SEPTEMBER SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Dead’ by Mark Oldfield

MADRID, 1982.
Comandante Leopoldo Guzmán has decided it is time to disappear. Franco is in his grave and there’s no place in the new order for the one-time head of the dead dictator’s secret police.

But first Guzmán needs money. Luckily, blackmail has always come easily to him – after all, he knows where the bodies are.

And so he should. He buried them.

MADRID, 2010.
Fifteen tangled corpses in a disused mine, three bound skeletons in a sealed cellar – a trail of dead that has led forensic investigator Ana María Galindez to one Comandante Leopoldo Guzmán.

Guzmán himself disappeared decades ago but she fears his toxic legacy lives on. Her investigation has revealed a darkness at the heart of Spain, a conspiracy born amid the corruption and deprivation of Franco’s dictatorship, a conspiracy that after decades in the shadows, is finally ready to bloom.

cover and blurb via amazon

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The Dead is a long-awaited book for me – I read The Sentinel and The Exile as soon as they were released, so I pounced on this as well. The Dead is the final in the trilogy of Franco-lover Guzman and the modern-day investigator Ana Maria Galindez, who is literally about to have history come back to bite her.

The Dead moves at such a fast pace you need to make sure you are stable in your seat. You could read The Dead on its own, but I recommend the first two just for the joy. The book lives is in three time periods; 2010, where Galindez is looking for Guzman, whom she has been tracking after forensic evidence put him in the centre of multiple murders and torturing incidents during the Franco regime. The book keeps jumping around, entering 1982, where Guzman runs the Brigada Especial; Franco is dead and the ‘glory’ days of being able to be a vicious fascist is over. Spain is concreting over its past and wants democracy to work. Guzman has one last mission, and wants to end his enemies. What I love is the little flashbacks to 1965, and Inspector Villanuevo who lives in tiny Llanto del Moro. A policeman living under Franco is bound to get caught up in something nasty.

Even with three time periods, the storyline gallops along, the flashbacks filling in details as Galindez tracks Guzman to the bitter ended. The reality of life under Franco and those fragile years post-death swaps out to Spain 2010, not exactly a prosperous time, but at least free. Those who were murdered in Franco’s name, those who are the ‘disappeared’ and the selling of babies all comes back to haunt Spain and Guzman in his final stand.

You all know I love these subjects. My own Spanish trilogy dealt with baby selling, the Brigada Espeical and the ‘disappeared’ from the Spanish Civil War onwards. Only, I like Guzman, even though he was the bad guy. I could never really root for Galindez, the history nerd in me kept referring to the other characters.

In Oldfield’s version, the story is more important than history, so it can appeal to a wide range. The series is neatly tied up and at least some of Spain’s ghost are laid to rest. Reading this made me want to dump all my own work and write another Spanish historical fiction immediately.

Click here to read my reviews of The Sentinel and the Exile

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AUGUST SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fatal Sunset’ by Jason Webster

In the hills above Valencia is a notorious nightclub called Sunset. When its larger-than-life owner, Jose Luis, dies suddenly, everyone assumes it was a heart attack. Perfectly understandable for a man of his age, size and lifestyle.

Meanwhile, all is not well for Max Cámara at HQ. His new boss, Rita Hernández, has it in for him and his idiosyncratic methods. He must abandon a complex investigation into home-grown extremism to check out what looks like a routine death at Sunset. But an anonymous phone call suggests otherwise…

Back in the city, Max’s journalist girlfriend, Alicia, is working on a lead that could turn out to be the story of her career. How her own investigation connects with Max’s at Sunset, and an unholy network of drug dealers, priests and shady officials protecting a dark government secret, will place both their lives in jeopardy and push everything to the very edge.

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(Before I begin – I make no apology for being MIA with Spain book reviews. I didn’t see anything I wanted to read for months. Admittedly, I didn’t look too hard. If I missed something worth reading, leave me a comment)

What can I say about Max Cámara. Fatal Sunset is the sixth book in the series (I’ve reviewed the others here) and the author has decided to really mix things up this time. Fatal Sunset is longer than the previous books, which is a nice bonus, taking in a far bigger plot than in the past. 

Cámara is a Valencian cop who was in Barcelona during the last book, another was based in Albacete. This time he is back in his home city, and out in the Sierra Calderona, the mountains outside Spain, aka my favourite place on Earth and the location of three of my own books, so I was thrilled to get into this novel.

