“Either you kill the bull or the bull kills you” is a traditional Spanish proverb from which the author gets his title. Chief Inspector Max Camara is well aware of the proverb but not aware of much about bullfighting. Spain’s national sport appalls him and he has studiously avoided knowing anything about the arcane rules and pas de deux of the bull and the matador. But one spring day, Camara finds himself on the horns of a dilemma (couldn’t resist). His boss, thanks to his rank in the police department of Valencia, is president of that day’s corrida, bullfight. When Pardo’s three year-old daughter needs to be taken to the hospital, he sends Camara, the first person he sees, to take his place. The job of the president is to decide what awards should be given to the matador. Camara had no interest in bullfighting but now the success of the afternoon is in his hands. Desperate to avoid a riot, Camara goes overboard and the crowd loves it. Jorge Blanco, the premier matador on the circuit, gets a sigificant number of pieces of bulls.
A few hours later, Camara is in the wrong place at the wrong time and finds himself assigned as chief detective when a body is found at the arena. Camara thought the bullfighting nightmare was over but instead he is really drawn into the subculture. The victim is Jorge Blanco. Blanco has been stripped of his “suit of lights”, he has been strangled, and his body has been decorated with the tools of his trade, the traditional instruments used by the matador to weaken the bull.
The death of Blanco results in a firestorm. There has been a movement in Spain to ban bullfighting; tradition or not, it is cruel and Spaniards are taking sides on the ethics of a sport that is decidely one-sided. The small group of families who provide the bulls to the arenas are at risk of losing their farms if the fights are banned. There are rumors that the fights are fixed, that the horns of the bulls are shaved so they are less deadly to the matador, that the bulls are drugged before being let into the arena. Such rumors have increased the anti-taurino mood of the country but Blanco is a matador of the old school and his presence in the ring is swinging sentiment back in favor of the fights. Blanco’s death will have repercussions on both sides but when his manager is found murdered a few days later, the question of motive gets even more murky.
OR THE BULL KILLS YOU is a mystery served up in a book that is difficult to put down. Max Camara learns a great deal about the history and traditions of bullfighting and the readers happily learn along with the police inspector. The bull represents brute strength and power, the matador is the means by which the bull is first controlled and then defeated. Everything about the fight is rooted in tradition but Valencia is rooted in the twenty-first century and in the midst of the investigation into the murders, Camara must deal with an election for mayor and the biggest and loudest fiesta of the year.
The author presents a story that is about a tradition that divides Spain and he makes it understandable that so many Spaniards are unwilling to give in to the animal rights groups. He presents the new Spain, the Spain after Francisco Franco. Franco was a fascist and he had the support of the Catholic Church, at least the official church, because fascism was the bulwark against the atheism of communism. In Franco’s Spain, personal behavior was regulated; conformity to the moral strictures on sexual behavior drove relationships that were not consecrated by marriage into the shadows. Webster presents a Spain in which adults are getting their first taste of freedom regarding their sexuality. Into that atmosphere, he raises the issue of homosexuality within the macho world of the matador.
This book has so much to offer the reader. It is a murder mystery, a police procedural, a social history, and an examination of a culture that sees its struggles played out in the arena. Max Camara is an positive addition to the list of crime solvers. He and the city of Valencia would make a great series.