Book Review: The Night Watchman

Richard Zimler
Corsair €11.50 
Review: Alannah Hopkin 

This is Richard Zimler’s first attempt at a crime novel, set in the present.

Chief Inspector Henrique Monroe of the Lisbon Police Department tells the story — the seen-it-all-before tough veneer of the senior cop hiding his sensitive, compassionate side. Monroe is an oddity. Born in Colorado on a remote ranch to a Porutugese mother and an American father, his command of the Portuguese language tends to falter when he is under pressure, as does his sense of identity. He is known for highly eccentric behaviour at the crime scene, but he also has a reputation for brilliant crime solving: he is quite simply the best.

His day starts badly, with the suicide of a murder suspect who ingests cyanide during Monroe’s temporary absence from the interview room.

Henrique and his rookie colleague Luci Pires are assigned to the gruesome murder of a wealthy, well-connected Portuguese businessman, Pedro Coutinho, in his own home. They are warned by their boss to do everything by the book and to make sure there are no leaks to the press. It seems the prime minister himself is taking an interest in the case.

When Coutinho’s wife and daughter arrive on the scene Monroe immediately recognises the troubled teenage daughter as a potential abuse victim.

The suspicion of child abuse takes Monroe back to his childhood, when he was the sole defender of his younger brother Ernie against their abusive father. It seems that when under pressure, Monroe’s identity is taken over for short periods of time by a double, a presence that he calls Gabriel, leaving him with a mental blank, but helpful new clues written in ink on the palm of his hand.

The story fairly gallops along, with an impressive quota of red herrings and twists so clever that not even Sherlock Holmes could have predicted them.

Richard Zimler is an American who has lived and worked in Portugal since 1990. His first novel, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, showed his mastery of complex religious and historical themes as well as his ability to tell a good story in sparkling, elegant prose. His ten novels have been widely translated, and won numerous awards, with three being long-listed for the Dublin Impac Award.

Known for his scholarly interest in mysticism, this is the first time that Zimler has attempted a crime novel, set in the present day. True to form, it is meticulously researched especially in its psychological insights into both the perpetrators and victims of child abuse. It has been at the top of the Portuguese best-seller list for over six months, and its portrait of a corrupt society, morally and financially bankrupt, with high unemployment and 69 per cent of graduates emigrating is all too familiar.

The failure of Monroe’s efforts to bring the guilty to justice convince him he will be more effective working outside the police system as a private investigator. It seems likely that we can look forward to reading more of Monroe’s adventures in a sequel.

It will be a pleasure.

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