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  • Reviews for Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo
  • Ernesto Mallo |  Needle in a Haystack |  Review
Reviews for Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo
'Against the bleak backdrop of a country under military rule, Inspector Lascano lives a lonely existence in 1970s Buenos Aires. One day he is summoned to a crime scene investigation for what is reportedly a double murder. However, arriving at the scene, he is confronted not by two cadavers, but three. Although convinced that two of the bodies are victims of the military junta, the third proves more puzzling and leads him on a quest to discover the truth.
Bitter Lemon Press has become an established name for promoting up-and-coming translated crime fiction in the UK and Needle in a Haystack is certainly no exception. Translator Jethro Soutar capably renders Ernesto Mallo's use of multiple narrators and ensures that the reader is gripped by the constant twists and turns in the plot.
As it becomes clear how the narrators' stories and lives interrelate, the pieces of the puzzle gradually fall into place and the novel culminates in a tragic finale. Mallo ensures that Lascano leaves no stone unturned and with great finesse and intrigue encapsulates the deep-seated repression and stark regularity of the violence inherent in this period.
A true noir novel in every sense, this English translation sets a strong precedent for the second and third part of the Lascano trilogy.'
- Booktrust
'Superintendent Lascano has been set something of an impossible task.
Working under the shadow of the military junta in late 1970's Buenos Aires he is sent to investigate the discovery of two bodies by a roadside.
However, upon arrival at the scene of the scene of the crime Lascano finds the body of a third victim. It is apparent to the superintendent that two of the bodies are victims of the military death squads and so he is forced to turn a blind eye to them. In a climate of violent paranoia and injustice those suspected of being 'subversive' are quickly eliminated. For Lascano attempting to administer justice in this kind of society proves to be an almost insurmountable goal. It soon emerges that the third corpse is that of a Jewish moneylender named Elias Biterman. Lascano is determined to find Biterman's killer and carry out the job he trained to do.
But the pursuit of justice leads the superintendent into a dangerous and shadowy world of corruption, social breakdown and summary executions that puts his own life at risk. Author Ernesto Mallo depicts Buenos Aires as a cruel and capricious city where it seems no-one can ever count themselves entirely safe when its rulers set themselves beyond the law. A gritty, painful portrait of a dystopian culture spinning further and further out of control Needle in a Haystack takes the reader on a harrowing car ride through the ugly recent history of Argentina. Mallo is a former member of the anit-Junta guerrilla movement and his experience informs his deft narrative and offers a tough visceral vision that has the ring of truth about it. Needle in a Haystack is a compelling, blood-stained document of tyranny and brutality told with skill and passion.' - Crime Time
'Superintendent Lascano [aka Perro The Dog] is sent to investigate a double murder and finds three bodies. Bodies one and two are a boy and a girl both dressed in jeans and polo necks their features smashed by several bullets. The custom is that each member of the Juntas death squads fire into the victim to ensure their mutual responsibility. But body three is a tall man of about sixty in a suit and tie, with one bullet wound in his stomach. While on a raid Lascano finds Eva, a young dissident hiding from the Army, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife Marisa, who tragically died in a car accident. Lascano had been deeply depressed by this event, and had only survived his loss with help from his friend Fuseli, the forensic pathologist. Lascano keeps Eva in his apartment and carries on with his work, as they begin to cook together and fall in love. He and Fuseli are able to identify body three as Elias Biterman, a moneylender and Auschwitz survivor turned hard and bitter by his past life, and also produce evidence that he was not a victim of the death squads. Lascano digs deeper into Biterman's business transactions, and we learn about his wartime experiences. Moving back in time we are introduced to Biterman's younger brother Horacio, a playboy born in Argentina, and therefore spared the traumas that have toughened Elias. Unfortunately Horacio has introduced his brother to his decadent friend Amancio.

He was an awful student guided by an indifferent father, from whom Amancio inherited the sense of life already accounted for, nails growing long like those of a Chinese mandarin. Work was not meant for the likes of them................
The sacrifice, the massacre of one thousand Indians per day, wasn't considered excessive in return for securing the family's wealth for three or four generations.

But Amancio's expensive lifestyle, and his beautiful wife Lara, have reduced him to the verge of bankruptcy.

......Lara is already putting her black dress on, a garment which set him back, the price of five Hereford cows when he bought it for her in Paris.

