Cover image of "Mala Vida," a novel about the stolen babies of Spain

One of the greatest crimes committed by the fascist regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was to steal babies from leftist parents and sell them to affluent conservative families. And the practice went on even long after Franco’s death in 1975. At least 50,000 babies were trafficked over the half-century from 1939, when Franco seized power, to 1992. The vast apparatus involved in this despicable crime involved lawyers, doctors, notaries, and, above all, nuns and priests of Spain’s reactionary Catholic Church. French journalist Marc Fernandez brings that history into the light in his disturbing short novel, Mala Vida.

A novel about the stolen babies of Spain

A team of courageous volunteers exposes this crime in the novel. A crusading French-Spanish attorney. An incorruptible prosecuting judge. An aggressive investigative radio journalist. And a brilliant Argentine transgender detective who works with them all. Although the practice largely ended a quarter-century earlier, they find traces of it even in the 21st century. Together, they risk their lives to expose the aging men and women who are responsible. But their quest to find justice is complicated by a string of murders—of the same men and women they’re investigating.

Mala Vida by Marc Fernandez (2019) 166 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of dictator Francisco Franco, who headed the government responsible for the stolen babies of Spain
The fascist dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco ruled Spain for 36 years. He died in 1975, but his ghost continues to haunt the people of his country. Image: PBS

Stolen babies—and a string of murders

Mala Vida opens on the evening that Spain’s Right-Wing political party, the Alliance for a Popular Majority, or APM, has scored a major victory in national elections. (The party is a stand-in for the real-world Alianza Popular.) The Francoists will be back in power—and any effort to expose the crimes of the regime will face overwhelming odds. But for Diego Martin, the star attraction on Radio Uno for his explosive investigative show, an equally compelling event that evening is the assassination of a young APM councilman, designated to join the cabinet. We know that a woman has killed the young man, but Diego doesn’t. Nor do the police. And this is just the first of a series of seemingly unconnected murders the woman commits—a notary, a businessman, a nun—that unfold as Diego becomes involved with the issue of the stolen babies.

As the story proceeds, the two themes intertwine. With suspense building, the tale rushes to a shattering conclusion.

About the novel

The novel’s title, Mala Vida, is a Spanish phrase that translates literally as “bad life.” But in the vernacular, the term means “low-life.” And it’s that label that is more apt for the criminals in Franco’s government who perpetrated the trafficking in babies that’s the central fact of this story.

Mala Vida was translated from the French. The style is flat and sometimes awkward, but it’s difficult to tell whether the fault lies with the author or with the translator.

About the author

Photo of Marc Fernandez, author of this novel about the stolen babies of Spain
Marc Fernandez. Image: Paolo-Bevilacqua via Quasi du Polar

French journalist “Marc Fernandez is cofounder and editor in chief of the magazine Alibi, dedicated to crime fiction,” his publisher reveals. “He has been a journalist for sixteen years and for much of that time covered Spain and Latin America. He has co-written several works of true crime. Mala Vida, his first novel, was a finalist for the Grand Prix des Lectrices d‘Elle [a prize awarded by the readers of Elle magazine]. His second, The Guerrilla Social Club, has been published in France. He lives in Paris.”

For more reading

For an excellent introduction to the Spanish Civil War, see Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 by Adam Hochschild (The American role in the Spanish Civil War).

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