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The truth about Spain’s mystery novelist Carmen Mola: ‘We did not hide behind a woman, just behind a name’

The three men who wrote ‘La bestia,’ the thriller that won this year’s Planeta Prize, deny claims that they used a female pseudonym as a marketing strategy

Planeta Prize Carmen Mola
Jorge Díaz, Antonio Mercero and Agustín Martínez, winners of the Planeta Prize, in Barcelona on Saturday.QUIQUE GARCÍA (EFE)

The three men who, it turns out, were really writing the best-selling thrillers by Spanish mystery novelist Carmen Mola, have spoken out to tell their story following the controversy sparked last week when their real identities were revealed at the award ceremony of a major literary competition.

Jorge Díaz, Agustín Martínez and Antonio Mercero, professional screenwriters in their forties and fifties, were persuaded to come forward when their manuscript La bestia (or, The beast), a gory tale of child murders set in Madrid during the cholera epidemic of 1834, was named the winner of this year’s Planeta Prize, handed out by the publishing house of the same name. This year the prize money had been raised from €601,000 to a full €1 million, overtaking the Nobel Prizes in the amount awarded to the winner.

Díaz, Martínez and Mercero said that the idea for picking a woman’s name as a pseudonym was not deliberate. According to Martínez, it took only “a minute and a half of throwing around men’s names, women’s names, foreign-sounding names...”

“I don’t know whether a female pseudonym sells better than a male one, I haven’t the faintest idea, but it doesn’t look that way to me,” added Mercero. “We didn’t hide behind a woman, just behind a name.”

Carmen Mola had become a literary sensation, producing a bestselling trilogy about a female police inspector named Elena Blanco who solves gruesome crimes. The first novel, The Gypsy Bride, came out in 2018 and a fourth book in the series is expected out in March with the publisher Alfaguara, which is owned by the Penguin Random House Group – Planeta’s main rival in Spain. Under the terms of the Planeta prize, which only accepts unpublished manuscripts, La bestia will be published by Planeta.

Mola, whose Elena Blanco trilogy has already sold 400,000 copies, had also been marketed as a university professor in her forties and a mother of three who wrote fiction in her spare time and preferred to remain anonymous by using a pseudonym. She even gave interviews to print news organizations. EL PAÍS conducted an interview with Mola in 2018 through email, the only way that “she” would agree to talk to the media.

When the three authors finally revealed their true identities on Friday at the award ceremony, it caused a stir in literary circles and on social media. Beatriz Gimeno, a writer, lawmaker and former director of the Women’s Institute of Spain, said that the deception goes well beyond the realm of the literary. “Beyond the use of a female pseudonym is the fact that these individuals have been granting interviews for years,” she said in a Twitter message. “It’s not just the name, it’s the fake profile with which they duped readers and journalists. Scammers.”

FERNANDO VICENTE

All three authors now say that if they had guessed how successful their first thriller about Inspector Elena Blanco would be, they would have given it more thought and perhaps come up with a different name. “But the whole thing started to gain traction and built up into a wave that we could not get out of. There were translations, we were asked for another novel...” said Díaz. “We had to write something about the author for the dust jacket sleeve, so we made up that she was a university professor from Madrid. But she could just as well have been a taster of gin-and-tonics... First we said she had two children, then we forgot and said she had three... We haven’t been very rigorous about it,” added Mercero.

Penguin Random House is playing down the relevance of the fact that its rival publisher Planeta has lured the authors away with its million-euro check. But María Fasce, a publisher at Alfaguara, called it “a marketing operation.” Screenwriters are increasingly sought after by publishing houses due to the growing popularity of television shows that are often based on books.

In fact the story begins with a former Penguin employee. Justyna Rzewska, who used to work in Penguin’s international rights sales department, founded a small literary agency named Hanska in 2017 and sent Alfaguara Negra the manuscript for the first novel she was going to represent. This department, which specializes in crime novels, was looking for a writer in Spain who would have a similar impact to foreign authors such as Pierre Lemaitre or Joël Dicker. The manuscript was received by María Fasce, who was fascinated by the story but soon learned that Carmen Mola was a pseudonym and that the real writer wished to remain anonymous.

“In these cases, when a published reaches a deal with a writer, the deal is strictly honored. You act as though it were a writer who doesn’t want to talk to you and you wait for his or her great novels,” she said in a conversation with EL PAÍS. The book was an immediate best-seller.

The winners of the Planeta Prize, Agustín Martínez, Jorge Díaz and Antonio Mercero, with King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia.
The winners of the Planeta Prize, Agustín Martínez, Jorge Díaz and Antonio Mercero, with King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia.Albert García

The publisher said she could not comment on when she knew that Mola was really Jorge Díaz, Agustín Martínez and Antonio Mercero. The secret was always part of the process, even after The Purple Network came out in 2019 and The Girl in 2020.

“We’ve been lying like dogs for four years and several months,” laughed Díaz. “It’s been a long time since [I published my own] last novel, and more than one person had chided me for not writing anything else, for being lazy. And I would think, ‘If only you knew...!’”

There was a circle of people who knew something was up, but very few (and very discreet ones) who knew that one of the three might be behind Carmen Mola. But nobody knew it was the three of them.

Díaz, Martínez and Mercero said they are not expecting to begin a new saga with La Bestia. Then again, they hadn’t been expecting to write several books about Elena Blanco, either. “We’ve had a really good time working within this genre,” said Martínez. “We live by the principle of pleasure. We are hedonistic writers, not authors who suffer when they write, and I believe that when you’re having a good time, the book comes out better. That’s what we’ve always wanted to do, to have fun writing.”


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