When Elias Biterman puts pressure on Amancio to clear his debt to him, Amancio took advice from Horacio, and then asked for help from a friend, Major Giribaldi.
Needle in a Haystack was written by Ernesto Mallo, and translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar. Mallo as well as being a essayist, newspaper columnist, screenwriter and playwright is a former anti-junta activist, who was pursued by the dictatorship.
I don't think my plot synopsis can do justice to all the different sub-plots and great characters, or to the atmosphere of both decadence and fear that Mallo creates. This book is a lesson for those authors who think you need to write 600 pages to produce a complex book. One hundred and ninety pages of great narrative, and cleverly manufactured dialogue, have produced a novel that is a mini social history of a rotten to the core Argentina, as well as being a very tense thriller.
How nice to live in a country where you don't have to worry about the knock on the door in the middle of the night. Well not yet anyway.
With one simple call to his friend Jorge, Giribaldi finds out that the policeman sticking his nose into the Biterman affair is not called Lezama but Lascano.

For once I entirely agree with the cover blurbs about a book especially this one:
This man knows. He knows about guns, knows about women, knows about dead bodies...But above all he knows how to narrate.
Ana Maria Shua, author of El Peso de la Tentacion'
- CRIME SCRAPS
'More repression here, this time by the military regime in late 1970s Buenos Aires. Argentinian author Mallo's first novel is, in many ways, a straightforward police procedural, and its central character, Superintendent Lascano, is a Chandleresque loner who comes complete with obligatory tragic past. Called to the site of a double murder, he arrives at the crime scene to find three bodies. Two are clearly the work of the junta's death squads, but his investigation of the third murder leads into dangerous territory. Mallo, a newspaper columnist, playwright and former opponent of the then military regime, paints a vivid and compelling picture of a society riven by corruption, social breakdown and casual brutality. Needle in a Haystack is a pacy, intense and thought-provoking read.' - Guardian
'Superintendent Lascano is a detective working under the shadow of military rule in Buenos Aires in the late 1970s. Sent to investigate a double murder, he arrives to find three bodies. Another new translation of a gripping overseas thriller from Bitter Lemon Press.' - Living Abroad
'As a member of a guerrilla movement that opposed Argentina's dictatorship, Mallo brings authenticity to his gripping debut, set in 1979 during military rule of that country. Early one morning, Superintendent Lascano of the Buenos Aires police looks into a report that two bodies have been dumped on a river bank. Instead, he finds three corpses--a young man and young woman, whose obliterated features are consistent with an army hit, and a man around 60, his face intact. The older victim turns out to be Holocaust survivor and money lender Elías Biterman, whose profession and faith provide no shortage of enemies. While Mallo reveals the killer's identity well before the end, the book's power derives from his depiction of an honest cop trying to do his job when even a judge observes, "With so many corpses everywhere, why worry about one more?" Martin Cruz Smith and Philip Kerr fans will be rewarded.' - Publishers Weekly
'Buenos Aires police detective Lascano, inconsolable over the death of his beloved wife, immerses himself in his work; and perhaps this combination of all-consuming work and grief allows him to function, if numbly, in a city and country at war with itself. It is 1979, and the military junta in Argentina is torturing, murdering, and "disappearing " anyone it sees as dissident. Nightly machine-gun fire, hyperinflation, police corruption, and anti-Semitism are facts of everyday life, as Lascano begins to investigate a seemingly routine murder. At the same time, he meets a young dissident, Eva, whose resemblance to his late wife is eerie, and he shelters her in his home. Soon Lascano, Eva, and Lascano's only friend, a forensic pathologist, are targets of the brutal regime. Journalist and playwright Mallo, himself once pursued by the junta, has written a polemical stunner. Opponents of the junta also used violence. They get a pass from Mallo, but the sense of brutal totalitarian oppression and fear in Buenos Aires under the generals is palpable and utterly compelling.' - Booklist
'NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK is set in Buenos Aires in the late 1970s and introduces Superintendent Lascano a widower, haunted by grief, whose only way of getting through life is doing his job and seeking justice wherever possible. All around he is surrounded by violence, from the military and the freedom fighters, for this is the time when scores of people were 'disappeared'.
A lorry driver reports two bodies on the side of the road but by the time Lascano gets to the scene there are three bodies. Two bodies are military kills and Lascano is not allowed to follow those murders up, but the third body is different. The victim was older and killed by a shot to the chest rather than to the head.
The story then goes back in time a few days and we learn about the characters and events that occur, which result in the victim that Lascano seeks justice for. The two time periods rejoin and Lascano finds it easy to solve the case but at what personal cost should he do so? His life has been further complicated when, during a raid of a brothel, he discovered a young freedom fighter who is the spitting image of his dead wife.
NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK is a dark, atmospheric tale of a good man trying to do his job in the middle of corruption - and I was reminded strongly of the Inspector De Luca series by Carlo Lucarelli which is set during 1945 in a politically unstable Italy. It's written in present tense and told from multiple points of view with unusually - all conversations written in italics with the speakers only separated by full stops rather than separate lines, which made me stumble over them a bit. The use of multiple narrators, does mean that you spend time in the heads of several unpleasant, sexist, racist and violent characters.
Conversation style aside, this was an easy, though bleak read with the second half of the book comprised of shorter chapters drawing the reader at pace to a very noir ending. NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK purports to be the first in a trilogy featuring Lascano and I do hope Bitter Lemon Press publish the next two.' - Euro Crime
'If I read a crime novel set in a foreign country, one of the things I expect is to get a sense that either the characters, the crime or the manner in which it's investigated is somehow or another unique to that country. In other words, I expect some local colour-not that I always get it, and my recent experience with the Polish crime novel Entanglement led me to have some high expectations.
This brings me to Needle in A Haystack from author Ernesto Mallo. Mallo, a writer and a journalist, according to the blurb on the front of my copy, was also a "former member of the anti-Junta guerilla movement. " I was curious, so encouraged by the fact that this is the first novel in a trilogy (and made into films), I decided to give the book a try.
I'll admit that with all the books and films I've watched about life under Argentina's murderous military regime, I've never wondered what it was like to be a policeman during this time. Needle in A Haystack argues that a successful career in law enforcement in Argentina of the 70s was based on the ability to look the other way and only investigate certain crimes. The book begins with Superintendent Lascano getting a call to pick up two stiffs. The bodies have been dumped in a site that's commonly used by the Junta's death squads for the disposal of victims. Lascano's job is to go there, pick up the bodies and deliver them to the morgue. There will be no investigation. But when Lascano arrives, there are three bodies. Two of the bodies bear the ear-marked signs of execution by the death squads, but the trauma to the body of the third corpse does not fit the pattern. Lascano begins an investigation.
The mysterious third body turns out to be portly Biterman, a wealthy Auschwitz survivor who's known to lend money. As the plot follows the investigation into Biterman's death, it's clear that Lascano's job is not easy. Under his eyes, crimes committed by the state regularly take place in broad daylight-people are hauled out of their homes & shot in the streets while their belongings are 'impounded'; others simply vanish without a trace, but in spite of the fact Lascano sees these things, he's powerless to act. It's hands off & look the other way.
Things heat up for Lascano when the investigation leads him to a man who has powerful friends, and the overriding question becomes whether or not Lascano should continue his investigation or back off. I'm not going to tell you what he decides to do, you can probably guess.
The novel is at its strongest in its depiction of the insanity of life in Argentina during the Dirty War. There are people trying to 'uphold the law' (but only certain laws) while others act in blatant defiance of those laws. While the Junta supposedly tracks down lefties and subversives, the reality is that anyone can be a victim of the Junta. Just piss off the wrong person or have something they want, and it's sayonara.
The novel is at its weakest in its sentimentality towards Lascano's personal life. He's a widower and during the course of the investigation he harbours Eva, a girl sought for her 'subversive' connections. This brings me to the subject of sex. It's a touchy area but when it comes to describing sex organs all sorts of terms pop up. Here we get Lascano's "sleeping sex " and at another point "his sex is triumphantly reborn and wants to fly. " This is bodice-ripper territory and created all sorts of strange images in my head-all of which were out-of-place with the rest of the novel. Another criticism is the long italicized passages. Sometimes these passages are thoughts and at other times these passages are exchanges between two characters. In the latter case, it's sometimes difficult to follow just who is saying what.
Nonetheless, there are some interesting characters here, including Amancio, scion of a once rich family who knows how to live well but who no longer has the means to do so:

