The independence debate in Scotland and Catalonia has taken a new turn with a novel published in Barcelona, La Noia d’Aberdeen (the Aberdeen girl). It concerns a professor of political science from the University of Aberdeen who has been commissioned by the Catalan government to produce a report on how Catalonia could become an independent member of the European Union. He is murdered in the first chapter and the whodunit then follows the trail through old and new Aberdeen and Barcelona. The author, Quim Aranda, writes to our own Michael Keating “I should confess, professor, that the main victim (a professor in science politics from Aberdeen University) was loosely based on you”. Professor Keating, a regular visitor to Catalonia, is, we are glad to report, alive and well and is director of the ESRC Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change.
Michael Keating’s review of the book:
Nowhere has the Scottish independence debate been followed more closely than in Catalonia, whose nationalist government is trying to organize an independence referendum in November. Both cases have produced a mass of polemical and learned literature, but now we have a whodunit, a murder mystery set around the mass demonstration in Barcelona on Catalonia’s national day, 11 September 2013. Paul McEwen is a sixty-something professor of political science from the University of Aberdeen and expert on stateless nations, especially Scotland, Catalonia and Quebec. He is commissioned by the Catalan government to produce a report on how Catalonia might gain its independence and remain in the European Union. Appointed visiting professor at the Autonomous University, he takes a flat in Barcelona, becoming a regular on the lecture and seminar circuit. Eight days before the big demonstration he is found murdered in his apartment. Who murdered McEwen and why? Where are his missing papers? Could it be a crime of passion? And where is the mystery girl, the noia?
Enter a gallery of more or less suspicious characters. The advocate Roger Moreno, an enigmatic figure close to the Catalan government, with fingers in many pies, commissions private detective Manuel Latorre to investigate. But does Moreno really want to know the truth? Colonel Roberto Flores, an intelligence agent of the Spanish Guardia Civil, has been spying on McEwen - but they spy on everyone and he has decided that McEwen was not important. After the murder, he organizes another team to investigate. Òscar, an unpleasant young man from Barcelona, snoops on people and hacks their email – later we discover that he is Moreno’s nephew.
The intrigue deepens as both the Spanish and Catalan governments might have an interest in McEwen’s death, to get him out of the way, to create a martyr, or to try to discredit the other by putting the blame on them. Another theory is that the Spanish intelligence services did it in cahoots with the British; we are told that they get on well, in spite of the odd firework off the coast of Gibraltar.
Latorre goes to Aberdeen to investigate. Following up on a picture of McEwen on Balmedie beach, he stumbles into an old war bunker, finds a poem dated 25 January, is attacked and wakes up in the Cock and Bull. Two goons, presumably his attackers, stalk him into Union Street Gardens. A colleague of McEwen’s at the university tells him that McEwen (a widower) had been in a relationship with a Catalan PhD student, Deborah Rosso, who had since returned to Barcelona – this is the noia, the girl from Aberdeen. At a pub in town, he meets the barmaid Rena, who introduces him to the music of Dougie MacLean and, returning to his hotel, he gets a mysterious note with a verse from Caledonia. It turns out that Rena is the former flatmate of Deborah. Deborah had broken with McEwen during a Burns Supper at Balmedie, and left the poem in the bunker. After a brief fling with Rena, Latorre gets Deborah’s email address and sends her a message, then heads back to Barcelona, taking devious routes to avoid his stalkers.
Meanwhile, Òscar has been spying on Deborah, who lives opposite him, and hacking her emails. He lures Latorre into a meeting where he tries to attack him but is overpowered and seemingly confesses to being involved in the murder of McEwen. We never get the details but it seems that he did it with an antique firearm, an heirloom of the Moreno family, presumably out of jealousy of McEwen. Rather than be taken in, Òscar throws himself off the balcony. Latorre reports all this to the Mossos (the Catalan police) but his statement is edited and Moreno, deciding that leaving McEwen’s death a mystery would suit his side, advises Latorre to take his cheque and shut up. He threatens to frame him for killing Òscar.
On the same day, we switch to Flores and see how he strangled Deborah and disposed of her body in the mountains of the Alt Penedés. Later, a newspaper reporter gets an anonymous phone call and finds both Deborah’s body and the corpse of Flores, who seems to have made the call and then shot himself.
As with the best political thrillers, we never really find who did what but everyone seems content with the result. McEwen is out of the way, he is a useful martyr, and nobody is responsible. Latorre tells all he knows to a journalist friend but, without proof, nobody would believe him.
Quim Aranda is the London correspondent of the Catalan Paper El Punt Avuí, and knows both cases. He evokes the atmosphere of Aberdeen well but does not much like the food (‘why do northern Europeans not know how to cook fish?’) but appreciates the beer and the whisky. And Paul McEwen? Well the author has signed my personal copy: ‘to my main “victim”, Professor Michael Keating.’ I was indeed visiting professor at the Autónoma (in 2012) but have assured my wife, who is alive and well, that the bit about the affair with the PhD student is a mere literary conceit.
Professor of Politics, University of Aberdeen
Director, ESRC Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change