Cabaret Biarritz is José C. Vales’ second novel and received the 2015 Nadal Award for Best Novel. It is a whodunit in the Wilkie Collins tradition of casebook novels, using an intricate framing device: it is supposedly a collection of the “Biarritz interviews,” made by a fictional writer called Georges Miet and translated into Spanish by an equally fictitious Eliazer Marcos Inxausti, who also provides abundant footnotes.
This framing device permits the author to tell the story in the voices and from the points of view of witnesses and participants in it, while at the same time the footnotes offer distance and humor. It also allows the reader to draw her/his own conclusions—like when a provincial bureaucrat mindlessly recites the list of possessions found in the room of a defunct person, and we realize before he does (well, he never does) that certain books and certain items of clothing indicate that the departed was not exactly what she seemed to be.
The novel also attempts to recreate life in turn-of the-century Biarritz at the end of the Belle Époque, a pleasure resort full of cabarets, bordellos, and underground casinos. To this effect, Vales even takes pains to imitate the turgid prose of the writers of this period and their obsession with female flesh.
All of this makes Cabaret Biarritz an attractive experiment for the reader. For starters, the novel revolves around the discovery of a dead body, that of a bookstore delivery girl called Aitzane Palefroi. She is found days after her death, in the water, naked and with her face eaten away by the fishes; nevertheless, everyone seems to know from the very beginning and without the shadow of a doubt that this is Aitzane Palefroi and no other. The means of her identification are never disclosed.
I must confess that I spent a good half of the novel expecting that the faceless, decomposed corpse would turn out to be someone else’s, especially after it becomes apparent that the ring on her finger was worth a fortune and should not have been on the hand of a lowly bookstore employee. For this pivotal reason –and many others, I am afraid—Cabaret Biarritz is rather flawed as a whodunit.