"He feels nostalgic for the days of playing the white hunter, when he could happily blow a fortune on an African safari in the Okavango delta, for the lost splendour and indulgence of it all, because for some time now Amancio's finances have been spiralling out of control. He was never taught nor felt the need to learn how to earn money, only to spend it . He was an awful student guided by an indifferent father, from whom Amancio inherited the sense of a life already accounted for, nails growing long like those of a Chinese mandarin. Work was not meant for the likes of them. Their distant ancestors had made fortunes appropriating indian land in the wake of the desert campaign of General Roca. Back then, just as today, the army lived by a non-negotiable principle: that the good fight meant fighting for goods. The sacrifice, the massacre of one thousand Indians per day, wasn't considered excessive in return for securing a family's wealth for three or four generations. "
Amancio's big problem is, of course, that those 3 or 4 generations are over. Meanwhile, the family wealth has dissipated. He's left with little other than expensive tastes, a penchant for leisure and a high-maintenance wife who is primed to leave if things get too tough.
Another character subject to domestic troubles and the need to placate his wife is the incredibly evil Major Giribaldi-a man who arranges an adoption to his wife in order to shut her up. According to the military doctor who suggests adoption to Giribaldi (without raising the issue of stealing babies from pregnant women in detention centres), "adoption is the easiest thing in the world these days. " Giribaldi arranges to take a baby from a girl who, when she delivers, will become one of The Disappeared. Needle in a Haystack is a novel that delineates the atmosphere of a country sunk into madness-where illegal actions are perpetrated by those running the country state, and one scene in the Plaza de Mayo epitomizes the insanity.'

