The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

First published in Spanish in 2005 with an English translation following in 2011, The Secret in Their Eyes was Argentine writer Eduardo Sacheri’s debut novel. If the title sounds familiar, that might be because the book was turned into an award-winning film. The original screen adaptation—which happens to feature one of my favourite actors, Ricardo Darín—picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. It’s been a while since I last watched the film, so the time felt right to pick up the book. I’m so glad I did. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

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As the novel opens, Benjamín Chaparro is retiring from his post as a deputy clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court, a position he has held for over thirty years. After two unsuccessful marriages, Chaparro is a little weary of life—in short, he is a man not entirely comfortable in his own skin. A little unsure as to what he is going to do with the rest of his life, Chaparro decides to write a book: an account of the fallout from a brutal crime that has occupied his thoughts for the past thirty years.

Rewinding to May 1968, a beautiful young woman, the recently-married Liliana Colotto, is raped and strangled in her home in Buenos Aires. As the deputy clerk on duty at the time, Chaparro is required to attend the scene of the murder where he meets the police officer in charge of investigating the case, Inspector Báez. The crime leaves Liliana’s husband, bank clerk Ricardo Morales, utterly devastated.  As Chaparro watches Morales, this quiet, unremarkable man seems completely lost.

It seemed to me most likely that he was taking a mental inventory of everything he’d just lost. (pg.50)

It was as if Morales—once he’d cooled off, once he was empty of emotions and feelings, once the dust cloud had settled on the ruins on his life—could perceive what his future would be like, what he had to look forward to, and as if he’d realized that yes, beyond the shadow of a doubt, his future was nothing. (pg. 51)

As the case progresses, it gets under Chaparro’s skin. Three months down the line, there are no firm leads or pieces of evidence on which to proceed, but Chaparro keeps the case file open despite the wishes of his boss. As far as the investigative judge is concerned, the fewer the number of active cases the better. During this time Chaparro keeps in touch with Morales, meeting him in a bar to discuss the situation every now and again. He soon discovers that Morales is too detached and too intelligent to find solace in anything other than the truth. Something about the young bank clerk’s melancholy demeanour, the way he appears resigned to suffer the harshest of blows in life, prompts Chaparro to do everything in his power to help him.

I tended to think that my work had made me immune to emotions, but this young guy, collapsed on his chair like a dismounted scarecrow and gazing glumly outside, had just expressed in words something I’d felt since childhood. That was the moment, I believe, when I realized that Morales reminded me very much, maybe too much, of myself, or the “self” I would have been if feigning strength and confidence had exhausted me, if I were weary of putting them on every morning when I woke up, like a suit or—worse yet—like a disguise. I suppose that’s why I decided to help him in any way I could. (pgs. 72-73)

As a result of his discussions with Morales, Chaparro uncovers a lead in the case and decides to do a little investigating himself. With the help of Inspector Báez, he identifies the murderer and so the case moves into a different phase. The police set off on the trail of Liliana’s killer, various developments happen, time passes. This is a slow burn story of a crime and corruption in the system, but it’s one that kept me gripped throughout.

Things are never straightforward, especially in Argentina in the 1970s, a time when the country’s Dirty War was rumbling away in the background. At one point, it becomes clear that Chaparro’s own life is in danger, a situation that prompts him to move away from Buenos Aires for a number of years until he can return safely. Our protagonist is also very open about his frustrations with the Argentine judicial system, an organisation that seems to favour assholes and imbeciles in equal measure.

During the previous three years in the court, few things had changed. We’d been able to get the wretched Clerk Pérez off our backs—he’d been promoted to public defender—but losing our boss that way had left a bitter taste, because it appeared to confirm our belief that a certain level of congenital stupidity, such as the kind he displayed like a flag, could auger a meteoric ascent in the juristic hierarchy. (pg. 192)

The chapters recounting the investigations into Liliana’s murder, the subsequent developments, and Chaparro’s relationship with Morales are interspersed with shorter passages in which our protagonist reflects on his own life. Or, more specifically, the questions he is grappling with while trying to write his book…not to mention his feelings for Irene Hornos, the current judge in the investigative court. Following his retirement, Chaparro remains in touch with Irene—the woman he has loved from afar for the last thirty years—visiting her at work during the twilight hours of the night.

