Rosa Ribas and Empar Fernández are among a new generation of Catalan crime writers inspired to dig deeper and cast the net wider in their home city.
Their Barcelona is not the one tourists usually get to see, a city fabled for its fairy tale Gothic architecture, idiosyncratic Gaudí buildings, gentrified versions of Picasso's old haunts or landmarks featured in George Orwell's autobiographic classic “Homage to Catalonia”.
In her latest series of novels, beginning with “The Whispering City”, Ribas portrays the hidebound, inward-looking and impoverished Barcelona of the 1950s, which dictator General Franco would never let forget it had picked the losing side in 1936-39 Civil War.
“Barcelona brings what people want it to, there's an ideal, a vision, a fascination for this city that is hard to explain to those of us who live inside it,” Ribas told The Local on the sidelines of the Semana Negra crime-writing festival in Gijón, northern Spain.
In “The Whispering City”, Ribas's leading player is Ana Martí, who defies conventions not only by staying single and going out to work in an age when Spanish women were so oppressed they could not have bank accounts without their spouses' permission, but by entering the then male preserve of journalism to boot.
Ribas's novels also remind us that corruption scandals which have battered Spain in recent years are nothing new.
“It is a city very much contaminated by a social class and certain people who always float upwards, whatever happens, who don't care whether they live in a monarchy, a dictatorship or a republic,” she said.
“That is very characteristic of Barcelona, where you come across the same old surnames and I also wanted to depict that in my novels.”
Fernández meanwhile focuses on modern-day multi-ethnic, working-class neighbourhoods like the one she works in as a schoolteacher, and which a seemingly endless economic crisis has hit very hard.
In novels like “Maldita Verdad” (The Damned Truth), the third in a trilogy based on guilt, her characters are single mothers struggling to get by with teenage sons they dare not talk to, or men of 30 who cannot afford to leave home, a world in which anyone with a steady job seems like a king.
“I think Barcelona on the one hand has the emblematic part which everyone remembers, the Paseo de la Gracias, the Rambla, Raval, and those are icons that every reader has very much in mind,” Fernández noted at the Semana Negra, one of Europe's biggest cultural fairs which at least one million attend every year.
“But moreover there is great wealth in its neighbourhoods; each one is a city in miniature. Barcelona has more and more complexity in its people, not just in its underbelly, and so it is richer in crime plots that will never run out, especially in times of crisis,” she added.
By Martin Roberts in Gijón