- His Futile Preoccupations
'It's the late 1970s and Argentina is governed by a military junta, casting a shadow of fear across the country. Amancio is a playboy from a rich, landed family, married to the beautiful Lara, who demands the finest things in life. Having exhausted his fortune he has taken to loaning money from various creditors, finally turning to the loan shark, Biterman, an Auschwitz survivor. When Biterman calls in the debt, Amancio decides to take matters into his own hands to save the family estate, turning to his friend, Major Giribaldi, who specialises in making people disappear. Superintendent Lascano is a homicide detective mourning his wife recently killed in a car accident. On a raid of a brothel he discovers Eva, a left-wing dissident, hiding from another kind of raid a few doors away. Eva is the spitting image of Lascano's dead wife and he takes her in, a strange bond forming between them. Despite the risk, Lascona seeks new papers for Eva, but then he discovers three dead bodies dumped on the roadside outside of the city. Two are clearly junta assassinations, but the third seems more opportunistic. It doesn't take long for Lascano to discover the truth, putting him on a dangerous collision course with the military authorities.

Needle in a Haystack is a noir crime novel blended with social/political observation. The story is not driven by a 'whodunnit' or 'howdunnit' narrative, as it is fairly clear from the start who killed the third body and why. Rather the hook is who will win out between Lascano and Giribaldi; whether justice will prevail. I'll avoid a spoiler, but needless to say the book has one of the best endings to a novel I've read so far this year. Throughout the characterisation and social relations are keenly portrayed and the prose is well crafted. The plot is relatively straightforward, but that doesn't detract from the reading experience. There were one or two things that didn't quite ring right, such as Biterman's backstory, but otherwise one felt immersed in the claustrophobic life of Buenos Aires in the late 1970s. Overall, an informative and entertaining slice of noir, lifted by a great ending.' - View from the Blue House
'Needle in a Haystack is set in the late 1970s during Argentina's "dirty war," when a military junta has seized power and the regime is constantly on the lookout for anyone opposed to its rule. Anyone the government considers subversive is picked up and is either killed, imprisoned, or simply disappears. As the book notes prior to the beginning of the novel, Ernesto Mallo was one of these "anti-Junta activists" who was "pursued by the dictatorship," so I realized right away this was going to be a readworthy novel: it is factually based from someone who actually lived through the terrors of the time. And I was not disappointed -- considering this is the first in a planned series, it's a definite winner.

As the story opens, detective Superintendent Lascano is assigned to look into a case of two bodies found on the riverside. When he arrives, he actually finds three bodies, two of which he immediately ascertains are the victims of the military death squads, leaving the mystery of what happened to the third. Eventually the body is identified as one Elias Biterman, a Jewish moneylender who survived Auschwitz and eventually arrived in Argentina, toughened by his life experiences. But this book is not really a mystery; the reader knows who Biterman's killer is -- the author explains who and why as he moves backward and forward through time up through the 1970s present. The death of Biterman and the who and the whys really serve as a vehicle to explore this time in Argentina's history. This is not to say that the book is not an intense novel of crime fiction, because it is -- but it's also much much more.

What really strikes me about this book is the characters and the well-evoked sense of place and time. Mallo has created an incredible conglomeration of people in this book whose stories come together to form the whole of this novel:
Lascano, whose wife recently died in a car accident, and who believes in justice and yet knows when to look the other way; Eva, a political dissident accustomed to danger who survives a raid only to be found and taken in by Lascano, who is taken aback by her resemblance to his dead wife; callous Giribaldi, a major in the army who believes in helping out his old friends yet at the same time won't let anyone or anything such as the law get in his way, creating his own justifications for getting rid of those who do; Amancio, who grew up rich, spent his childhood on the family's 20,000-acre ranch or on vacation in Europe, now living on his family's prestigious name but without a penny in his pocket as a result of a dwindling fortune and living the life of a playboy; Lara, his wife, who married into the family but is now looking for escape and more money no matter what it takes; the Biterman brothers -- Elias, the tough moneylender whose life has left him bitter toward the moneyed classes and Horacio, who grew up in Argentina and never really knew hardship.
And always running through the background of this novel, the author never lets the reader forget that a) it's difficult to know who to trust under these conditions, b) the power over life and death lies in the hands of the military, and c) anyone, at any time, can become a victim:

In the street below, the army has just set up one of its checkpoints. A jeep blocks the entrance to the street. Two soldiers with machine guns are positioned on each corner in the shadows. Three others have placed themselves a few feet further back and three more stop any car that happens by. The soldiers search the vehicle thoroughly, demand to see the identification papers of the passengers, split them up and bombard them with questions. The officers hunt for inconsistencies in their stories, for firearms, documents, evidence of something whatever. The slightest grounds for suspicion means being thrown in the back of a van and driven to one of many clandestine military prisons spread across the city, to undergo a deeper, more pressing interrogation....Time passes by, ...the streets are empty, the soldiers, trained for action, grow bored and distracted, until at last the approach of a car brings them to attention. They aim their guns at the heads of the civilians in the car, their trigger fingers twitching as they feel their own fear levels rise, fear being the food that nourishes the soldier.

Although the book is not lengthy, it is extremely compelling and one you won't soon forget. Mallo's writing is excellent and more to the point, realistic: he is able to communicate this brief episode in a horrible period of Argentine history succinctly yet powerfully. I'd recommend it to people interested in this time period, or readers of translated crime fiction or translated fiction in general.'
- Crime Segments
‘Crime fiction in translation is booming-and these two offerings from Argentina do not disappoint. Ernest Mallo takes the genre to subtle and complex heights in his dictatorship-era thriller, Needle in a Haystack. The leftist guerilla turned novelist has become a terse and accomplished storyteller, handling multiple perspectives and a ripping pace with ease. The story begins with Superintendent Lascano arriving at a crime scene to find three bodies. Only one of them, belonging to a moneylender and Auschwitz survivor, can he investigate as the other two, young people with their faces blown off, are clearly ‘disappearances' and therefore must be ignored. As the cover says, ‘no-one is innocent', and this moving and compelling novel shows just how that happens. But it also holds out the possibility of resisting evil, albeit in limited ways, and of the courageous, energizing power of love. First in a trilogy, it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. The next one cannot come too soon.' - New Internationalist
'Inspector Lascano lives in Buenos Aires in the 1970s, at the time of the military dictatorship. It was a terrible regime, first encountered by me in book form in Isabelle Allende's marvellous The House of the Spirits, and it seems to me, a person who is lucky enough not to have lived through this experience, that the times were so cruel that they must be impossible to write about directly and without allegory or magical allusions.
Ernesto Mallo disagrees; his detached novel is measured and very well plotted. He tells the story of Superintendent Lascano, a widower who cannot get over the death of his wife, living in an apartment still containing all her clothes and other reminders of her existence. His only friend is a pathologist, and the two men meet occasionally for a drink or meal.
The story is told from the perspectives of a half-dozen or so characters, but not chronologically, so it is satisfying and illuminating when another piece of the jigsaw falls into place. At its heart, the novel is a standard murder investigation. Lascano is sent out to look at the bodies of two young people who have been shot. When he gets to the location out of town where the victims have been abandoned, he finds that there are three bodies, not two. Because Lascano cannot investigate the case of the young man and woman, as the police are not allowed to interfere with the military's executions, he decides to look into the shooting of the other victim, an older man. The investigation carries on in parallel with our gradual discovery of how the crimes happened, and follows through to the aftermath and beyond.
As well as being cleverly plotted crime fiction , the book is a moving love story. By its refusal to opine and overtly denounce the terrible regime, but choosing instead to cooly report numerous "every day " atrocities that everyone has to live with, the novel achieves a powerful emotional impact. Several of the subsidiary characters really live on the page, and I enjoyed (in a grim kind of a way) finding out how their stories came to intersect. At the end, the author completely follows through on his theme, which means that unlike many examples of crime fiction there is a proper ending and a genuinely interesting potential for a future novel.
Ernesto Mallo, according to the biography provided in the book, is a former member of the anti-Junta guerrilla movement. He's an essayist, journalist and playwright. This novel is the first of a trilogy, originally written in 2005. I'm very much looking forward to reading the other two, if we are lucky enough for them to be translated into English.' - Petrona
'The process by which writers turn historical events into metaphors is a long one. Take September 11, 2001, the metaphorical viewing of which is still ongoing, almost a decade later. Or consider China's Tienanmen Square: even more than 20 years after the June events, the who, what, and why-including specific numbers of casualties-still is not widely known in China. For this process to be successful, you need to know the facts, and you need to know how to give them emotional pull. First, "the truth " is identified, and only then can novelists begin to explore the period or event, creating composite characters who, though ostensibly fictional, may be based on real individuals. This body of work goes beyond merely establishing facts to give the general public something a statement about contemporary society, a nuanced portrait of the "good guys " or "bad guys, " or even a political motive.
