Fresh Blood

Name: Jason Webster

Title of Book: Or The Bull Kills You

'...a marvellous novel ripe with passion, love and murder. '

Chief Inspector Max Camara loathes bullfighting. In recent years the sport has received a lot of negative press and people in the government wish to see it banned altogether. One afternoon, Max’s boss is called away on an emergency and Camara has to step in for him in judging the festival ‘corrida’. During the tournament the famous and most beloved of the matedors, Jorge Blanco is to appear and then accept an achievement award for his time as a matador. But Blanco never gets to receive his award as soon after the tournament he is found dead in the bullring. Who would want to kill someone the Spanish people all thought of as a son?

Having been near the scene of the crime, Camara is given the investigation which leads him from a bunch of anti-bullfighting campaigners to high office and people with power who want to see the sport banned. Then Blanco’s manager is found dead – killed by the same method as his protégé. Are the two murders linked or is one a copycat of the other? As Camara delves into the murder investigation, his love life becomes as explosive as his work. Are the two to become joined and lead him to devastating climax?

This is the first in a proposed series of crime novels featuring Max Camara. Jason Webster has written several travelogues about his adopted home, Spain; the most famous being ‘Duende’. One can sense that Webster has great respect and love for Spain in addition to knowing that there is always a dark side to the sun-drenched parts of this major tourist attraction. Having lived in Spain myself for four years during my twenties, it really felt like reading about home. Whenever I go to Spain I always feel welcome and at home, even when using my very rusty Spanish!

Webster does for Spain what Michael Dibdin did to wonderful effect in his ‘Zen’ novels for Italy. But despite this, it doesn’t detract from the main plot of the murder. Two very gruesome murders are carried out in rapid succession and Webster’s fraught and damaged detective, Camara, has to wend his way through a political minefield with regard to bullfighting.

As with all the most famous detectives, Camara has his fair share of bad points – too many nips of drink first thing in the morning, smoking too much weed, a love life that is slipping away from him - and a new woman to add chaos to the mix. With extremely well written prose, Webster brings the atmosphere and culture of Spain to life as well as giving us well-rounded characters and a sure-fire plot. There are no car chases galore – I don’t think the Spanish could be bothered (especially if it had to be done during the siesta) – but Webster gives his readers a gorgeous, languid panoramic view of Spain and its festivals (of which there are numerous...).

‘Or The Bull Kills You’ is a marvellous novel ripe with passion, love and murder. What more could you ask for? This is a wonderful introduction and I look forward to reading more from this author. Plus, it is wonderful to read about a crime thriller in the sun – rather than the latest fashion of Swedish murders with its freezing cold and bleak weather, short days and long nights! For once it is lovely to feel the heat of the sun whilst reading a book rather than feel like a block of ice! Brrrr!

‘Or The Bull Kills You’ is a sizzling book with plenty of Spanish passion!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) 1) How would you classify your writing, and do you consciously try to write to a certain style or genre?
Wow. Straight in with a tough question. Like many writers, I like to flatter myself that my writing is ‘unclassifiable’, and certainly when I’m working on a book I’m not thinking about categories. I write, and it comes out as it comes out. But I imagine that Or the Bull Kills You would be regarded as literary crime fiction. Although I don’t particularly like the phrase.

But no, I’m not trying to write to a certain style. Although obviously there are rules of the crime genre that have to be followed. I like to think of it in terms of writing a sonnet - there are certain norms that have to be followed, but beyond that you have a free rein. And that tension between your creativity and the strictures of the genre can be quite stimulating.
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
In general I like novels that tell me something useful and important that I didn’t know before. Or that give me a new take on the world. In the end I think it’s about whether I enjoy being in a particular writer’s head or not. Is there something there that grabs me or pulls me in? One of the great things about crime fiction is that it creates whole, complete other worlds for readers to step into. But that world has to appeal in some way. And although with crime you’re naturally dealing with a darker side of human existence, I want something else there as well - some light, some colour. I find it hard reading novels where everything is black or grey.
I don’t think I have a preference for either series or standalone, but clearly with a great series you get a chance to gorge yourself on a particular writer and character.
3) You have written several travel books about your time in Spain. What made you drift into writing fiction and what attracted you to write a crime novel?
I hope I haven’t just ‘drifted’ into fiction! It was a deliberate choice. Right now I want to write novels - it feels right. I think fiction comes closer to how we experience the world around us - it’s about impressions and sensations that are subsequently shaped into some kind of narrative. That frees you up quite a lot as a writer.

And I chose crime because I’m fascinated by the figure of the detective, or investigator, picking his or her way through a chaotic mess, looking for clues, truth, a meaning to it all. It chimes with our experience of simply being human, wondering what life is all about.
4) ‘Or the Bull Kills You’ starts with the murder of a bullfighter. Bullfighting has been the target of a lot of controversial news in recent years. Was it this controversy that attracted you to this subject?
I started the novel some time before the Catalan move to have it banned. Bullfighting already intrigued me in many ways - the violence, the pageantry, the moral dilemma at the heart of it. But it also appeared to be going through a period of highs and lows: some were predicting it would cease to exist in a few years because of falling spectator figures. But then a matador called José Tomás came back on the scene after a five-year absence and turned all that around. Suddenly bullfighting was front-page news again. It seemed as though Tomás was single-handedly bringing bullfighting back from the brink with his elegant and more risk-taking style.

