TIMES Book of the Month: The Foreign Girls by Sergio Olguin (trans Miranda France)
"Following the traumatic events of the novel that first introduced her, The Fragility of Bodies, the Argentine investigative journalist Veronica Rosenthal takes off upcountry for a holiday. She falls in with two European girls and finds herself seduced by one of them. But at a party to which she brings the pair, they disappear and are later found murdered.
A black magic ritual is blamed. However, Veronica begins to uncover previous killings of local women dating back decades which have gone unpunished, as all the while she is dogged by an assassin bent on revenge. With its social concerns, The Foreign Girls is very much a literary novel rather than simply a thriller. It largely overcomes the difficulties of being translated from another language but is often more slow-burning tango than brisk paso doble.
Yet the benefits of Sergio Olguin taking time to establish place and character pay off as Veronica faces down men used to taking what they want. The realities of life in Latin America offer little escapism perhaps, but in the gutsy, raunchy Veronica they have a contemporary heroine to cherish." The Times
FT Best New Crime Thrillers:
Sergio Olguín’s latest gripping tale, plus mortality and murder
"Much as I love the thriller genre, I admit that its writers all too often conjure up archetypal protagonists: male, physically tough, cops or spies who are fast with their fists and ready to fight their way out of danger. So I especially welcome two new books among this month’s selection that feature engaging, tenacious heroines: one set in Argentina, the other in Ghana. Veronica Rosenthal is a sexually adventurous, Argentinian Jewish investigative journalist. In Sergio Olguín’s The Foreign Girls (Bitter Lemon Press £8.99), Veronica is on holiday in an isolated cottage in Tucuman, northern Argentina, recovering from the traumatic events portrayed in The Fragility of Bodies, the first volume in the series. While there, she befriends Frida and Petra, Norwegian and Italian tourists. They hang out, sunbathe, eat and drink — and one evening Frida seduces Veronica. The trio attend a party, where Veronica decides to leave and travel on alone; several days later she learns that Frida and Petra have been found murdered. Determined to find the truth of their fate — and that of other murdered girls — Veronica is quickly drawn into a dangerous conspiracy reaching into the heart of the country’s corrupt, ultra-conservative establishment. Meanwhile, the dark forces Veronica battled and defeated in the earlier novel are regrouping — and a hitman is on her trail. The narrative meanders occasionally but overall Olguín, an acclaimed Argentinian novelist, delivers a layered, gripping story, finely translated by Miranda France." Financial Times
STARRED REVIEW. “Olguín’s stunning sequel to 2019’s The Fragility of Bodies finds Buenos Aires reporter Verónica Rosenthal vacationing in the province of Tucumán, where she ends up traveling with two young women she meets from abroad, Italian Petra and Norwegian Frida. At one point, the three attend a party they’re invited to in a small town. Verónica leaves the party with an attractive man without telling her new friends, and decides to resume traveling on her own. Days later, she learns that Petra and Frida have been raped and murdered, and resolves to find their killers. Meanwhile, a hit man is threatening Verónica, and Federico Córdova, her powerful lawyer father’s protégé, arrives in Tucumán to protect her. Federico also rescues some local officials from arrest in a drug-smuggling case, which Verónica later ties to Petra and Frida’s murders. The clash between Federico’s doomed desire for a romantic relationship with Verónica and her quest for revenge adds emotional tension. Olguín exposes copious examples of moral bankruptcy en route to the devastating ending. Readers will eagerly anticipate the third and final volume.“ Publishers Weekly
“A quirky, un-put-down-able thriller by a veteran Argentine novelist. Investigating the rape and murder of two European women she met on vacation in northern Argentina, intrepid Buenos Aires magazine reporter Verónica Rosenthal is marked for death—twice.