In Ernesto Mallo's novel Needle in a Haystack the trauma is Argentina's Dirty War, which began in 1976 when the Argentine military junta overthrew the presidency of Isabella Perón, which was inherited after the death of her husband, the demagogue Juan Perón. In the subsequent seven years, the military terrorized Argentines, and up to 30,000 students, social workers, writers, journalists, priests and others disappeared. Mallo's novel presents this experience through the guise of a detective story that opens with the hero, Lascano, a veteran Buenos Aires police detective, waking up as he is called to the scene of a double or triple murder.
We quickly learn that the two official victims, a young couple, are victims of the military torturers. But another body is discovered next to the two victims of the junta and it's this body, which officials refuse to acknowledge even exists, that drives the "whodunit " aspect of this novel. At risk of resorting to an overly used and almost cliche term, it's an existential murder investigation: Lascano is banned from investigating the deaths of the young couple, both shot at close range, since the military government operates within the pocket of the junta's generals; yet the third body that Lascano does investigate officially doesn't exist. It is into this precarious political minefield that Lascano treads, questioning charlatans, moneylenders, neighbors, carefully avoiding the official centers of power who will immediately cast his investigation into oblivion. Lascano is a archetype of a police detective that most readers are familiar with: a workaholic with a drinking problem whose wife's death still haunts and isolates him as he throws himself into his job.
Detective Lascano offers not only a glimpse of what daily life was like under the military junta in occupied Argentina but illustrates the terror that (predominantly) young leftists felt at this government-sponsored terrorism. Little is told from their point of view, Mallo instead opting to look through the eyes of the perpetrators, enablers, and a passive if not particularly zealous police detective. We see vivid examples of how the junta was only marginally motivated by ideological concerns, and this gets at the central motivation that Mallo may have in setting his novel during this period. Despite years of denials and justifications by those accused of crimes during the Dirty War that their actions were necessary to "save " Argentina from unsavory political ideologies (i.e., communism, socialism, the usual suspects, etc.), the novel demonstrates the highly individual and individualized motivations for those who kidnapped, tortured, and murdered with impunity.
The story is told from the point of view of half a dozen men -all complicit in some way in the crimes that are rocking the country-and one woman, Eve, a leftist guerrilla who has lost her faith, so to speak, isolated and held willingly captive in Lascano's apartment. Amancio, an upper class charlatan and violent thug, aims to please his overly sexualized and faithless wife. Giribaldo, a general in the junta, seems to be motivated to merely reach his frigid and emotionally unstable wife. Indeed, the relationships between men and women are a key motivating factor in the violence and victimhood of large swathes of the country. Detective Lascano's wife is dead, a saintly and ghostly presence, and when the detective discovers the leftist guerilla, Eve, hiding under a table after a bordello raid, he installs her into his life as a substitute for his dead wife. Other characters, too, including the murder victim, Biterman, illustrate not only the lack of conviction that many right wing paramilitarists felt in establishing their reign of terror but also how idiosyncratic their terror was.In a powerful scene at a tango club, Amancio and his wife (and her on-the-sly lover), are forced into an awkward reaction when the national anthem begins to play:
"The dancing suddenly stops and, as if by some collective Pavlovian reflex, everyone stands up. A solemn mood descends upon the entire crowd at the sound of the first chords of the national anthem. The military men stand to attention and flaunt their patriotism with their intense salutes…The patriotic homage ends with repeated pledges to die for the glory of the nation, juremos con gloria morir, and then there's a din of chairs being rearranged until the chaos of laughter and voices returns. "
This scene is reminiscent of the scene from the film Casablanca when the patrons at Rick's Cafe spontaneously erupt into La Marseillaise, yet the situation is ironically turned upside down since we witness things from the "invaders' " point of view; the patriotism takes on a bitter, bleak tone. Early on, we are made aware that Amancio is our killer (this is not as much a "whodunit " as a backwards analysis of how a crime happens and is covered up in a corrupt system of government). But everyone here is guilty in some way: the killer, the victim's brother who colludes with the killer, the military general who is anti-Semitic and casual in his approach to murder, and torture, even Lascano himself, who is less concerned with justice and more concerned with the internal drama convulsing his life and relationship with Eve. The shifting perspectives allow Mallo to have it both ways: both to get inside the heads of monsters but also to humanize and paint no one as wholly victim or victimizer.Mallo, who is a former leftist guerilla, seems to look back on the views of these groups with the wisdom of a man well past middle age:

"They were part of a youth movement violently indoctrinated by the words of the new prophets, like Che Guevara, who during their brief lives, appealed to them with pompous pronouncements: Let me tell you, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, that the true guerillero is guided by deep feelings of love. "

