Darkest Nightis obsessed with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. He first encountered the 19th-century French masterpiece while serving a four-year stint in prison. Its impact cannot be overstated, perhaps because he discovered it in his late teens, that a formative decade when we engage with new ideas with an intensity that is the sole province of youth. Melchor will reread this book every year, always finding something new, studying the text as if Les Misérables were the blueprint for life. He alternately identifies with the protagonist, the prisoner Jean Valjean, who changes his destiny by becoming someone else; and the antagonist, Javert, the police inspector who obsessively pursues Valjean. Melchor woos his wife over its pages. They name their daughter Cosette.
We learn all of this later, in flashbacks. Even the Darkest Night opens with a murder: the bodies of a wealthy elderly couple, the Adells, are found in their home. The husband’s printing business employs most of the local community of Terra Alta, a small town in the Catalonia region of Spain where nothing much ever happens. Both man and wife were brutally tortured and “suffered unspeakably before dying.” Working the night shift, Melchor receives the call and is the first detective to arrive on site.
The crime scene is staged to look like a ritual killing, but Melchor suspects it is the work of hired professionals. Why, then, were the Adells made to suffer horribly? The couple’s ties to the Catholic Church’s Opus Dei organization suggest all sorts of lurid possibilities, yet circumstances point to the victims’ family and immediate circle as suspects. Weeks go by with no progress; the higher-ups decide to close the case, and the team of out-of-town investigators rides off to chase the latest media storm. But Melchor can’t let it go and continues to investigate in secret. Eventually, he solves the case, but at a tremendous personal cost.
Of course, the murder itself is not the thing. The final solution Melchor stumbles upon — who killed the Adells, why they were killed, and the reason for the brutality with which they were — is entirely unremarkable. The twist at the end feels obligatory, despite the broad foreshadowing leading up to the reveal. Cercas somehow manages to indicate what’s to come without placing any actual clues for the reader to find. The story is no more than a milestone in Melchor’s journey, the plot’s momentum powered by undercurrents. The novel’s title comes from a line in Les Misérables: “Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise.” The author transparently and skillfully appropriates many of Hugo’s themes, as when Melchor explains to his wife that Javert is “a false bad guy”:
“And the false bad guys are the real good guys.”
“If that’s the case, there must also be false good guys,” Olga said.
“Of course,” Melchor said. “They’re the real bad guys.”
There are also multiple side conversations between characters about the lingering trauma of the Spanish Civil War in the region. Eighty years ago, Terra Alta was the site of a ferocious battle. Cercas, who is best known for his novels and works of nonfiction set during the Spanish Civil War, plants a series of quiet hints like road signs throughout the text, seemingly directing us towards a more complicated puzzle to come in a later book: “Here , sooner or later, everything gets explained by the war.”
Even the Darkest Night is the first book of a trilogy, all three of which are available in Cercas’s native Spain. (The titles of books two and three are Independencia and El Castillo de Barbazul, or “Bluebeard’s Castle.”) As of yet, there’s been no announcement on whether the remaining books are set to be translated into English. Hopefully this will change, since Even the Darkest Night is the equivalent of a superhero origin story. Melchor is 29 when we meet him in the opening paragraph, the year roughly 2018. The flashbacks explaining the events of his life up until that point are unequivocally the best bits of the story.
We witness all the important milestones: the misspent youth, a stint in prison, a murdered mother, and a shabby but brilliant Dickensian lawyer who inexplicably acts as Melchor’s benefactor. We follow along as this young man searches for his mother’s killers, solves the case that makes his reputation on the force (sending him to Terra Alta), and meets his future wife. Cercas has gifted Melchor Marín a deep and rich backstory. And if the central crime in Even the Darkest Night falls short, the other components are present that make for a great series.
People murder for a final number of reasons: money, sex, revenge, mental illness, or to cover up some previous crime. Once we establish motive, the methodology is limited by what is plausible. A mystery writer has only so many plot variations at their disposal. Some writers are honest about recycling stories and still manage to build successful careers. The original Law & Order series never strayed from a simple formula reiterated in every episode’s opening credits: “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police investigating crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”
And it is their stories that interest us. The crime, the formula, is more often than not simply a vehicle through which readers get to know a character. Detectives Harry Bosch, Easy Rawlins, Vera Stanhope, Olivia Benson, and Elliot Stabler have all taught us that the protagonist’s arc is what ultimately sells a series, usually helped along by some quirky, recurring side characters. In this pantheon of noir detectives, Melchor Marín is an anomaly. He is uniquely well adjusted. When we meet him, he is happily married and has the respect of his colleagues. He has friends, generally avoids self-sabotage, and, overcoming a somewhat sordid past and a horrible personal tragedy, has done remarkably well for himself. He doesn’t drink to excess or use drugs. Some might call him boring. Even so, he is original.
Because of this, Melchor makes for a remarkably compelling protagonist, and Cercas spends two-thirds of the book excavating his history. Some loose threads are left dangling, which makes sense with a hero so young. I imagine some stories have been picked up and continued in later books. I wouldn’t be surprised if others are left unresolved. Cercas seems to have a feel for how much the reader wants revealed and when to reveal it.
He’s also lucked out on his translator:
Two weeks after the Islamist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, Melchor arrived at the Terra Alta police station after driving down the Mediterranean Highway, then a main road which snaked between mountains and forests and finally along a back road that went down to the Ebro, crossed the river at Móra d’Ebre and entered Terra Alta, between rocky hills, deep ravines, bare cliffs and vineyards, plantations of almonds, olives, pines and fruit trees. It was his first time in the region, and, although it was just a two-and-a-half hour drive from Barcelona, the abrupt, barren, inhospitable, wild and isolated territory that spread out in the south of Catalonia, right at the border with Aragon, seemed to him like the ends of the earth.
This project is made for Anne McLean, who translated the author’s Soldiers of Salamis (which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), as well as books by Gabriel García Márquez, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Julio Cortázar. Perhaps more relevant to readers here is her translation of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel The Sound of Things Fallingwhich is similar in pacing and structure to Even the Darkest Night. Both books rely heavily on flashbacks to move the plot along, the action remaining level throughout: the story unfolds without any obvious climactic moment towards which it peaks and then resolves itself.
Though it is marketed as a work of suspense, there’s nothing particularly suspenseful in these pages. plot-wise, Even the Darkest Night follows several well-traveled highways to their obvious destinations. And yet, Cercas still manages to give his readers something more valuable than your standard thriller. In Melchor Marín, Cercas has created a complicated and conflicted hero to follow through multiple books, unraveling the mysteries of his past while nurturing hope for the ever-elusive happy ending. In addition, he’s written secondary characters we recognize and greet on the page as old acquaintances, whose lives we know intimately and follow as eagerly as we would family members. And that human connection, my friends, is what makes an international bestseller — never believe otherwise.
Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic.