At certain times during the day in Barcelona, Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral, the Sagrada Família, blocks out the sun to the streets below. But in post World War II Barcelona, it was dictator Francisco Franco and his repressive regime that loomed large, choking off the city.

In Sara Moliner’s exceptional debut mystery, “The Whispering City” (set in Barcelona in 1952), the “trams run late,” the clouds hang heavy, the press is censored, the police are corrupt, the “utmost discretion” means “do nothing at all,” and women are at their most acceptable as wives, whores or window dressing.

When an “heiress to an old Catalan lineage” is murdered, it’s crucial for Franco’s regime to “show the world” that Spain “pursues its criminals and punishes them efficiently.” Barcelona’s newspaper, La Vanguardia, is handed the story.

The ghostwriter for the society pages, Ana Marti Noguer, is told to shadow the detective in charge of the investigation, a man who believes humans are criminal by nature.

Expectations for Ana are low and she knows it. But knowing and accepting are quite different things. Not surprisingly, Ana sees the crime from a different perspective than the official narrative.

She enlists the help of her cousin Beatriz, a blacklisted academic forced into exile during the Spanish Civil War who remains banished from university teaching because she’s considered a “subversive element.”

Together the two women investigate, uncovering a conspiracy at the highest level and a friendship at the truest one.

I loved all the female characters and their interactions in this novel, but I especially adored Beatriz’s gumption and grit. From Dante to Shakespeare, literature is peppered with Beatrices, and, for the most part, they are outspoken, fearless and more than a little bitter about their circumstances. This Beatriz is no exception.

At one point in the story, Beatriz is walking alone on the Rambla de Cataluna. Couples pass her carrying “little parcels” from local bakeries, supporting the “cardboard tray with one hand while a finger of the other went through a string” on the wrapping. While Beatriz shoves her hands in her jacket pockets.

Moliner is a pseudonym for a Spanish and German female writing duo. Their attention to details that display character coupled with the crushing historical setting make this one of the most distinctive and atmospheric mysteries I’ve read this year.

 

Carole E. Barrowman teaches English at Alverno College and reviews widely. “The Book of Beasts,” the third book in her Hollow Earth trilogy, was published in October.