This irony, of course, saves Mallo's novel from being called reactionary or some belated right-wing justification of these events. His role as guerrilla insider makes the entire resistance to those responsible for the Dirty War seem almost a childish folly. Indeed, Eve, is morally ambiguous as she is not particularly passionate about her cause and willingly abandons it as circumstances force her to take refuge with Lascano.
Needle in a Haystack is the first of three books which feature Detective Lascano and represent his simultaneous take on Argentine history and politics while painting a harrowing story of murder and cover up. It is an auspicious start to what looks to be a strong trilogy. ' - Quarterly Conversation
'Set in Argentina during the time of the dictators; Superintendent Lascano has a difficult role to play. One wrong move and he could find himself on the wrong end of a bullet from his own masters.
Sent to investigate the discovery of two bodies, he finds three. Two are clearly politically motivated and have to be avoided, the third may be a different story. Carefully working his way through the political and social minefield that is Buenos Aires, Lascano discovers that the victim is an embittered moneylender and Auschwitz survivor.
Unfortunately, the hunt for the murderer leads into political arenas which Lascano would certainly prefer not to be investigating. The situation only gets worse when the situation begins to threaten Eva, a young militant, for whom Lascano has developed an affection. Mallo certainly knows the world about which he is writing, since he himself was a former militant sought by the dictators.
It is very detailed, very thorough and not a story which is relaxing or can be picked up and set down easily. You need a lot of concentration for this novel, and it is one which will appeal to anyone who enjoys stories with a political bent, as well as a hard, gritty environment. ' - Monsters and Critics
'NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK by Ernesto Mallo is set in Argentina in the 1970s. At that time a repressive military dictatorship controlled the country, using torture and murder to enforce its hold on the government. It was a time when thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, simply disappeared, the victims of the junta's death squads.
NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK is a chilling narrative that chronicles these dark times. The story's protagonist, Lascano, is a Buenos Aires police investigator . Lascano has an impossible job. Although he is a skilled detective, the scope of his investigations are severely limited. The junta murders its enemies with impunity, and those crimes go unreported. Lascano can only investigate crimes that clearly are not the work of the government. His dark mood is furthered by the loss of his wife, Marisa, who died in an auto accident months before the beginning of the narrative.
The story opens when Lascano, nicknamed Perro, is directed to the scene of a double homicide. When he arrives, there are three bodies, rather than two. The first two bodies, young people, their faces destroyed by gunfire, are clearly the work of the military. The third body, a middle-aged man, doesn't fit the mold of junta murders. With only a business card and a Polaroid photo, Lascano begins a dogged investigation.
From this part of the story, the narration moves in a nonlinear manner, regressing at times to provide back story, returning to the present to keep the story moving forward. And chapter-by-chapter the author employs a variety of narrators to extend his story: the Jewish moneylender, his foppish brother, a down-at-the-heels aristocrat, and a military commander who is beyond the reach of the law. Along the way Luscano becomes involved with and hides a young revolutionary who is a dead ringer for his late wife. By this action, he, too, becomes an enemy of the government.
Through most of the story there's little suspense. In the style of Greek tragedy, readers know the motive and identity of the killer. However, by giving these characters voice in their own narratives, Mallo shows the decadence and evil that existed in that society.
The end is unexpected, violent, and thematically in keeping with the rest of the story. It is a cautionary tale of how fear and hatred can be used to sweep away democratic institutions and impose a reign of terror.' - I Love a Mystery
'Crime novels know no boundaries, political or geographical. Case in point: Ernesto Mallo's NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK from Bitter Lemon Press. It's the first of three novels featuring Superintendent Lasacano, who works under the military rule of Buenos Aires in the mid-'70s. His job is a careful tightrope act, since most of his cases wind up being part of Junta death squads. NEEDLE opens with Lasacano coming across two dead bodies - one male, one female, both with multiple gunshot wounds. That's the modus operandi with these squads, where each member must shoot into the body so all can share in responsibility. But a third body of an older man with one gunshot to his stomach is what intrigues Lasacano, since it's apparently in no way connected to the other two. With the help of a pathologist, he investigates.
Lasacano's backstory is gut-wrenching, having lost his wife in a car accident. Ever since, he has never been the same, until he literally stumbles upon a dissident whose resemblance to his spouse gives him something to cling to. In fact, he takes her into his home and slowly falls in love with her. Mallo adds another layer to the story via a separate thread that will tie into the others, taking the reader back in time to show the victim earlier in his life as a Holocaust survivor. This is where the author introduces another character who is high in debt to loan sharks and where anti-Semitism is prevalent.
Some readers might be thrown by the unorthodox style of dialogue, as it's all rendered in italics, with no clear sense of who is saying what. Anyone who has read the works of someone like Cormac McCarthy will be able to adjust quite quickly. This a great introduction to an author I never would have come across if not for the help of publishers like Bitter Lemon, who have once again translated a gem. NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK also proves something else to which most American authors should take heed: The novel is less than 200 pages and tells a gripping story with not one word wasted. I wish more writers would stop trying to kill a forest with their 600-page monsters and trim things back.' - Bookgasm