So I wanted to look into bullfighting some more; whether you agree with it or not, it’s one of those things that defines Spain in many ways. But I wanted to do so through the eyes of someone who dislikes it. My main character, Chief Inspector Max Cámara of the Spanish National Police, is like the majority of Spaniards in that he has no time for los toros. Having to investigate the murder of the country’s top matador for him, then, is a moral challenge as much as anything else.
5) In your descriptions of the Spanish countryside and culture you obviously love the country where you have settled. What was it that attracted you to Spain and made you decide to stay there?
I’ve written quite a few books trying to answer that question myself - not always successfully. It’s not easy. Spain has a magic and mystery about it that I think you either get or you don’t. There’s something raw, passionate, earthy and wise about the place. Also, I studied Arabic and Islamic History at university, and the underlying ‘Moorishness’ of Spain, which is to be found in some quite unexpected areas, is a big attraction.

And then there’s the fact that my wife is Spanish. Our two sons have been born in Valencia and have Spanish nationality, so I’ve ended up creating a family here. That’s a big reason to settle somewhere.
6) Your detective, Max Camara is a tortured man, one who is never really sure of who he is; having lost his family at an early age and not having a particularly successful private life. Are things likely to get better for Camara?
That’s absolutely right. I’m interested in characters who get stripped down, who lose all the stimuli and crutches they use to hold some kind of false identity, or self, in place. Only then, when they are faced with the emptiness of themselves, can they begin to see who they really are. It’s a process of getting rid of the dross in order to find an essence lying deep and hidden inside.

This stripping down of Cámara begins in Or the Bull Kills You, and culminates in the second book Some Other Body (published Feb 2012), but in the third book, which I’m writing at the moment, he starts coming to terms with his true identity. So he’s a character who will develop and evolve over the course of the series.
7) There are definite echoes of Michael Dibdin’s ‘Inspector Zen’ with your obvious love of the country. In turns ‘Or the Bull Kills You’ sometimes reads like a travelogue. Was this deliberate?
This is the first book in the series, and as such I had to introduce not only the character of Max Cámara, but also his world. Most people have heard of Valencia, but they may not know it that well, or even have visited at all. So I was aware of the need to conjure up the atmosphere of the city, and to describe it to readers who weren’t too sure about where the action was taking place. If I’d set the novel in Barcelona or Madrid that might not have been quite so necessary.
8) ‘Or the Bull Kills You’ involves a lot of Spanish history and you give a detailed history of bullfighting and the symbolism behind it. Did you do your own research or was all this information already known to you?
A mixture of both. I met and talked frequently with a group of bullfighting aficionados, including a matador and a bull-breeder. Then certain key books helped, particularly with regard to the sexual and fertility symbolism behind bullfighting.

Similarly I had to do a good deal of research for the police procedural aspect of the novel. I have a friend who is a high court judge who gave me a lot of information. And a couple of contacts in the Spanish National Police told me about the everyday workings of a chief inspector in Homicidios.
9) Who would be your dream cast of movie actors for an adaptation of your story?
Cámara is similar in build and appearance to Javier Bardem, so it would be wonderful to see him play the role.
10) Without giving away the plot, which book included your favourite plot twist of all time?
Possibly the ending of Robert Harris’s The Ghost when it’s revealed who the US agent really was. It comes right out of the blue and the effect is very creepy.
11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
It’s more of a thriller, but I must have seen The Day of the Jackal a dozen times, and could watch it again and again. I love the section towards the end when the police are hunting the Jackal in Paris, and the film suddenly switches into a slow, almost documentary style, with the military parades. It’s fantastic - an incredible risk, but rather than losing pace, it actually increases the tension.
12) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
Yes, I love a good crime novel. My favourites would include Simenon, Michael Dibdin, Andrea Camilleri, Arnaldur Indridason, Jean-Claude Izzo, Fred Vargas, Val McDermid, Charles Willeford and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

With Simenon it’s about the atmospheres he creates - a whole novel might simply involve Maigret shadowing a suspect around Paris in the rain. That’s not easy to pull off.

Dibdin and Camilleri both bring Italy to life for me - a country I lived in some 20 years ago. And their novels have a certain colour and sharp Mediterranean humour.

With Vargas it’s the smoky, playful philosophical style of Adamsberg, and the fact that he’s deeply intuitive - something he has in common with Cámara.

With McDermid and Indridason it’s the psychological depth; with Willeford the attention to detail; and with Conan Doyle it’s the sheer pleasure of being able to hang out with Sherlock Holmes for a few pages.
13) What is your favourite read crime of all time?
I remember being struck as a 12-year-old by the bleakness of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Fishes (as it was renamed). It was in such contrast to the nicely rounded resolutions of the Poirot or Miss Marple books.

Some of my favourite crime-centres stories would also include Hamlet and Macbeth, or The Pardoner’s Tale, where three men go off to ‘kill Death’ - a fantastic plot-line that Chaucer probably borrowed from a Middle Eastern source.

But my favourite crime is probably the collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories. There are all kinds of problems with them, and you know whodunnit from almost the first page, but Holmes is a magical character and I love losing myself in his world.