Vero had plans of traveling with Frida, a Norwegian, and Petra, an Italian, before the women's bodies were found on the side of the road in Tucumán. Now she's in shock, having slept with Frida in her first romantic encounter with a woman. Determined to find the killers and overturn "the social impunity that sees these crimes as a fact of life, accepted by everyone," Vero puts her life at risk by going after them on her own—in spite of the insistence of her father, an eminent attorney, that she return to Buenos Aires. Corrupt forces on both sides of the law are unhappy with her connecting the slayings of Frida and Petra to an unsolved rape and murder from years ago. And if being stalked by their hit man weren't enough, she also is being pursued by an escaped convict who landed in prison in the series debut, The Fragility of Bodies (2019), after barely surviving her bizarre vehicular attack on him and four fellow assassins who died in the attack. Even facing death in two thrilling climaxes, Verónica won't be stopped. A socially minded avenger with a streak of Dexter in her, a sexual free spirit and a die-hard romantic, she is unlike any female protagonist in today's crime fiction. And with his easy conversational approach to the darkest noir, Olguín is a real original as well.” Kirkus Reviews
“ ONLINE, YOU CAN FIND a movie trailer for All About Eve (1950), the classic film about Eve Harrington, an aspiring actress who takes advantage of aging Broadway star Margo Channing for the sake of her own career. In the trailer, Bette Davis, who plays Margo, sits with Newsweek reporter Leonard Slater to talk about the film and its title character, played by Ann Baxter. Amid a cloud of cigarette smoke, Davis describes Eve as “the Golden Girl, […] the Cover Girl, the Girl Next Door, the Girl on the Moon. […] She’s the profiled, covered, revealed, reported. What she eats and what she wears and whom she knows and where she was, and when and where she’s going.” And then with feigned hesitation, Davis continues to describe Eve as someone of “insatiable ambition and talent,” as “an improbable person” with “a contempt for humanity.”
It’s an interesting choice that Sergio Olguín would mention the film in his novel The Foreign Girls, the second book in his Verónica Rosenthal crime series, skillfully translated by Miranda France. And perhaps there is a hazard in reading too much into it; he quickly describes the movie as “that classic story of ambition and treachery,” in a scene where Verónica, a journalist, is taking some much-needed R-and-R at her cousin’s house in the Argentinian countryside. It’s been nearly a year since she published an explosive magazine piece about a group of boys exploited to play a game of chicken with local passenger trains in an elaborate gambling scheme. After having her life threatened, her trusted informant nearly killed, and her lover murdered during the investigation, Verónica has finally stopped feeling “like a patient in a coma.” When Verónica watches the DVD, she thinks of Davis as the “most wonderful actress ever to appear on screen.”
Where The Fragility of Bodies, the first book in the series, portrays a stark world of poverty, corruptible politicians, and crime, The Foreign Girls presents something more existential: being a woman in a world of men. The novel mulls less over specifics — gender imbalance in the workplace, sexist relationships — than over the larger reality that a woman’s body is often not her own — in life or death. Verónica may be a trenchant journalist and freelance lover, but the threat of her demise (and every other woman’s) looms like a cloud, ever-present. “I always say that the first colony was a woman’s body,” says cultural anthropologist Rita Segato in an interview excerpted in the book’s epigraph. And this is certainly a point that is made with the book’s central crime: the rape and murder of two young women.
Verónica arrives in Cerro San Javier with modest expectations to relax. She’ll find the relative of her cousin-in-law, get laid, and maybe just “spend the rest of her life in the little town.” Verónica takes great care to maintain her independence and career, so this willingness for a provincial life is telling of the harsh toll the article took on her. She’s a bourbon drinker and prefers a one-night stand to a relationship, but she’s changed; Olguín writes Verónica with a little less fury than in his previous book. He observes, “If someone had told her then that at the age of thirty she would take down a criminal gang that gambled on the lives of poor children, she would have been proud. That was exactly the kind of journalism she wanted to do. And she had done it.”
What she gets on her sojourn is better than expected. After a few nights on her own, Verónica ventures into town for a drink, where she meets the beautiful Italian, Petra, and the equally pretty Norwegian, Frida. “It was their voices I noticed first,” Verónica writes in an email to her friend Paula in the series of letters that start off the novel. While the men in the bar leer, the girls raise a glass to “all the idiot men who have ruined our lives.” They’re all hoping to take a break from the opposite sex — unless an opportunity presents itself (they are still young, of course). And on this salient fact, they bond. Verónica invites the girls back to the house, where they spend the next few days together poolside, lingering over meals, drinking, and letting the world fade from mind. It’s exactly what Verónica needed. Admiring her new friends in their bikinis, she considers that her situation would be worse off if she were with two guys. “She wouldn’t be able to feel relaxed or comfortable, not even about the fantasy of hooking up with them both,” Olguín writes. “They were all there having a good time. Period. There was no need to worry about anything else.”
