'Gaudi Afternoon' is a mystery without mayhem


January 02, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"Gaudi Afternoon," by Barbara Wilson, 172 pages, The Seal Press, Seattle, Washington, $8.95. BARBARA Wilson's amateur private eye Cassandra Reilly doesn't have much in common with old-timers like Sam Spade, except perhaps for her sexual preference. She likes women, too. Probably a little more than Sam.

She's not as hard-boiled as Spade or Philip Marlowe or even Lew Archer, but she's tough and smart and she's been around. Cassandra, nee Catherine Frances Reilly in Kalamazoo, Mich., is really well traveled.

She's banged around Hong Kong, Calcutta, Afghanistan, Bucharest, Kyoto and she's been in jail at least one hot day in Colombia. She's quite at home in Barcelona, Spain, where "Gaudi Afternoon" takes place.

Cassandra's living in London when she picks up the job in Barcelona. She keeps a room in Oakland, Calif., across the Bay from Spade's San Francisco. She's just come back from visiting a friend in Iceland. She's got an Irish passport and family in Ballybarnacle, County Cork. She occasionally sees an old lover in Uruguay.

She earns her living as a translator, chiefly of Spanish. She speaks pure Castilian and can get along in Catalan, the language of Barcelona, and after this caper she's thinking about traveling again to Bucharest to brush up on her Romanian.

Cassandra's translating a South American novel by a sort of female Gabriel Garcia Marquez when Frankie Stevens pops up. Frankie's a woman in "a stretchy bright red tunic, black mini-skirt and black tights." She's got an impish face with hazel eyes and Shirley Temple hair.

Frankie offers Cassandra $2,000 -- a lot more than Sam Spade ever got -- to find her husband Ben, who is hiding out in Barcelona. Frankie says she separated from Ben, who she says is gay. She needs him to sign some important papers.

Cassandra trips off to Spain and Barcelona where she finds, as they say in Gothic novels, Frankie is not all she seems. In fact, she's hardly anything she seems.

Frankie's a transsexual. When she was a college boy she fathered a child named Delilah with Ben, who is now a very butch woman. Ben's got almost as many muscles as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cassandra's got herself into the middle of a more or less comic child custody case.

"Gaudi Afternoon" is awash in maternal longings. Everyone wants to mother Delilah, except Cassandra and April, a foot masseuse who is Ben's current lover, but including a gay saxophone player.

Delilah keeps disappearing with her current substitute Mom. Cassandra keeps zipping around Barcelona looking for her.

Barbara Wilson finds the perfect setting for her slightly askew mystery in Barcelona, a city whose emblematic architect is Antonio Gaudi, the grand manipulator of natural organic forms. Cassandra spends several gaudy afternoons and a couple of fairly spectacular evenings prowling through Gaudi's creations.

Cassandra locates Ben and April (and Delilah) at 261 Provenca, which turns out to be Casa Milia, a Gaudi-designed apartment building Cassandra calls La Pedrera, its local name which means the stone quarry. Cassandra has a fairly wise talk with Frankie about modern family life in Gaudi's masterpiece: the still unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral, the church of the Holy Family.

Wilson describes the Sagrada Familia with absolute fidelity as looking as if "a giant hand had been playing on the beach and had dropped wet sand, layer after layer, to form a series of towers that began lumpishly and ended in filigreed elegance."

Wilson's a sharp and amusing writer who propels her "Gaudi Afternoon" along with -- and verve and a sort of enlightened intelligence. (Cassandra is nothing if not intelligent and she's got a host of remarkable friends: Ingrid Biritsdotter, the Icelandic volcano expert, Nicola Gibbons, the accomplished bassoonist and Vivaldi expert, Ana, the architect who creates fantasy houses for the small children of the wealthy.)

She's told a detective story without violence, murder, mayhem, massacre, or even explicit sex although there are a couple of sly double entendres. She pays an homage to Dashiell Hammett when Cassandra tells the gay saxophonist she's Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Brigid O'Shaughnessy, of course, is the woman Sam Spade won't play the sap for in "The Maltese Falcon."

Barbara Wilson, by the way, is also a translator. She's won prizes for her translations -- from the Norwegian.

This book is available from the Enoch Pratt Library.

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