As a novelist, Ian Colford is a great short-story writer. The author of the 2008 story collection Evidence, which was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award and won the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award, Colford seems reluctant to abandon altogether the conventions of the shorter form; his debut novel is episodic and unfocused, in addition to being overly expository and overlong.
Set in an unnamed South American country, The Crimes of Hector Tomás opens in 1947 with Enrique, the scholarly scion of the titular family. At 36 years of age, Enrique marries his 18-year-old housekeeper, who bears him seven children before the couple lapses into an entirely platonic relationship. Enrique’s secret is that he has turned to underage boys for sexual succour; when his son, Hector, discovers his father’s transgressions, he attacks one young paramour and is sent away to avoid arrest and imprisonment. This exile backfires, however, when Hector finds himself accused of terrorism after insurgent rebels blow up a bus.
There is no denying Colford’s ambition. Epic in scope, his novel attempts to trace the trajectory of a rebellion and the subsequent government crackdown by examining the effects these political events have on Hector and those closest to him, in particular his father and his girlfriend, Nadia. Colford is merciless in his depiction of the government’s ruthless attempts to retain power, which include “disappearing” Hector’s older brother, who is suspected of working with the rebels. The violence in the novel is plentiful and brutal, and one torture scene is described in such unsparing detail the reader is forced to put the book aside to regroup.
However, Colford forces his title character to share centre stage with a variety of other figures, including Enrique, Nadia, and – most egregiously – a retired military man recalled to service who isn’t introduced until three-quarters of the way through the novel (at which point we are treated to his entire backstory, only part of which proves relevant). The shifting focus makes it difficult to know what to pay attention to.
Colford also resorts to exposition, often contained in letters sent to various characters, to fill in important information, which dilutes the tension the novel is attempting to build. At its best, The Crimes of Hector Tomás is a powerful examination of the lengths people will go to survive under a repressive regime. But despite a strong ending, it is too long and too diffuse to be entirely effective.