After a week of lounging, Verónica is ready to move on. She persuades the girls to leave the house and make the trip to Yacanto del Valle, where they meet the handsome Ramiro, a relative of Verónica’s cousin-in-law. He’s charming, “ask[s] all the right questions,” and does well for himself, selling art to wealthy tourists from Buenos Aires. Later, the girls join him at a party at an estate filled with art, expensive cars, and a lot more men than women. “I don’t like that guy at all,” Frida tells Verónica while they’re waiting to get a drink. “And I love men. Some of them. But this Ramiro is bad news.” Verónica protests and tells Frida that she’s going to stay.
“I thought you were sharper than that,” Frida says.
It’s the last time they speak.
The novel’s first hundred pages are slow, as Olguín tends to linger in scenes with long conversations about art, observations on objects in a room, and background descriptions that maintain varying degrees of interest. As a screenwriter, he may be making his job easier for the TV series (The Fragility of Bodies is an eight-episode miniseries in Argentina), including as much as he can for the director and writers. Despite what may be extraneous details for some readers, the first quarter of the book is an opportunity to become as intimate with Petra and Frida as Verónica is — we know them as well as she does, and in this sense their humanity, for the sake of the story, is intact. There is nothing else to be said of them that they haven’t already shown us, or that Verónica hasn’t described in her letters to Paula. Verónica speaks for the girls, and in this sense Olguín makes a move to give Petra and Frida substance, to make them the subject rather than the object. Here, he avoids the “dead girl complex” so many crime stories hang their hats on from the first page. On this idea, poet Zefyr Lisowski writes in her essay “On the Endless Parade of Literary Dead Girls”: “A dead girl, it bears saying, is also a way of neutralizing women, reducing their femaleness and turning them into an empty body. It’s a questioning of subjecthood that becomes an imposition.”
Olguín’s approach unravels more deaths, more violence against women, and in doing so, he makes the story about Petra and Frida and the other victims — not their murderers. The book’s awareness of its responsibility comes in a scene between Verónica’s editor, Patricia, and a rival reporter, Alex. Patricia says about the girls: “So far we’ve got nothing. There are all kinds of theories, ranging from that they were at an orgy and overdid the drugs to that they were two girls investigating modern slavery on large estates.”
“I’m more persuaded by the first theory,” Alex says dismissively. Patricia gives him the cold shoulder and tells him to do his job. Alex goes back to the beat, “[having] to go and investigate the murder of two foreign girls.” Although he never knew the women in life, they’re a blow to his professional ego in death. “Send Kloster or whoever you’ve got on coffee duty this week,” Alex tells the editor, explaining that he’s on the “cover story.” What Olguín makes clear (if he hadn’t already) is that dead girls are commonplace, or not consequential enough for the front of a magazine.
When she learns of the murders, Verónica returns to town in full journalistic mode, working the angles where the police have failed, where the people involved lie, and where things seem too dangerous to get to the truth. During her investigation, she discovers a pattern of rapes and murders spanning decades. “Do you know what the most dangerous road a woman has to cross is?” Verónica asks Patricia during her pitch for a new story. “Impunity,” she says, “the social impunity that sees these crimes as a fact of life, accepted by everyone.” It’s not that people don’t believe these things happen, it’s that they just don’t care.
