Marc Pastor- Barcelona Shadows

Barcelona ShadowsIn 1917, Barcelona’s infamous Raval district is alive with outlandish rumours. A monster is abducting and murdering young children. The police are either powerless to prevent his terrible crimes,or indifferent to them, since they concern only the sons and daughters of prostitutes. But Inspector Moises Corvo is determined to stop the outrages, and punish their perpetrator. His inquiries take him on a tour of the Catalan capital,through slum, high-class brothel and casino, and end in a stomach-turning revelation…

Originally entitled La Mala Dona – The Evil Woman – Barcelona Shadows fictionalises the real events of 1911-1912 involving the serial disappearance of young children. Drawing on his own experiences as a crime scene investigator, Pastor is well placed to produce more than one shiver down his readers’ spines, as he recounts the events of these sinister disappearances, and the fears of the community that a real life vampire walks amongst them in this compelling and unsettling novel. With more than a nod to the penny dreadful genre of 19th century literature, and scattered with references to Conan Doyle, and Edgar Allen Poe,  you are instantly drawn into this dark story, overseen by the omnipresent narrator of Death himself, and what a tale it is…

This book pulls no punches from the opening bodysnatching scene, with a dark jibe at the use of a headless corpse, which did appeal to my dark sense of humour. There are children playing with bones, overstuffed flies that have feasted on bodies, details of autopsies, with a good coating of the visceral nature the crimes themselves. There are beautifully Dickensian-esque characters that lodged in my imagination as toothless stinking ragbags with glorious names such as One Eye and Blackmouth and the insane Doctor von Baumgarten with his creepy medical investigations. Cleverly, in his depiction of the main detectives, the charming womaniser Corvo and his earnest counterpart Malsano, there was a nod to the more contemporary motifs of crime fiction, as they endeavour to solve the disappearances and subsequent murders under the gaze of an idiotic boss, with more than a dash of sardonic wit a la Montalbano or Rebus. I really took to this crime fighting duo, in particular Corvo, described as no longer a defender of good folk as toughened by his experiences as he no longer believes in good folk and as an old dog, grim-faced and filled with vices, but with a tenacious zeal for clearing the streets of scum, but at what personal cost to himself? The perpetrator of the crimes in the book, the hypnotically chilling and manipulative Enriqueta, takes on all the childhood nightmare inducing qualities of Baba Yaga or the gingerbread house dwelling witch of fairytale tradition, and equally frightening to think that in the real life case that Pastor draws on that the chief suspect in the child snatching was indeed a woman. As her madness intensifies during the book, ably supported by three dim-witted men bowing to her every whim, the plot twists and turns, transporting the reader along effortlessly as more horrors are unveiled at every turn.

I think that there is a specific intention by Pastor for the city to assume a character of its own in the book, and the depiction of the grinding poverty and the population’s propensity for an unerring superstitious belief all adds to the very atypical 19th century feel of the book, as the setting is so resonant of the industrial geography of Northern England and even London itself. Barcelona is referred to in phrases such as ‘a city of mask and lies’, and equally as a coldhearted being that, ‘keeps pretending nothing is going on’. There is a feel itself that the city is endeavouring to thwart the investigations of the police, and keep its dark and dirty shadows filled with fear for the general populace. The well-crafted descriptions of the city itself all add to the overall disturbing nature of the book and the crimes contained within it and achieved for me a narrative equally on a par with the psycho-geographic mastery of writers such as Peter Ackroyd with Hawksmoor or Iain Sinclair’s Slow Chocolate Autopsy

I concede that this dark tale, populated by a cast of grotesques and infused with a visceral wit, may not be to everyone’s taste, but it really tapped into the dark imaginings of the human psyche. All in all, a clever, parodic novel that will appeal to those who actively search out something different within the crime genre and an entirely satisfying read at that.

Marc Pastor studied criminology and crime policy, and works as a crime-scene investigator in Barcelona. He is the author of four novels: Montecristo, Barcelona Shadows, awarded the Crims de Tinta prize in 2008, L’any de la plaga and Bioko. Richly atmospheric, his work spans a range of genres, from Sci Fi to Gothic via the adventure novel. Barcelona Shadows is first book published in English. Follow on Twitter @DoctorMoriarty. Marc Pastor’s first UK TV appearance- 

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)


  1. Raven – I have to admit, this one probably wouldn’t be one for me. But not because of your excellent review. I just don’t normally go quite that dark. Still, it seems well-written and I do find it interesting to learn about history as I read.

  2. Thanks for your review Raven. The book title is originally written in Catalan as La mala dona The bad woman or La mala mujer in Castilian Spanish. And I might be tempeted to give it a go.

  3. I enjoyed this greatly – despite the nasties in it , Marc Pastor seemed to keep giving his gruesome narrative touches of humour which worked quite well. I think Pushkin did well to take on this book.

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