The AP-8 motorway that runs from Vitoria-Gasteiz to the French border reveals a tantalizing glimpse of Spain’s Basque country. In daylight it is stunningly beautiful. As night falls it feels faintly menacing. The road, which runs through steep and narrow wooded valleys with towns and villages folded into them, always makes me wonder what secrets the Basque is concealing on the other side of the hills?
In her debut novel, The Invisible Guardian, Dolores Redondo reveals some of those secrets. Hers is a fascinating tale that combines a very modern serial killer investigation with an exploration of some of the ancient mythology of the Basque and neighbouring Navarra.
The story is set in and around the rural town of Elizondo, about 50km north of Pamplona and in the modern administrative region of Navarra, but belongs to Basque tradition. When a young girl is found murdered with her body arranged strangely Elizondo native Inspector Amaia Salazar is called in from Pamplona to investigate.
One murder very quickly becomes two and Salazar finds herself facing the prospect of a serial killer at the same time as she is confronting the demons of her own past as well as some of the dysfunction of the family she has left behind in Elizondo.
Before too long Salazar is struggling to disentangle her own history with that of the investigation just as strange tales of bears or mythical creatures in the forest emerge to complicate things further.
There’s almost too much going on at times in this novel but Redondo keeps the plot moving fast and stays in control of the narrative, driving her story towards its dramatic conclusion.
What she delivers most convincingly is the sense of the uniqueness of the Basque/Navarra. The ghosts of the town of Elizondo and the spirits of the forest suffuse the book with a spooky mysticism and do much to bring the story to life. Elizondo and the Baztán Valley, neither of which I had previously heard of, are now on the (very long) must-visit list.
Redondo has also introduced an appealing new crime fiction heroine in Amaia Salazar. She is a rationalist surrounded by the supernatural and a woman haunted by the past struggling to settle in her present and future.
The Invisible Guardian is promised as the first chapter of the Baztán trilogy, with an English translation of the second novel due later this year. It is no surprise that the books have been successful in Spain and there is no reason why they should not be elsewhere. I’ll be hoping for the second book in time for a summer trip north to Elizondo…