The novel further fleshes out Verónica’s father, Aarón, a successful lawyer, and Federico, a family friend (and lawyer) whose relationship with Verónica is described as “more like siblings than friends.” Federico acts as Verónica’s protector, staving off a killer hell-bent on getting revenge, all the while working behind the scenes to maintain the sanctity of Aarón’s clients. This is a far cry from their relationship in The Fragility of Bodies, where Verónica operates almost completely on her own. This shift is appealing from a narrative perspective in that the experience of reading two people interact is more entertaining than a one-woman or one-man show. Their relationship is charming and flirtatious, but where Federico is used to best effect is acting as the balance between what’s right for the firm and what’s just, simply, right. And then there are a myriad of subplots: jailed criminals working from the inside; the crime boss, Doctor Zero; a corrupt congressman; a narco police case; the petty differences between rich families.
Men in The Foreign Girls maintain the attitude that Bette Davis describes in the trailer for All About Eve: that women are to be looked at. Their ambition, a threat. After the party, Ramiro asks Verónica what the deal was with Frida. “She seemed a bit unfriendly,” he says, “Whereas Petra’s really nice.” He’s taken offense to Frida’s being, and it’s a subtle, ominous start to the book. The majority of The Foreign Girls is concerned with Verónica’s getting back into gear, unraveling the story. But by the novel’s end, Olguín has presented a world where men, not women, are often not what they seem. When the Newsweek reporter asks Davis about Eve’s ability to manipulate, Davis smiles and asks, rhetorically: “How does any Eve do it?”
The question in the novel isn’t so much about Eve — a stand-in for ambitious women — as it is about men. How do they always get what they want? How do they do it? And what Olguín and Verónica find is that men watch and stay silent: never hearing, never caring for what the girls really have to say.” Los Angeles Review of Books
“Investigative journalist Veronica Rosenthal in on holiday in Tucuman when she meets the foreign girls of the title, Frida and Petra. A chance encounter in a bar leads to Veronica inviting the backpackers to stay with in her holiday villa. Frida is Norwegian, Petra is Spanish, and they are in their early 20s, about a decade younger than Veronica. Veronica, a journalist from Buenos Aries, has been staying at her cousin Severo’s holiday home. Severo is a provincial lawyer and is keen to join the successful Rosenthal legal firm, headed up by Veronica’s father, Aaron.
Veronica is on holiday to recover from the events Sergio Olguin put her through in his previous novel, The Fragility of Bodies. She broke apart a criminal conspiracy in which affluent men bet on the lives of poor children, placing herself and those around her in mortal danger. What she hopes for from her holiday are a restful break, some sunshine and a passionate affair with a rich, gallery owner and a friend of the family named Ramiro. She is surprised, and a little shaken, to find herself attracted to Frida, but it is as much the fact that Veronica does all the chasing, rather than the sapphic nature of the liaison, which disturbs her. In her sexual relationships, Veronica is used to being the quarry rather than the hunter.
The women move on to a holiday resort called Yacanto del Valle. There, Ramiro takes the three women to a party on a large estate owned by a family with ties to Aaron. The men at the party are older, boorish and persistent, making the younger women uncomfortable, but Veronica decides to leave Frida and Petra there, and spends the night with Ramiro. The next morning she checks out of the hotel they’d been staying at, and sets off alone to the next stop on her itinerary, Cafayate.
At the conclusion of Veronica’s investigation in The Fragility of Bodies, she killed a team of hitmen by crashing her car in to them. Only one survived, Danilo Peratta, alias 3, and he has broken out of prison intent on revenge. Frederico, a lawyer employed in Aaron’s firm, fell in love with Veronica when they first met, despite – or perhaps because of – her rejecting him. Either way, he has taken it on himself to be her guardian angel. Frederico has been informed of 3’s escape, and both men are making their way to Yacanto to find her. Also in the area is a journalist sent from Veronica’s newspaper. One branch of the local police have intercepted a car carrying cocaine. One of the passengers was a Bolivian smuggler, his passengers were two members of another branch of the Tucuman police. The discovery of corruption, and a turf war between different sections of the police is big news.
Veronica returns to Yacanto after Ramiro calls her to say Frida and Petra have been murdered. No one admits to seeing them leaving the party, and their bodies have been found outside the estate. They never returned to their hotel. Both women were raped before being murdered. It is at this point, perhaps a third of the way in to the novel, that The Foreign Girls becomes more recognisably crime fiction. Veronica begins her own investigation, fuelled by her anger of her friend’s suffering, an anger that only grows as more obstacles are placed in her way. Thematically, Olguin explores the violence perpetrated on women by men, and more broadly the way women are treated as powerless, second-class citizens in Argentinian society.
