Gracefully translated by Grogan, crime journalist Fernandez’s debut novel is gritty and very realistic, perhaps because it’s told in a style that at times suggests documentary. The author makes good use of political turmoil in present-day Spain—a massive shift is underway with the Socialist government just voted out of power—and readers get a vivid sense of the dangerous world Diego Martin inhabits. A fine novel of crime and conspiracy.
The book is written in crisp present tense, often with the rhythm of a ticking stopwatch. There’s an feeling of paranoia, with the leads constantly looking over their shoulders for spies and hurrying from one bit of business to the next. Setting details condense a lot of cultural context into an easily understood form ... This crime novel does not much turn the screws in on its characters, though. Even when thugs threaten them, they are not too intimidating, and results don’t always feel earned as much as they seem handed to characters. The plot feels constrained, with only a few named individuals playing a significant role ... riveting in its adaptation of historical realities into a thriller atmosphere.
Unfortunately, this dish didn't sit quite right with me. I attribute part of the novel's issues to its stilted language, and I suspect some of it may be the translation's fault. I sense something has been lost here; the passages seem sterile, as though a pinch of salt might be required ... Not everything, however, can be blamed on the use of language. In the end, Mala Vida just feels very technical, like reading the ingredients of a recipe instead of sampling the dish, all the bits of the story fitting together in a not terribly exciting way, when this should be an explosive noir story of post-Franco Spain ... there is no sense of true danger. Sure, our protagonists are confronted a couple of times by a menacing person or receive a nasty message, but nothing comes of it ... These are good people, fighting for truth, but alas they don't have much interior life ... never gathers enough steam to fully immerse us in the pain and the horror of a country torn apart by old secrets.