LitStack Review: Blood Makes Noise by Gregory Widen

Blood Makes Noiseblood makes noise
Gregory Widen
Thomas & Mercer
First Edition: April 30, 2013
ISBN 978-1-6110-9899-0

Is it truly “historical fiction” if someone takes a gap in history and fills it with a seemingly plausible set of events, using speculation to connect the dots between the points that are known to be true?  Especially if the fully documented and non-negotiable gap itself may have been met with skepticism had it been dredged up “merely” from imagination?

On July 26, 1952, Eva Perón, known affectionately to the people of Argentina simply as Evita, died at age 33 from cancer at the height of her popularity.  The second wife of Argentine President Juan Perón, Evita was beloved for her humble beginnings and for her work with the poor, the outcasts and the common workers.  Over 3 million people packed the streets of Buenos Aires during her funeral, and her body (expertly embalmed by renowned Dr. Pedro Ara) lay on display for years while a permanent memorial was being built.  But in 1955, Juan Perón fled the country after being unseated in a military coup, and the dictatorship that replaced him removed the body from display, and made it illegal to read about her, talk about her, or even to utter the former First Lady’s name in an unsuccessful attempt to allow her larger than life persona to fade.  For the next 16 years, the whereabouts of the body of Eva Perón was a mystery – only one of the mysteries surrounding the woman who was born poor and illegitimate and rose to become the most powerful female in the history of Argentina.

This is all documented.  Gregory Widen‘s book, Blood Makes Noise, does not concern itself as much with the events that are documented.  What it does capture is the mystery of just before and after those 16 years, from the time that Evita’s body disappeared from public view to when it was retrieved from being buried under an assumed name in a small Madrid cemetery, and the efforts to return her (or “Her” as she is referred to by some of the characters in the book) to Juan Perón’s Spanish estate, coinciding with efforts to return the former head of state from exile to regain the Argentine Presidency.

But Blood Makes Noise is actually more about American Michael Suslov, who in 1955 was an operative of the newly formed CIA, assigned to the fledgling operation in Buenos Aires, working out of the openly hostile office of the more established FBI presence there.  The assignment was meant to be a stepping stone in Michael’s career, and was a logical assignment for him as he had spent his childhood years in the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aries with his Ukrainian father, Italian mother, and beloved sister, Maria.  After tragedy hits the family, they return to Chicago but Michael’s early memories of Argentina help to set the stage for our understanding of events that come later, written in gorgeous and intimate prose of a well developed storyteller.

There would be evenings she caught up to Michael and he’d be standing on the sidewalk, looking up at the riotous hulk of their apartment building – purple corrugated walls, green shutters, orange cupolas trimmed with blue-and-red doors.  The lights would be coming up in each window, and with them the tumbling smells of bifes, pasta, and burbling tomato that mingled with canal garbage into something unreally sweet that shot to the back of their mouths.  Struggling through it all, as the sky fell and the gas streetlamps ticked and fussed, would be the thin, drifting sound of their father’s clarinet, and for a moment Michael knew his universe worked.  As the certainty swept out from this heart, he turned to Maria and she was looking at the same building, feeling the same confidence, and he put his arm around her and promised his sister he would always look after her.

After his return to Buenos Aries, CIA officer Suslov becomes acquainted with Hector Cabanillas, deputy commander of Argentine military intelligence, an elderly statesman and survivor of many political upheavals.  Hector takes Michael and his wife Karen under his diplomatic wing, making sure that they have at least one friendly face to gravitate towards at official functions, despite (and perhaps adding to) the coolness that emanates from Michael’s “team mates” from the FBI.  Both men develop an official rapport, and Hector makes introductions, feeds Michael information and tips him off in small but useful ways; both men realize that these favors will someday need to be repaid.

On November 23, 1955, at 4:00 am, Michael gets a call.  It’s Hector – he needs an impartial witness.  Evita is still a polarizing figure in Argentine politics, spurred on by rumors of millions of dollars of national money sequestered in impenetrable Swiss bank accounts, and the decision has been made that her body needs to be moved, anonymously, under cover of night.  “It is time that Evita Perón was removed from politics,” Hector explains.

But it turns out, that clandestine move is not enough.  No matter where the government takes her, no matter how controlled the “need to know” of her whereabouts are, memorial flowers still appear outside the sequester site.  The will of the people simply will not abate; she continues to be the popular Spiritual Leader of the Nation, even years after her death.  So, the decision is made – by those in power who fear her, and by those in power who love her – that Evita must leave Argentina completely, secretly, transported by people who  are trusted yet outside the compromised establishment, who understand the undertaking and yet will be able to maintain distance, who can make decisions independent from internal political turmoil.  So again, Hector calls.  But this time, once Michael answers, his life will never be the same.

All these compelling plot points alone make Blood Makes Noise an action packed thriller, worthy of the genre.  Author Widen, no stranger to blockbusters (having penned scripts for movies such as “Highlander”, “Backdraft” and “The Prophecy”) knows how to keep ratcheting up the suspense and keeping the reader vested in the developing characters.  He knows when to back off and give us some breathing space, and then how to knock us out of our socks again.  But whoever would have thought that he was such an engaging and lyrical writer, as well?

For one of the most compelling strengths of Blood Makes Noise, unlike many other thriller novels, is the way that the writing so effortlessly informs us of the temper and timbre of not only the times, but the land and the people – indigenous, immigrant, political or professional – and the conflicts that bind and separate them all.  Through Gregory Widen’s narrative, Argentina and her people become another character in the story – and not always a heroic one.

No one was sure how deep the topsoil was.  Eight feet or eighteen, black richness that sprung wheat like weeds and grass a hundred million cattle couldn’t finish.  So effortless the wealth of this place that its ability to absorb the abuses of its owners was legendary: “Dios arregla de noche la macana que los argentinos hacen de dia.”  God puts right at night the mess Argentines make by day.  So effortless, this wealth, it stunk with the stale tragedy of how a nation so endowed had added up to so little.  For Argentina should have been great.  But the easy land didn’t require talent, and its people produced none, becoming instead a place obsessed with its dead and alive with the thrill of its own self-destruction.

So beautifully written.  Yes, there are times when believability takes a back seat to chills and thrills, and more than once I wondered just how deep was that well of resilience that Michael had to draw on, seeing that he seemed to be able to overcome obstacles – mostly physical, but not all – that would have downed virtually anyone this side of Superman.  But I’m more than willing to sit through a few gratuitous car crashes (figuratively speaking) to be able to enjoy the way that the story unfolds, to learn the quirks and the quips of every newly introduced character, and see how neatly Mr. Widen’s tale slips into historical understanding.  (Don’t forget to read the Author’s Note at the end, to learn how many of the characters were real people and how many of the events described actually happened.)

In the end, Blood Makes Noise is indeed a work of fiction; a lively imagining of what might have been, given the framework and the hints and the conjecture of what truly was.  But along with a rocking good story is a deeper appreciation for the surety of a time, a culture, and for a heroine that to this day looms larger than life.  Well done, Mr. Widen, very well done indeed.

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