With her lips, she’s asking him to explain why he’s blushing and squirming in his chair and looking up every twelve seconds at the tall pendulum clock that stands against the wall near the bookcases; but with her eyes, besides all that, she asking him something else. She’s asking him what’s wrong, what’s wrong with him, with him and her, with him and the two of them, and she seems interested in his answer,… (pg. 269)

The story also touches on Chaparro’s enduring friendship with his assistant, Sandoval, the very astute accomplice who plays a pivotal role in the investigation. At the end of the day, though, the core of Sacheri’s novel revolves around the inextricable bond between Chaparro and Ricardo Morales, a man who continues to radiate an unrelenting aura of loss.

When I saw Morales sitting there in front of me on that June afternoon in 1973, I understood that the brevity or longevity of a human being’s life depends most of all on the amount of grief that person is obliged to bear. Time passes more slowly for those who suffer, and pain and anguish leave definitive marks on their skin. (pg. 256)

The Secret in Their Eyes is an excellent novel, one that’s definitely worth reading even if you’ve seen the film. As is often the case, the book is much subtler and more layered than the screen adaptation. There are differences in emphasis between the two forms as the novel allows more space for character development along with greater exploration of the connection between Chaparro and Morales. Certain aspects of the narrative differ as well, but I’ve kept discussion of the novel’s plot to a minimum for fear of revealing any major spoilers. Ultimately, this is an intricate story from an author in complete control of his material. Highly recommended.

Interestingly, Sacheri worked as an office employee in the Buenos Aires sentencing court in the late 1980s. (In his introduction, the translator John Cullen explains that the Argentine judiciary at the time of the novel was divided into two jurisdictions: investigative courts and sentencing courts.) During his time in the sentencing court, Sacheri happened to hear an anecdote about an old case from the seventies. Even though the novel’s plot and all of its characters are entirely fictitious, Sacheri used the core of this anecdote as inspiration for a key element in his story. To say any more would take me into the realm of spoilers, but Sacheri’s own experience undoubtedly gives the novel an air of credibility.

Guy has also reviewed this book, which I read for Richard’s Argentine Literature of Doom event.

The Secret in Their Eyes is published by Other Press. Source: personal copy. Book 16/20, #TBR20 round 2.

55 thoughts on “The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

  1. madamebibilophile

    I remember enjoying the film, but I had no idea it was a novel first. The quotes you pulled out were really interesting. Thankfully its long enough ago that I can read the novel now without scenes from the film in my head!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s exactly the reason why I left such a gap between watching the film and reading the novel! I wanted to leave enough time for those images to fade away from my mind. I’m glad you like the quotes – they really stood out for me.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! It must have been one dirty deed after another. I think you’d enjoy this novel very much, Marina. The characterisation is great, and the plot has enough layers to keep your interest. It’s right up your alley, so to speak.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s excellent – definitely one for you, Helen! I think you’d enjoy Chaparro’s reflections on the judicial system. I found the context/setting fascinating.

      Reply
  2. poppypeacockpens

    Have to say you’ve hooked me completely with this one Jacqui… both the key characters & the relationship between Chaparro & Morales sound intriguing and what about Liliana? I’m wondering if we get to know more of her, when her demise strikes such a reaction ‘he’d realized that yes, beyond the shadow of a doubt, his future was nothing’… on the 2016 wishlist!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! The characterisation is excellent here, especially the portrayal of the two central characters – Chaparro just cannot seem to shake the image of Morales from his mind. It’s difficult to say anything else about the plot for fear of revealing any major spoilers…but if you read the novel, I think you’ll understand why Morales is so utterly devastated by Liliana’s death. It’s one of the reasons why the characterisation feels so convincing.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui. I’ve not seen the film fortunately, because this sounds most intriguing – I love books that delve into mysteries from the past and also many layered narratives! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I was most impressed by this novel – it really seems to capture the mood of the period. (Not that I was there, of course, but I do get that impression!)

      Reply
  4. Elena

    Superb review! I haven’t seen the movies or read the books, but you’ve made me want to now. Where do you suggest I start? (Already own the DVD).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, Elena! Well, if you’re keen to experience both within a reasonably short space of time I would suggest starting with the novel (otherwise your mind will be full of images and impressions of the characters from the film). In many ways, I wish I’d read the novel before seeing the screen adaptation. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve left such a gap between the two – it’s been a good three or four years since I last watched the film, so those images have faded over time. I hope you enjoy!

