THE LAST TANGO OF DOLORES DELGADO (1992) by Marele Day

Day_Delgado_coronetI really enjoyed this Australian private eye mystery from the 1990s, especially for its gender-bending sensibility, though it remains otherwise comparatively conservative in terms of  its genre boundaries. What it did do though was make me ponder on the kind of detectives we admire and the ones we actually like and would want to be friends with. I would love to be pals with Archie Goodwin and Tuppence Beresford, but I suspect Philip Marlowe would be a bit of a drag and Miss Marple could prove a slight knitting bore. So how about Claudia Valentine, the protagonist of Delgado?

I offer the following review for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.

“I have a job for you. Are you available?” …
“Depends what it is,” I said coolly.
“Very easy and very nice. I want you to go shopping with me.”

Australian novelist Marele Day is now probably best known for her eccentric but bestselling novel Lambs of God but she has long been associated with the mystery genre – she even won the Ned Kelly Award for her 1996 author’s guide, How to Write Crime. Day first came to prominence with her series featuring Sydney private detective Claudia Valentine, the first of which won the Shamus Award. Delgado was the third book in the series, and sees the PI investigate the death of her client, the eponymous dancer, which may or may not have been due to natural causes. Dolores was dancing when all of a sudden she started to drool, collapsed and apparently died of a heart attack. She had complained about having been pinched in the bum – but might it have been a lethal injection? Hard to tell as Dolores was often injecting herself in secret …

“People who live mysterious lives sometimes die of natural causes but I felt sure this wasn’t the case with Dolores.”

Day_Delgado_pbOne of the aspects of the book I like the most is that Claudia behaves like a spurned lover rather than a detective who has unexpectedly lost a client in not especially mysterious circumstances. Her partner is away in Germany for work and it has been a month since she last heard from him while her two children (a boy and a girl) live with their father and are old enough to have holidays without her. So she has become rather attached to the mysterious, exotic new client, for whom she has been acting as a sort of minder-cum-shopper. Feeling instinctively that there is something wrong with how she died, she decides to impersonate Delgado to give the impression she is still alive and so flush out the murderer. In so doing she takes over her life, her wardrobe and, most problematically (well, lets not beat about the bush, it is fraud), her credit cards – indeed, the first thing she does, after dying her hair and changing her makeup to look like Dolores, is got out and spend $2,700 of Dolores’ money on a dress, a lot of money now and a small fortune 25 years ago. While always sceptical about Dolores’ tall tales about her past (she seems to have been everywhere and know everyone, so why is she dancing in a fairly minor club in Sydney ..?), she discovers the dancer had a complex life that she kept hidden from Claudia.  Not only did she travel under several passports and was planning to skip off to Thailand without telling anyone, she was also transgender, though her gay dancing partner Ramon had already discovered this. While Claudia is a fairly prosaic person (she calls a spade a spade, is pretty pushy and likes to party but is also wary of booze as her long-lost father was an alcoholic, gets embarrassed when she discovers her Mum, who has been single for years and year, finally goes out with a man), it is clear that she was a bit in love with Dolores.

“I liked the way she pronounced my name, making it sound like a cloud rather than a claw.”

What’s interesting is how Claudia reacts to the Day_Delgado_a&useries of revelations about her late client, angry somehow that
Dolores had kept secrets from her. Feeling at a loose end, she seems not to have realised how much she was drawing on her client to plug an emotional gap in her own life and now behaves as if these secrets were a sort of betrayal, when of course they are nothing of the sort. This make Claudia a bit less attractive and idealised as a PI but far more plausible and recognisable as a human being. On the other hand, the plot is handled in traditional and satisfying fashion as Claudia does succeed in attracting the attention of a syringe-wielding hitman, so it would seem that her instincts were right and that Dolores was involved with some very rich and powerful people indeed. Ultimately the plot resolves itself into a sort of treasure hunt, as it seems Dolores was killed for some precious item. The baddies are all looking for it, but it has been hidden and they come to the conclusion that Claudia must have it – trouble is, she doesn’t even know what it is – dare I say, it’s probably a MacGuffin?

Along with the heavy emphasis on the detail of life in Sydney (this provides a fascinating snapshot of what it was like there 25 years ago, especially in its less salubrious quarters), the plot is perfectly serviceable, though most readers will be about 50 pages ahead of the detective by the end as she seems too slow to realise what it’s all about, and the less said about the murderer suddenly turning out to be a slavering, head-chopping maniac (without anybody noticing this change in character) the better. Really this book is all about Claudia and Dolores and both characters are highly memorable, even if the detective doesn’t know herself as well as she should. Or maybe, precisely because of that?

The Claudia Valentine series

  1. The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender (1988)
  2. The Case of the Chinese Boxes (1990)
  3. The Last Tango of Dolores Delgado (1992)
  4. The Disappearances of Madalena Grimaldi (1994)

I liked Claudia – she may be very pushy and have several chips on her shoulder (she is very defensive to criticism of shopping as a fine art) and is absurdly sniffy about Italian decor and food (and just so you know, Claudia, there is no such thing as a ‘macchiata’ coffee – it is macchiato, porca miseria!), but I’d certainly want her on my side in a fight! Just a shame she’d probably think I was a pretentious and stuck up so and so! But you can’t have everything in life …

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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34 Responses to THE LAST TANGO OF DOLORES DELGADO (1992) by Marele Day

  1. I need to get more familiar with this series, Sergio! I’ve heard of it, but am ashamed to say I’ve not yet read any of the entries. Claudia does sound like a very interesting character, with a certain richness to her. Glad you enjoyed this.