The Foreign Girls may have originally been published in Argentina in 2014, but English speakers shouldn’t expect an exotic or unusual reading experience. Victoria and her family travel in privileged circles, and Olguin isn’t interested in exploring cultural or economic issues. The first half of the novel has a sensual feel to it, and sex is ever present, either being talked or thought about, or being experienced. With the discovery of the bodies and Victoria’s return to Yacanto, the novel is experienced as a mystery thriller, though one that is rich in theme and character.
Just like its predecessor, The Foreign Girls is an excellent thriller, with a fully-developed, wholly engaging protagonist.’ CrimeFictionLover
“In its initial fifty pages the novel ‘The Foreign Girls’ creates an Argentinean alternative to the Mexican road movie ‘Y Tu Mamá También’ except the tryst this time consists of three women. As in the movie, we meet three characters enjoying their emancipated freedom and indulging in some explicit sex. Male author Sergio Olguín writes about lesbian lovemaking with confidence. What that says about his capacity for research I would not know. Murders, though, soon interrupt the fun, and readers are taken inside a complex and hefty crime novel. Veronica Rosenthal is the investigative journalist and the independent minded hero of the book. This is a return appearance for Veronica. Her debut was in a novel called ‘The Fragility of Bodies’. Author Sergio Olguín has written several successful novels and is also a scriptwriter. Despite the busy schedule of Olguin the hero Veronica is likely to return. There will be a demand.
There is much in ‘The Foreign Girls’ to appeal to fans of crime fiction. The plot is sturdy, and the unusual structure permits both in-depth characterisation and detailed descriptions of Argentinean society. The detail is not sparse and sometimes excessive but is justified. These are people whose lives are defined by what they buy and consume. The dialogue in ‘The Foreign Girls’ can also be mechanical but the characters, the plot, surprises and bold tricks ensure that the book is a page turner. The vicious murders are condemned, as are the corrupt and powerful that have no real interest in justice. All, including Veronica, though, are shaped by living in a society that has a dark past that persists through unacknowledged secrets and guilt. Inevitably, the murder and rape of two women overlaps into the previous excesses of authority. Apart from the vicious murderers all the characters are given understanding rather than sympathy. Yet within a brutal tale there is still scope for the poignant story of Melchi, a young maid with no prospects. And we do root for Veronica.
How ordinary lives run parallel to the machinations of the powerful is a feature of both Argentinean literary fiction and cinema. ‘The Foreign Girls’ is no exception and it has the same concerns. For once, though, the events do not take place in Buenos Aires. The plot and the female hero move between San Miguel de Tucaman, the state capital of the Tucaman province, and the small towns in the north east of Argentina. Throughout the book Veronica mixes business with relaxation but what we realise is that the heavy hand of the powerful intrudes even in what should be simple pleasures. In view of its history no one can claim innocence in Argentina. And amongst those with ambitions for a quiet life surprising characters become obliged to carry arms.
For those with an interest in Argentina, ‘The Foreign Girls’ is an essential read. I am a little biased because I have travelled the geographical route that Veronica explores. ‘The Foreign Girls’ not only brought back memories, it felt authentic. All that and a decent mystery was too hard to resist.” Red Rattle Publishing
“Veronica Rosenthal, a young journalist, decides to get away from it all, touring scenic northern Argentina. While relaxing off the beaten path, she encounters two foreign tourists. One girl from Italy, the other from Scandinavia. The trio become fast friends, deciding to travel together, spending time at the country house of Veronica’s cousin. But when Victoria’s travel companions become targets of the locals, she becomes determined to uncover the truth of their fate. Olguin creates a wonderful, complex mystery while exploring political and social issues of the region. Veronica is a brilliantly complex character whose tenacity keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end. The story is well-paced. The vivid descriptions of the setting places the reader right at the center of northern Argentina. The translation was well-edited and flowed easily.” Heidi Slowinsky blog