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    This sounds really good.

    As you describe it there are lots of threads that have a lot of potential to drive a good story and generate interesting characters.

    Though I have not read a lot of fiction involving crime, I think that it is a bit unusual for a book to center around the relationship between a decretive and a murder victim’s husband.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s a lot going on here, and Sacheri could have pushed the narrative in any number of different directions. That’s a good point about the unusual nature of the relationship…and there’s no sexual attraction between these two (or at least I didn’t detect any). I’m trying to think of another novel where a man involved in the investigation of a crime forms such a strong bond with the victim’s husband. Nothing springs to mind. Even though Chaparro doesn’t work in the police force (he’s a clerk in the investigative branch of the court), the fact that he can’t forget about Morales prompts him to do a little detective work of his own. So he ends up playing the role of detective so to speak!

      Reply
  6. Naomi

    Just watched the movie trailer, which looks excellent. But, the book sounds even better (no surprise there)! I’ve never heard of this one before, so thanks for the review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. Both are great, but I think I prefer the book over the original Argentine version of the film. Oddly enough, I just discovered that the movie has been remade with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Alfred Molina in the key roles – it came out in the US and Canada last week! Just to complicate things further, the plot summary looks a little different to the original Argentine adaptation, so it’ll be interesting to see how it goes down.

      Reply
  7. realthog

    I loved the movie, but at the time I saw it the novel hadn’t been translated, and somehow I’ve managed to miss that it has since been so. Many thanks for the heads-up and for such a glowing essay about it. *sigh* Off to the library we go . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved the original movie, too, but I reckon the novel is even better! You’re in for a treat as long as you’re fine with the slow-burn style – it’s not the paciest of stories, but I found it thoroughly absorbing from start to finish.

      Also, I just discovered that the original film has been remade (quelle horreur!). The new version has just opened on your side of the pond so I’ll be keen to hear your thoughts – do let me know if you catch it. (The UK release date is March 2016, so plenty of time before it hits the screens over here.)

      Reply
      1. realthog

        I heard about the remake the other day, and my immediate instinct was to run away as fast as I could. However, Pam had read a review which said that Julia Roberts’s performance in it is perhaps her best ever, so I may deign hoity-toitily to watch the thing if it comes on t’telly.

        Even so, if ever a movie didn’t need to be remade, this is it. The sole reason for the remake, so far as Pam and I could work out, is the reluctance of the US public to watch movies with subtitles. Oh, gibber. The gods themselves contend in vain, etc.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Haha! Yes, that was my initial reaction, too. Encouraging reports about Julia Roberts, though (and I do like Chiwetel Ejiofor – he’s a terrific actor). Maybe I’ll go along to see it when it opens over here.

          The reluctance of the wider public to watch films with subtitles must be behind a lot of these remakes. Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In was another excellent foreign language film that didn’t need to be messed with. A different type of movie, but that’s one of my favourite films in recent years.

          Oh, and glad to hear you’re fine with slow burn – I hope you enjoy. :)

          Reply
          1. realthog

            Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In was another excellent foreign language film that didn’t need to be messed with.

            Agreed. It was great the way it was. Again, I didn’t see the remake.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              I have seen the remake. It’s okay, but the portrayal of the central relationship in the original film was so touching – it’s very hard to top something as good as that!

              Reply
  8. 1streading

    I’d heard of this film but had no idea it was based on a novel (and one which had been translated) – it sounds great.
    In a bizarrely related question about Jenny Erpenbeck’s novels, try The Book of Words which is (possibly) set in Argentina during the ‘dirty war’.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s excellent, Grant…and I would definitely recommend the original Argentine version of the film, too – I think you’d enjoy it very much.

      Thanks for getting back to me with a recommendation for where to go next with Erpenbeck. It sounds excellent (and possibly better suited to me than Visitation!) – on the list it goes.

      Reply
  9. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    You just reminded me how long it’s been since I’ve read any South American literature. I like the sound of it, and I can only echo MarinaSofia’s comment: to work for the judicial system at that time…. I will have to ask if my mom knows or has this book. Sounds like something we might enjoy reading together.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that sounds great. It’s been a while since I read anything from South America, too – all my Spanish Lit Month reads earlier this year came from Spain.

