A big shout-out to Locus Amoenus for recommending this book: it hit almost all the right spots for me. As a result, it's one of the rare instances where a book that I'm rating 3 1/2 stars also goes onto my "Favorites" shelf (which usually doesn't happen with anything that I'm not at least rating 4 stars straight).
Dolores Redondo's El guardián invisible (The Secret Guardian) is the first book of a crime trilogy set in the (predominantly Basque) Baztán Valley in northeastern Spain, in the community of Navarra (whose capital, in turn, is Pamplona). The book centers around Amaia Salazar, a homicide detective with the regional police force, who is sent back to her native Elizondo (the largest town in the Baztán) to investigate first one and ultimately a series of murders of girls just having entered puberty. Amaia, upon returning home, is made to confront the ghosts of her own past, as well as that of her immediate family -- and what facially sounds like a much-worn cliché, in crime writing in particular, is delivered here with both great psychological sensitivity and very assured writing; this is undoubtedly one of the novel's strongest elements, along with its incredibly expressive atmosphere and sense of place. Even if you've never been there, Elizondo and the Baztán really do come alive for you in the pages of this book.
The plotting is strong throughout the first 2/3 of the novel, but unfortunately fell apart for me in the final 1/3, with an ending that somehow manages to be at the same time rushed and sketchy (in the course of events, their delivery, and Amaia's sudden final "lightbulb" moment) as well as slow as molasses (in Amaia's thought processes while the plot is hurtling to its conclusion all around her). I seriously could also have done without the worn-out "dark and stormy night" setting of the final "showdown" scene in a remote spot of the valley, complete with Amaia losing her cell phone (her only source of light),(show spoiler)
There is a strong undercurrent of superstition and the supernatural to the book, which again works well initially, in establishing the book's atmosphere: Most notably, the eponymous "secret guardian" is said to be a basajaun, a sort of Yeti-like local creature believed to be the guardian of the area's woods and hills. But this becomes a case of "too much of a good thing" eventually: long spoilery rant to follow, listing my major grievances; on the superstition bits as such as well as their interaction with Amaia's (very real and painful) personal ghosts.(show spoiler)
So, a book that started out as a strong candidate for a 4 1/2- or even 5-star rating tumbled down to 3 1/2 stars in the final analysis, chiefly as a result of falling apart in the final third. Yet, I think virtually all of the things that made the book stop working for me in the last part can be resolved -- and hopefully will be, with more experience. So, I will very likely return to this series, even if not immediately: Redondo can undoubtedly write, and there is plenty to enjoy here in terms of atmosphere and character building. I also genuinely enjoyed my armchair visit to a corner of Spain that I have yet to discover in person.
Elizondo (photo from Wikimedia)
The location of the Baztán Valley within Spain and Navarra, respectively, and of Elizondo within the Baztán (graphics from Wikipedia)