During the “The Dirty War” in Argentina in the 1970s, anyone even suspected of being a subversive wound up “disappearing.” It has been said that as many as 30,000 people “disappeared.” The actual start date of “The Dirty War” is often debated but it was during the mid 197os where the overwhelming human rights violations occurred. This is the backdrop of Eduardo Sacheri’s “The Secret in Their Eyes.”
While the novel isn’t about “The Dirty War” itself, it’s presence is clearly felt throughout what is essentially a Noir-ish crime story. Benjamín Chaparro is a retiring deputy clerk in the Argentine judicial system and he has plans to write. When deciding on what to write about, he recalls a story that changed his life concerning the brutal rape and murder of a young woman named Liliana Colotto. When breaking the news to her husband, Ricardo Morales - a sort of quiet, ‘out of step’ personality - he begins to feel empathy toward him and he promises to do what he can to help solve the crime. Soon, two suspects are apprehended - two Indians from the provinces - who get a serious beating from the police. But they aren’t the guilty parties. A police detective named Romano - with political leanings that favor the military junta - was responsible for the beatings and once that was made clear, Chaparro sees to it that he is suspended for his actions. However the case is ordered closed but Chaparro’s promise to Morales leads him to finagle a way to not only hide the ordered closed file, but to eventually dupe an inept judge to sign the orders for the arrest of another suspect, Isidoro Gomez, once it was determined that he was the one responsible for the woman’s death. He is arrested and interrogated and eventually confesses to the crime. He is sent away to prison. Seemingly case closed.
But in 1973, a general amnesty was granted for all political prisoners and due to the warden of the prison pulling some strings, Gomez, who was to serve a life sentence for his crime, is released along with the political prisoners. The warden? The very same police officer who had been suspended for the brutal beatings of the original two suspects. What follows is a story of loyalty and friendship, the urge to do what’s “right” but in an atmosphere of oppression and fear, what exactly is the moral choice one is to make? Chaparro navigates the minefield of the political oppression of the day, where not only the military were in charge, but petty bureaucrats with hired thugs with their own scores to settle. Chaparro soon finds himself on the other side of “justice”, hunted by one with a personal vendetta and the muscle behind him in order to carry it out.
The chapters alternate between third person and first person, the third person being the overall story and the first, the story of what happened, as it’s being written by the retired clerk in the present day looking back on an event in his life that haunted him for years and in a way serves as a “cleansing” for him, to finally put it all behind him so he could move on with the rest of his life - which is also part of the subplot of the novel.
It is a novel that straddles the line between a Noir thriller and a Literary novel, and yet another perfect example on how the blending of the genres can work so well. It is a rumination on “justice” and what that term is supposed to actually mean and in whose hands it actually belongs. Highly recommended.