Mario Vargas Llosa’s Who Killed Palomino Molero?

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Who killed Palomino Molero opens on a horrific scene. A young man has been brutally murdered, his mutilated body hangs impaled out in the countryside, discovered by a young goatherd. This, it turns out, is Palomino Molero – a guitar playing romantic young recruit at the local airforce base.

What follows is one of the most compelling, tightly written, amusing and passionate detective stories I have ever read. The story follows the investigations of the local police force (comprised of a soft-hearted young cop called Lutima and the wily yet hilarious Lieutenant Silva) as they find clues, follow leads, interrogate suspects and finally track down the boy’s killers.

At one level, Who Killed is just an extremely engaging detective story. Llosa jumps deftly from scene to scene, showing you how the different threads of the plot slowly untangle, moving the novel along at a brisk pace that Raymond Chandler would have been proud of. As revelation follows revelation, you find yourself ‘solving’ the mystery along with the protagonists, the full picture of the events leading up to the boy’s murder slowly coming together in your head. There is nothing really complex about these events – this is no Agatha Christie novel – there are no big surprises. What sustains your interest here is more how the secret plays out. There is a sense of constantly shifting back and forth in time as the pieces of the puzzle slowly assemble, making the overall plot come clear. It’s one of the chief joys of the novel that the story both builds rapidly to a climax and manages to switch effortlessly between past and present. It’s this restlessness of the narrative, combined with an explicit sense of not being in on the secret, the feeling that everyone else knows what you are trying to find out, of a conspiracy against you, that makes Who Killed reminiscent of Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Llosa is that reading him I find myself constantly making comparisons to Marquez, and usually not unflattering ones. This contrasts sharply with how I feel about say, Isabel Allende, who usually leaves me wishing I was reading Marquez, or Llosa, instead)

What makes the novel truly enjoyable though, is that it’s so much more than a simple detective story. It’s also, simultaneously, a poignant love story, an examination of racial prejudice and a deeply funny book about life in a small provincial town. The fact that all of that fits so neatly into the 150 pages that the story takes to play out, gives you a sense of how taut the writing is here.

Part of what makes the book so taut is the incredible cast of characters that Llosa creates. Perhaps the most interesting of these is Lieutenant Silva – the chief investigator on the case. As a policeman, Silva is the archetype of the great detective – a shrewd investigator with a keen nose for a clue, a thorough understanding of human nature, a wily interviewing technique, brilliant deductive abilities, quick wit and, ultimately, a strong sense of justice. What Llosa adds to the mix is Silva’s strange obsession with a plump, married inn keeper who Silva spends all his free time fantasising about and who he is desperate to somehow sleep with. This is a marvellous twist, because it shows us how a man who is the smartest of investigators can also be the most ridiculous of buffoons. Picture Poirot falling in love with a 16 year old girl and you’ll get the picture. And the same is true of all the other characters in the novel – it’s as though Llosa had taken all the standard archetypes of this mode of fiction, and then changed them in oh so subtle ways to make them seem more real.

Bottomline: Who Killed Palomino Molero? is not one of Llosa’s greatest works (it doesn’t compare, for instance, to the sublime Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter or the wonderfully powerful Feast of the Goat). But it’s a short, bitter-sweet detective novel that makes for an incredibly engrossing, unputdownable read and is absolutely not to be missed.