Best Book of the Week!
I picked up this novel because I saw the excellent Oscar-winning movie from a few years ago. It had been long enough that, even though the movie stayed fairly close to the book, I didn’t remember some of the key plot points. The movie emphasized the crime-solving aspects of the novel, which is more about political corruption, Argentina’s violent history, and finally, a love story.
Written as a novel within a novel, the story spans more than 30 years. Benjamín Chaparro has retired after a long career as deputy clerk in an examining magistrate’s court, the court responsible for carrying on criminal investigations. As he wants to find something to occupy himself in his retirement, he decides to write about a case he worked on 30 years before, the ramifications of which seriously affected his life.
In this case from the 1970’s, a beautiful young woman, Liliana Colotto, has been found raped and murdered in her apartment. Although it is not a customary part of his duties, Chaparro’s judge sends him to the crime scene to observe the investigation. He is struck by the woman’s beauty and also by how the police are trampling all over the crime scene to get a look at her.
Her husband, Ricardo Morales, is in the clear, because a neighbor saw a man come to the woman’s door after her husband left for work. The investigation takes a false start when the other deputy clerk in Chaparro’s office decides that two workmen in the apartment building did it and has a confession beaten out of them. Chaparro figures out what is going on very quickly and files a complaint against the clerk, Pedro Romano. This incident has far-reaching effects on both the case and Chaparro’s life.
After this false start, the case goes nowhere. Chaparro has been meeting with Ricardo Morales periodically to keep him informed, but the investigators have been unable to find any clues to the identity of the mysterious man. The case is about to be closed when Morales shows Chaparro some snapshots of his wife, and Chaparro is able to discern the secret in the eyes of one man–that he was in love with Liliana Colotto and angry at her marriage. Chaparro sees the secret because he has his own–he has been in love with his married coworker, Irene Hornos, for years, since he first saw her. It is not revealing too much to say that Chaparro and Morales soon identify this man as Isidoro Gómez, because as I said, the focus is not on the solution of the crime but on the aftermath.
Several years go by before Gómez can be found. With the clever help of his friend and coworker Pablo Sandoval, Chaparro is able to get Gómez to confess to the murder, even though they have no evidence against him except the fact that he was late for work for the only time on the day of the murder. This should have been the end of the case, but because of corruption, political influence, and state-sponsored terrorism, the case and its ramifications follow Chaparro and Morales for more than 20 years.
The present-day story is concerned with the difficulties of writing and of Chaparro’s heart-yearning over Irene, who is now a judge. He has never spoken to her about his feelings, even though he left his first wife when he realized he loved Irene. He has been using his book as an excuse to meet with her to discuss it and the case.
This novel is wonderfully well written and absorbing. The conscientious, upright, deprecating Chaparro makes wry and cynical observations about the workings of the judicial system. The novel suspensefully shows how a state-sponsored reign of terror can affect the lives of even very ordinary citizens who are just trying to live their lives and how it can create injustice even in a case that has nothing to do with politics. The Secret in Their Eyes provides a fascinating look at a time in Argentina that many of us know little about.