      I found the ins and outs of the judicial system (plus the political backdrop) absolutely fascinating. It’s also very readable and highly engaging. The author provides just the right amount of insight, so you never feel as though you’re getting bogged down in an unnecessary level of detail (or at least I didn’t).

      Reply
  10. Maureen Murphy

    Hi Jacqui,

    Was just thinking as I read this, and linked to the reference to the “Literature of Doom” that there is a horribly serendipitous feel , with the events in Paris so recent. Living in Washington, DC, I remember watching the bombs fall in New York on 9-11, and, when hearing of the Pentagon bomb, instinctively looking up towards the ceiling with all of the my coworkers. We worked about a 5 minute walk from the White House. Now, with our friends in ISIS sending us glad tidings and naming our city, we have once again gotten used to walking by armed soldiers and dogs in the Metro, airports and train stations. Chief Lanier of our police force has urged us to use the 3-prong tactic of Avoid – Hide – FIGHT!, and we are all being urged to go to Step #3, if needed, to fight back against “active attackers” in the allotment of time (10, 20 30 minutes) it will take to have the police show up. There are even videos showing people throwing fire extinguishers, purses, and canes at intruders to stop them.

    In terms of the idea of “doom,” I wonder if there is a distinction between being under attack in a free and open city such as Paris, and being under occupation by one’s own government, as one would have been as a citizen in Argentina during the Dirty War. I was so chuffed to see the crowds out in Paris last Friday nights in the cafes in a sign of defiance. Perhaps less soul-sapping than living under state-sponsored oppression? Lots to ponder, but I hope everyone keeps filling the cafes, but is ready to fight if needed.

    Best regards,

    M. Murphy

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hi Maureen, thanks for your comments. It must have been very frightening for you around the time of 9/11 – I can’t begin to imagine what it must have felt like, especially as you were so close to the White House.

      As you say, lots to ponder here. The novel does a good job in capturing the mood in Argentina at the time – not that I was there of course, but that’s my impression.

      Each of the situations you describe towards the end of your comments presents its own challenges. At the end of the day, though, better to live in an open city than one ruled by an oppressive regime.

      Thanks again for your comments – wishing you a safe and peaceful time in the weeks and months ahead.

      Reply
  11. areaderofliterature

    I saw the novel at my local bookstore a while ago and debated whether or not I should purchase it. Like you, it has been a while since I saw the film so I could read the novel smoothly without having the film scenes interrupt. But at the same I wondered what was the point of experiencing the same story twice.

    It’s interesting that the novel focuses more on Chaparro and Morales’ unlikely relationship, rather than Chaparro’s love for Irene (which is how it was in the film, if I recall correctly). I’m not completely sold that I should get the novel but it’s on the “someday, perhaps” wishlist. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! I know what you mean about the value (or lack of it) of experiencing the same story all over again, but in this case I think the novel has something different to offer. Your recall of the film is correct – it dials up Chaparro’s relationship with Irene, so the romance element plays a greater role in the original screen adaptation than in the novel. The book offers more space for character development, so I came away from it with a much better appreciation of Chaparro and Morales (and the nature of the connection they form over time). It’s an interesting comparison!

      Reply
  12. BookerTalk

    i was so taken by this book after reading your review that I immediately started looking to buy a copy. Even in the second hand options this would be rather expensive for a paper back so i think I’ll have to wait a while…..

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you like the sound of this. It’s a good one to have in your TBR as long as you’re fine with a slow-burn style of storytelling. The original Argentine film has just been remade, so I suspect the novel will resurface when the new version is released. :)

      Reply
  13. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I was just reminded of this beautiful film with its gorgeous soundtrack yesterday when Arti at Ripple Effects wrote about the new Hollywood version of the film that is coming out, mentioning the original film and the novel. It had me finding the music on Youtube and listening again, it is such a beautiful soundtrack and the best kind of accompanying music for writing a review!

    The actor was brilliant, such muted charisma.

    The book sounds good too, more than just a mystery, was it translated because of the film or was it considered to have been of sufficient literary merit to crossover into English?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      What a coincidence! Oddly enough, I only heard about the American remake on Tuesday when it came up in the Google search for links to the film. Thanks for letting me know about Arti’s post – I’ll be heading over to read it later this morning. (I’m usually not a fan of these Hollywood remakes of foreign language films, but the new version features Chiwetel Ejiofor, so I’m trying to keep an open mind!) Yes, great music in the original film – I’ve very keen to watch it again very soon.

