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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Needle in a Haystack

Ernesto Mallo

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To purchase Needle in a Haystack

Title: Needle in a Haystack
Author: Ernesto Mallo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 190 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Needle in a Haystack - US
La aguja en el pajar - US
Needle in a Haystack - UK
Needle in a Haystack - Canada
Needle in a Haystack - India
L'aiguille dans la botte de foin - France
Der Tote von der Plaza Once - Deutschland
La aguja en el pajar - España
  • Spanish title: La aguja en el pajar
  • Also published in Spanish as: Crimen en el Barrio del Once
  • Translated by Jethro Soutar

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Our Assessment:

B+ : bleak, and that vision and good pacing overcomes most of its weaknesses

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 12/6/2010 Laura Wilson

  From the Reviews:
  • "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." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Set in Argentina just as: "The galloping inflation unleashed upon 1979 infects everyone", Needle in a Haystack is a novel of the country at its ugliest. The central figure is the police detective Lascano, called to the scene where two dumped bodies have been sighted. The problem is that when he arrives there, there's a third corpse. Two of the dead don't pose much of a problem: their faces were blown away by the repeated shots that mark them as the kind of hit-squad killing which the police have no business investigating (because it's a branch of the government itself that is responsible), but the third is something else. An old man, clearly shot elsewhere -- and only once -- and then dumped here.
       Lascano is a decent guy and honest cop, and he does his job here, investigating the one murder he can investigate -- even as he is eventually reminded: "With so many corpses everywhere, why worry about one more ?" That that won't go well is pretty clear from the start: it seems that every time Lascano looks up the authorities are rounding up people, many of whom will be made to disappear -- and then there's the fact that body was dumped along with these two people who were officially rubbed out: even Lascano has to realize that can't be entirely a coincidence.
       Complicating matters for Lascano is that he stumbles across a young subversive, Eva, who is the spitting image of his dead (and much-missed) wife. Rather than hand her over to the authorities who would torture and likely dispose of her, he takes her home and lets her stay there. She doesn't quite know what to make of the taciturn cop, and suspects he, too, wants something from her, but having no other real options she stays with him.
       Other chapters focus on other characters, including Elías Biterman, the third murder victim, as the events leading up to his murder (and then the attempted cover-up and aftermath) are described. Elías knows how ruthless people can be, having endured the worst sorts of betrayals and surviving even Auschwitz. When he made it to Buenos Aires after World War II he devoted himself solely to his work and became a successful financier -- meaning also: moneylender. He grudgingly gave his no-good brother, the dandy Horacio, a job, but Horacio likes the good life and has his own ambitions. One of the things Horacio did was introduce one of the characters whose lifestyle he'd like to emulate, the more well-heeled dandy Amancio, to his brother, and Elías loaned him -- well-secured -- some money. Amancio is as much a ne'er do well as Horacio, and his house of cards set to collapse if Elías calls in his loans. This, of course, makes Amancio desperate .....
       There's also Major Giribaldi, a military man for these times, who is involved in much that goes on here (and who has to deal with his wife's unexpected reaction to his having finally provided her with their own child, in yet another turn of events typical of the darkness of these times).
       If bits are unlikely -- Eva's resemblance to Lascano's wife, and then the relationship that develops between them -- and history summarily-hurriedly filled in (especially Elías' long and tortured road to success), Mallo still manages to weave these various stories together well, the cuts back and forth between characters -- and in time -- very effective. Lascano does not have to dig very deep (or push very hard) for the pieces to fall into place, but in these times where official wrong-doing is something everyone tries their hardest to turn a blind eye to seeing the big picture -- and figuring out who is involved -- is not always the best idea. Official might -- in the figure of Major Giribaldi here -- is almost absolute, so there's little chance of getting complete justice; even so, Giribaldi's answer for everything seems extreme even for this dark period of Argentine history.
       Even an almost conventional murder -- not an 'innocent' one, but a nearly banal and everyday one -- is subsumed and transformed by the cancerous dark forces that dominated Argentine life of that period (and were always quick to end anyone's that might get in their way), claiming, unnecessarily, many more victims, making for a conclusion that is almost too unbearably bleak -- but Mallo pulls back at the very last minute (when pretty much all has been lost) and manages to avoid that trap by offering just the slightest bits of hope for the future.
       With some hard to credit coincidences, narrow escapes, and unlikely occurrences, Needle in a Haystack is certainly flawed, but the pacing and honest Lascano's quiet determination make for a solid thriller of very ugly times.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 December 2010

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Needle in a Haystack: Reviews: Other books by Ernesto Mallo under review: Ernesto Mallo: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Ernesto Mallo was born in 1948.

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