About the book:
The action takes place in Buenos Aires during the early 19th century. The bustling colonial capital city of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate hides an ugly, seedy underbelly. The precious son of an upper-class family is found after being brutally murdered on the street, a gold doubloon by his side. Samuel Redhead, a doctor who just arrived from Europe and answers the call to identify the body, gets tangled in a sinister web of deadly secrets. As even more gory deaths follow, he must rush to solve the mystery of the blood debt—before it’s too late.
A thrilling page-turner, this is the first installment in an epic historical crime saga that follows the adventures of doctor-turned-detective Samuel Redhead during the time of the British invasions of Buenos Aires.
The body of Manuel Balbastro y Alzaga lay naked on the table, in a room of the School of Medicine, annexed to the Bethlehemite Brothers’ Hospital for Men. It had been washed. Redhead and three witnesses stood around the body. On another narrow, rectangular table next to the window, there was a microscope and a series of handbooks and notebooks. The air smelled of sulfur and soap. Every candlestick held a lit candle, their flickering flames blurring the edges of the shadows on the wall.
The school was the result of an initiative by the Spanish Crown’s medical regulating body, and even though the project was royally sanctioned, it lacked the materials and budget necessary to train qualified professionals. It had no proper amphitheater to hold anatomy lessons, and the limited supply of surgical instruments at their disposal had to be shared with the hospital. Despite all that, students made leaps in their progress and had already passed the first round of exams from the health council, and showed lots of promise.
Doctors and surgeons were two separate species. Doctors dealt with internal illnesses and research, while surgeons dealt with external wounds and forensic procedures. That’s why Redhead’s case was rather peculiar, having supplemented his theoretical studies in Edinburgh with years of practical training in London under the tutelage of controversial John Hunter, who notoriously used dead bodies for his research, often resorting to grave robbing. Hunter had gained some notoriety for his infamous saying: “Don’t think, experiment.”
Redhead had his round glasses on and was leaning over the body. As he spoke, he pointed at different parts of the body with a thin, wooden stick.
“His throat was slashed in a single motion, a very deep, vicious laceration,” he explained. “The killer attacked him from behind. The cut was made from left to right, which confirms the attacker is right-handed. With his left hand, he pushed the victim’s tricorne hat, which fell to the side onto the muddy street, and then gripped his hair. From this angle, you can see the resulting bald spot,” he said, pointing to the victim’s scalp.
The three other men listened carefully. One of them, a scribe named Mariño, kept bringing a handkerchief soaked in lavender water to his nose in an effort to fortify himself and keep from fainting. Commissioner Rojas, on the other hand, remained undisturbed, nodding now and then as if listening to a lesson he had already learnt by heart. Friar Santiago, the third man, hid his hands inside his habit’s sleeves and watched the scene with a disapproving frown.
“Judging by the direction of the cut, I would say that the murderer is taller than Balbastro,” continued the doctor. “And if you also take into account how much force was needed to commit the crime, you can rule out the possibility of a woman being the culprit.”
His words sounded cold and empty to the friar. Redhead was just making an effort to remain objective, but the friar, who had baptized the poor man now lying on the autopsy table, could not help but feel that those words sounded inhumane, almost complicit, and as cruel and barbaric as the way in which the young man had been treated.
“There is no evidence that would suggest there was more than one perpetrator. And I couldn’t find any tracks on the floor either, what with the storm erasing every clue. Any prints in the mud could have told us the height of our killer, which can be inferred from the size of the feet, and might even have given us a hint about his status, from the shoes he wore.”
Mariño kept nodding his head at everything the doctor said, hoping that these unexpected nighttime proceedings would end soon.
“It was all over in a matter of seconds. Young Balbastro was unable to scream or defend himself,” said Redhead, looking at the friar as he uttered those last words. “The rain probably masked the sound of his attacker’s steps. Blood spurted forward, leaving the murderer stain-free. The man fell to his knees,” he pointed to the bruises. “And then collapsed.”
“What can you tell us about the murder weapon?” asked the commissioner.
“A large field knife. One of those facones that the gauchos carry around. But I don’t think this was the work of one of them. They wouldn’t carry out a calculated, cowardly attack from the back like this. The killer knew exactly how to avoid being exposed. I can assure you that this was premeditated,” said the doctor as he adjusted the temples of his glasses behind his ears and looked Rojas in the eye.
“That’s what I thought,” said Rojas, uncrossing his arms.
“A butcher!” rushed to say the scribe.
“I don’t think so,” answered the doctor. “Besides, they use axes, not facones, to butcher the cows,” he added, then resumed his assessment. “Balbastro wasn’t wearing his rings.”
“A robbery, then!”
The scribe was happy to solve the mystery and go home. Redhead, on the other hand, didn’t seem satisfied.
“I don’t think that’s the case either. The victim had a gold coin in his waistcoat pouch. That’s not something a thief would miss.”
Silence reigned for a moment. Redhead continued: “I don’t think the murderer took the rings.”
“So?” asked Friar Santiago, unable to contain his curiosity.
“The marks left on his fingers show that significant time and effort would have been needed to remove the rings. It seems that Balbastro himself did it, judging by the apparent delicate handling of each piece. Looking at the state of his skin, I’d wager he removed them hours before the attack. Look here,” Redhead said, pointing to the ring finger on the right hand of the victim. There was a white band left by a rather wide ring, and the once-tan skin surrounding it had turned purple after the strain of the removal, which had required considerable pulling and twisting towards the tip of the finger.
“That means that Balbastro didn’t have jewelry on him when he had his throat slashed,” concluded Mariño.
“Doctor, you are saying, then, that there’s a specific reason why the boy was killed,” pointed out the Franciscan man.
“That is evident.”
The friar blushed and looked away. Redhead went on:
“But if you asked me for the motive, I couldn’t tell you, not yet. There needs to be an investigation, witnesses…” he said and, once again, looked at Rojas, who nodded in agreement.
“How can we be certain we will find the murderer?” Friar Santiago spoke again.
“Nothing’s certain in this life, except for death,” was the doctor’s sharp reply. He was tired after spending the last hour examining the body. “As for the rest, young Balbastro y Alzaga here enjoyed excellent health. The smell on his mouth tells me that he had been drinking quite a lot. Without a proper dissection, I can only add that, with the exception of flat feet and some cavities, he seemed to be in great shape and would have lived a long life.”
The friar crossed himself. The sole mention of a dissection sickened him.
The witnesses walked to the door while Redhead took off the gray coat he had worn throughout the examination of the body and then washed his hands and face in a washbasin.
Commissioner Rojas glanced at the doctor one last time before exiting the room.
“Try to get some rest, doctor. You’ll be needed at the town hall tomorrow. There’s bound to be lots of questions.”
Redhead nodded, drying his hands.
“Alzaga is going to eat us alive,” added Rojas.
The doctor covered the body with a white sheet and didn’t answer. The door opened again and in came two watchmen wearing gaucho pants and espadrille shoes—the same men who had taken the doctor from the town hall to the crime scene a few hours ago. They took the body away. Redhead snuffed out the candles one by one with a metal cone, and the blue smoke that rose from the extinguished wicks vanished in the dark.
Translated by Mercedes del Sol Acosta - Edited by Cecilia Della Croce