'Crime novels know no boundaries, political or geographical. Case in point: Ernesto Mallo's NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK from Bitter Lemon Press. It's the first of three novels featuring Superintendent Lasacano, who works under the military rule of Buenos Aires in the mid-'70s. His job is a careful tightrope act, since most of his cases wind up being part of Junta death squads. NEEDLE opens with Lasacano coming across two dead bodies - one male, one female, both with multiple gunshot wounds. That's the modus operandi with these squads, where each member must shoot into the body so all can share in responsibility. But a third body of an older man with one gunshot to his stomach is what intrigues Lasacano, since it's apparently in no way connected to the other two. With the help of a pathologist, he investigates.
Lasacano's backstory is gut-wrenching, having lost his wife in a car accident. Ever since, he has never been the same, until he literally stumbles upon a dissident whose resemblance to his spouse gives him something to cling to. In fact, he takes her into his home and slowly falls in love with her. Mallo adds another layer to the story via a separate thread that will tie into the others, taking the reader back in time to show the victim earlier in his life as a Holocaust survivor. This is where the author introduces another character who is high in debt to loan sharks and where anti-Semitism is prevalent.
Some readers might be thrown by the unorthodox style of dialogue, as it's all rendered in italics, with no clear sense of who is saying what. Anyone who has read the works of someone like Cormac McCarthy will be able to adjust quite quickly. This a great introduction to an author I never would have come across if not for the help of publishers like Bitter Lemon, who have once again translated a gem. NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK also proves something else to which most American authors should take heed: The novel is less than 200 pages and tells a gripping story with not one word wasted. I wish more writers would stop trying to kill a forest with their 600-page monsters and trim things back.'

- Bookgasm
'In 1979 Buenos Aires, under duress by a military dictatorship, Superintendent Lascono investigates the dumping of three bodies on the side of a road. Two of the corpses show evidence of an army hit, but the third is identified as a Holocaust survivor and money lender. VERDICT Written by a former member of the anti-junta guerilla movement, this bleak crime novel depicts an oppressed country where depression rules everyday life. For readers who like their international mysteries very dark.' - Library Journal
'Ernesto Mallo's Needle in a Haystack (translated by Jethro Soutar and published by Bitter Lemon Press) uses unconventional means to tell a difficult story. There are two threads to the tale, one beginning with Detective "Perro" Lascano, who is dispatched to a site where two bodies have been discovered, and finds instead that there are three bodies, showing evidence of two different crimes. One of the crimes is political (this is the era of the "disappeared" and the dirty war, with the military freely attacking dissidents in the interests of power and ideological purity). The political crimes can, of course, not be investigated. but Perro takes the third body as a personal project, along with his friend the medical examiner. Along the way, he also discovers a young radical woman on the run who resembles his deceased wife, and who disrupts his comfortable but empty life. The other thread deals with Amancio, a privileged but feckless young man who can't support his lifestyle or that of his wife and has resorted to money-lenders (giving rise to a good deal of anti-Semitism, since the loan shark is a Holocaust survivor). Amancio has recourse to a school friend who is now an Army officer as well as to the loan shark's greedy younger brother as he digs himself further into debt and approaches financial and social ruin. Along the way, many aspects of 1970s Argentina are explored, including the expropriation of the children of the disappeared and the moral justifications indulged in by the power structure for this and other atrocities. There is a time gap between the two alternating sections of the tale that narrows toward the end, when the stories collide. Building up to that point, the novel seems less like a crime novel than a philosophical tale, but the investigation and the crimes reach a fever pitch in the last half of the book. The unconventional structure of the dialogue (sections of italic text with no indication of who is speaking, or where one speaker stops and another starts) are a little distracting at first, but go with the flow and you'll quickly adjust to the technique and have no trouble telling once voice from another. There are numerous literary references (to Joyce, Borges, etc.) but they don't distract from the forward motion of the narrative. Needle in a Haystack deals with difficult material but never bogs down into tendentious hectoring. Mallo was himself a member of a revolutionary movement, but his narrator carefully maintains a focus on each of the characters without tilting the bias toward the revolutionaries, the military, or those who are simply coping as best they can with the situation. This vivid and humane novel is the first of a series (though at the end you will wonder how Mallo manages to do a sequel), and also the basis of some movies. I find myself anxiously awaiting translation of the sequels (much as I was anxious for the subsequent volumes of the very different De Luca series by Carlo Lucarelli).' - International Noir Fiction
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