If you’re looking for a light-hearted, cool-headed summer’s afternoon of reading you could do a lot worse than pick up Luis Fernando Verissimo’s The Spies. A quick glance at Verissimo’s biography provides numerous hints that he will be an entertaining companion: as well as writing the occasional novel, he has filled his time with numerous newspaper columns and short stories, comic strips, and even a career as a saxophonist. The Spies may sound portentous but is, instead, an absurd tale of publishing, football and, above all, misunderstanding.
The novel begins, as so many good tales do, with an unsolicited manuscript. The narrator, a failed writer himself, spends his unhappy days rejecting the work of other writers (unless, that is, they are willing to pay for publication) with hardened cynicism until one day he is unusually attracted to a few pages which form the beginning of a longer narrative:
“I don’t really know what it was I found so enchanting…It was like being dazzled, in the sense of being in the presence of a light that dissolves all shadows.”
Unfortunately, the narrator goes on to create his own shadows, building a ’true’ story around the story of the manuscript, believing that its author, Ariadne, is writing from life and in need of rescue. As further chapters of the story arrive, he becomes convinced that her husband has murdered her ‘Secret Lover’ and now holds her a virtual prisoner in her own home.
So begins Operation Theseus, with the narrator recruiting a barful of friends to navigate a maze that is largely of his own creation. One by one the characters make their way to the small town where Ariadne lives, each with their own absurd cover story. It is these very attempts at disguise that will ultimately put them in danger, though not for the reasons they expect. All the elements of a classic murder mystery are in place: the family business, the missing brother, the drunk with a secret, the controlling husband and the mysterious beauty. This isn’t an episode of Inspector Morse, however, and each step in the story takes at least one character further from the truth. One character does end up dead but the ‘detectives’ do not so much uncover the murderer as create him.
By the novel’s conclusion we are entertained, amused, and thoroughly warned us not to read too much into what we read. And never to trust a woman who dots her ‘i’ with a flower.