  2. realthog says:

    I would love to be pals with Archie Goodwin and Tuppence Beresford, but I suspect Philip Marlowe would be a bit of a drag and Miss Marple could prove a slight knitting bore.

    On the other hand, Phryne Fisher . . .

    • Only seen the TV version so far, so I respectfully decline to comment further though you’ve set my heart racing all the same 🙂

      • realthog says:

        To be honest, I prefer the TV series . . . and that’s even before we bring my pash for Essie Davis into consideration.

        • Interesting – I started reading the first one but initially found Phryne a bit annoying (well, so sure of herself as to lack human vulnerability) and so never finished it but I know the series has lots of fans out there so will give it a better shot – and the TV show is certainly lots of naughty fun.

          • realthog says:

            We obviously had roughly the same reaction, though I actually finished the first one!

          • No one can ever doubt your dedication when you’re on the job mate, which I think is a Moneypenny line from View to a Kill (not a movie I quote from often, despite amy love of San Francisco) 😉

  3. mikeripley says:

    Did I really put you on to Marele Day and Claudia Valentine? Well, good for me! How about Sarah Dunant (about whom I have some excellent stories!) and her superb heroine Hannah Wolfe, whom I once described as “best private eye, either sex, either side of the Atlantic”? And going back half a century, have you ever come across Anna Zordan – a rival to Modesty Blaise in the mid-60s?
    I thought the three Zordan adventures had a lot going for them, though they were very much of their time and clearly desperate to be seen as a female James Bond. I know little about the author, James Eastwood, except that he worked in the British film industry.

    • Well, in my often very dim memory it was you years and years ago … but must admit, right now I just can’t back that up! Not read the Zordan books but I know Eastwood’s work a bit as he wrote several of the Edgar Wallace films from the early 1960s

  4. Colin says:

    Never heard of the writer, or much Australian writing at all if I’m honest – always something new out there.
    I was quite intrigued by your question at the beginning and would definitely agree with Archie Goodwin – mind you, the whole microcosm surrounding Wolfe is so attractive I kind of like all the characters. I must read some more Stout now you’ve reminded me, it’s been a while.
    Dr Fell would be good fun too, I think, although the constant all-nighters and the heavy drinking would probably kill me.

  5. mikeripley says:

    I think it was Chris Brookmyre’s journalist sleuth Jack Parlabane who was actually voted “the second-most slappable character in crime fiction” by readers of a Scottish newspaper. Inspector Morse came first if you have to ask.

  6. I confess I’m not familiar with Marele Day. I have never seen one of her books before I checked out those covers you provided above. I’ll check my Canadian sources. Sometimes books like Marele Day’s show up over the border. Nice review!

  7. I must say, when I read “gender-bending sensibility” near the beginning of a review, I don’t think Good Mystery Novel, I think “message fiction. Since I read to be entertained (not for a didactic experience), that means I’ll skip the book. So, with this, I stopped right there, fairly or not.

    • Definitely unfairly Richard! 🙂 One of the characters is transgender, which at the time was still a comparative novelty in crime fiction, but there is no special pleading here – in fact, quite the opposite!

  8. John says:

    I’ve read only one of this woman’s mystery novels: LAMBS OF GOD. About nuns and sheep. The women spend a lot of time knitting and talking about the sheep which they believe are the reincarnated souls of their fellow dead nuns. A priest visits what is thought to be an abandoned monastery but finds the three women living there and things get very weird. We learn some secrets about him and the nuns over the course of the oddly told tale. Original is an understatement. I don’t think many of her books are published in the US — which explains a lot of “never heard of her” comments above. Maybe I’m wrong.

    • Thanks John, I think you are right. Lambs did well though and was even optioned by Hollywood (Winona Ryder was attached as producer and star at one point, presumably before she went on her bling spree)

  9. Sergio, I have actually heard the title of this book though, strangely, not its author. I liked the storyline, especially the part where Claudia impersonates Delgado and what follows seems all too plausible; a bit of an adventure really. It sounds like a very good mystery to me.

  10. I loved Lambs of God, what a book – didn’t half divide my bookgroup when I made them read it! Also read another of this series and enjoyed it, and I am going straight off to order this one – could you doubt it after mentioning tango, expensive dresses, and a gay dancing partner called Ramon…

  11. tracybham says:

    I don’t remember hearing of this author before. This book sounds interesting and her other books sound worth trying too, Looks like they are hard to get here or more expensive than I want to pay, but I will look out for them. Maybe one will show up.

  12. Matt Paust says:

    I’d most definitely drink a macchiato with her. Certainly no knitting bore. Thanks for the entertaining review, Sergio.

  13. Anne H says:

    The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender, the first Claudia Valentine novel, is stylistically the most interesting. Marele Day has fun with the form: the very first paragraph sends up the traditional private eye in the most delightful way! Not to mention that Harry Lavender puts one in mind of a well-known Sydney identity. She also introduces a character who ends up having her own book later on.

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