      As for the book, the English translation (published in 2011) came after the release of the original film, so I guess that provided the impetus – I’m sure the film must have increased the appetite for a translation. That said, I think the novel is more than strong enough to stand on its own merits. There’s so much more to it than just the mystery of Liliana’s death – the characterisation, in particular, is excellent.

      Reply
  14. Arti

    Excellent and detailed review of the book, Jacqui, and spoiler free. Indeed, the twist at the end is crucial. And have you noticed the ending of the award-winning film (2009) is different from that of the book? I think the filmmaker had done a great job there making it even more haunting. I’ve just watched the English remake of the film and have written a post on the three. Maybe you’d be interested. Love to have you share your thoughts if you’ve watched it as well. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Arti. I wanted to hold off from revealing anything that could be construed as a spoiler as the plot is quite intricate and best kept under wraps. And yes, I did notice the difference between the two endings! Even though it’s been quite a while since I last watched the Ricardo Darin version, those closing frames have stayed with me.

      Thanks for letting me know about your post – I’ll be heading over to yours very shortly. (Funnily enough, Claire also mentioned it in her comments above.) I haven’t seen the American remake as it’s not out over here till March, but I’m very interested to see what you think of it.

      For the benefits of others, here’s a link to Arti’s very interesting post on the novel, the original Argentine film and the new remake:

      https://rippleeffects.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/more-secrets-in-their-eyes/

      Reply
  15. Guy Savage

    There’s some good, interesting differences between the film and the book aren’t there? Did you hear about the American remake? Don’t think I’ll be watching that. I read another novel by this author, btw, which I didn’t like nearly as much….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely – I’m very keen to revisit the original film fairly soon just to look at those differences in a little more detail. Like you, I think I prefer the way the novel deals with the balance between all the different strands of the story. The original film is still excellent, though – Ricardo Darin is just perfect as Chaparro.

      Oddly enough, I only found out about the Amercian remake on Tuesday morning when I searched for an IMDB link to the film to include at the beginning of my post. These remakes of foreign language films are rarely as good as the original versions and in this instance Campanella’s film is going to be very hard to beat. I don’t know if you noticed it in the comment above, but Arti (of the Ripple Effects blog) has just posted a review of the American remake (along with notes on the original film and Sacheri’s novel). It doesn’t sound too great – if you’re interested, there’s a link in the previous comment.

      Oh, I think I recall you reviewing that other one by Sacheri – Papers in the Wind? Shame you didn’t enjoy it as much as Secrets – I’ll nip back for another read of your post just to remind myself.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it was a great choice for Richard’s event! Even if you never read the novel, you must take a look at the original film – I think you’d like it very much.

      Reply
  16. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  17. Richard

    I actually thought the movie was a bit simplistic and obvious, Jacqui, but you make me want to read the book anyway! No Ricardo Darín will be a bummer, I’m sure, but the way the types of chapters diverge and the extra layering/depth you mention make me think that will make up for what for me were some of the movie’s shortcomings. Interesting…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, well – it would be a very dull world if we all like everything to the same extent! Even though I’m a fan of the original film, I think the novel is even better. The emphasis is different with more focus on the Chaparro-Morales connection and less of the romance with Irene, so you might want to give the book a try. I haven’t revisited the film yet, and I wonder whether it might pale a little now that I’ve read the book. We’ll see. Still, there’s always Ricardo Darin to keep me interested. :-)

      Many thanks for hosting the Argentine (and Algerian) lit event. Richard. I’m looking forward to seeing what turns up in December.

      Reply
  18. Max Cairnduff

    Nice review as ever, and it sounds like a good book. Argentina really does have an interesting literary culture doesn’t it? I must (re)read Guy’s review, though I note he didn’t like the other as much. Will you try that one do you think?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. I do think you would like this one. Yes, Argentina does have a fascinating literary culture – the likes of Borges, Ocampo and Bioy Casares must have started something there. I have a Claudia Pineiro in my TBR as well – it’s the one you reviewed last year, Thursday Night Widows. I’m looking forward to it.

      After rereading Guy’s review of the other Sacheri (Papers in the Wind), I’m going to pass. It sounds quite different to Secret, so I’m hoping we might see another crime novel from him at some point in the future.

      Reply
  19. Pingback: My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading | JacquiWine's Journal

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