The book starts off from the point of view of the victim, and gets weird fast. Page 2 has the guy reminiscing about his childhood, watching water run along the insides of his mother’s thighs as she washes her ‘down there’ (dude! wtf). But it’s okay, because he’s a victim and is dispatched.

Off to Max Cámara himself, back at the station in Valencia, and wow, he is a changed man. Cámara used to be a likeable, pragmatic rogue, breaking all the rules (in a city/country which was so riddled it didn’t matter). But that guy seems to have withered with age. The world is changing, and at least attempting to clean house, and the women now in charge of the station want everything done properly, not rude, not disrespectful, not wasteful or illegal. Only Cámara doesn’t agree. Cámara seems to go out of his way to be difficult right from the very beginning. He’s handled some high profiles cases in the past and now has developed one hell of an ego. Congrats to the author; it would have easy to just pump out another book with the same old character traits, but Webster hasn’t taken the easy route or written a flawless character.

Cámara likes to continuously point out that he comes from a long line of anarchists, like his wonderful grandfather, and how he likes the disorder and defiance that comes with being an anarchist. Only it doesn’t work for Cámara anymore. He is middle-aged; what he learned as a kid, and was influenced by family, isn’t so important, for now he has had plenty of time to develop his own ideals; he could be a grandfather himself. Cámara isn’t aspiring to be a good anarchist to make granddaddy proud, rather he is a breed of man, breed of cop, which is dying out, and he is rebelling against everything, like an angry kid.

Fatal Sunset bounces between characters for its point of view with every chapter, with enough characters to rival a Games of Thrones book. There is Alicia, Cámara’s girlfriend (girlfriend? She’s middle-aged too. Sidekick maybe), who is, as usual, digging up conspiracies and stories but seems to achieve little, which is a shame.  As Cámara and Alicia works to solve murders and unearth conspiracies, they never work together that well. We get to hear about how she makes breakfast half-naked, or the way her thighs wrinkle when she puts on pants, but Alicia is not a strong character anymore. She has also undergone a transformation, much like Cámara; failure to adapt has also left Alicia misplaced in the world.

However, there is Carlos, the ‘bad guy’, who is digging up stuff on Alicia, and Cámara by association. Carlos is a stiff, self-inflated guy, but the trouble is, he is better at what he does than Cámara and Alicia. The ‘bad guys’ are ruthlessly efficient, where as Cámara is an old-style detective in a new world and seems to succeed with luck as much as with experience.

But the whole theme of old v. new shines through in the short-burst chapters which flick between characters. There is no denying that policing (and the world) is changing around Cámara; the days of sitting around eating paella with his buddy Torres are done. The seedy elements of Valencia, and Spain in general, gives a feeling that the place is as stale as the endless cigarettes. Webster has done a fine job in setting the tone and the vibe of everyone and everything. It’s hard to be specific without giving away the big scandals Cámara and Alicia find (no spoilers here!) but there is a sense that if Cámara didn’t spend so much thinking about himself and how he liked to be different, he could have been more successful. Sometimes it is easier to bring something down by playing by your opponent’s rules rather than your own. Cámara never really figures that out, or at least, never gives it a try. Webster has made a character you want to see succeed, but also want to ring his sweaty neck. Kudos on that score.

There was one passage that stuck out for me, pg 193

Either side of the bag strap, her breasts hung low on her chest, nipples splayed to the sides. Below, her belly was taut and firm, yet the skin sagged in small crescents beneath the navel, where he first airs of her pubis crept up, heralds of the dark silhouetted triangle of her sex. Cámara watched in awe. But for her age, and the signs of motherhood, she appeared like an embodiment of Artemis, the Moon goddess herself out hunting during the hours of night.

And this is just a sliver of the long description of the character. Really, Cámara, really? The characters in the book are all barely described, yet here Cámara is, in the countryside perving on women who run their land nudist-colony style. She could look like a goddess if only she didn’t have qualities that make women real, like age and being a parent? Really, Cámara? The constant descriptions of women as objects makes me feel uncomfortable while I read. I used to like you, Cámara, but you are practically ageing yourself out of the system with the sexism and casual homophobia. Women’s bodies are decorative features to be described for entertainment, and there are people who use words like ‘poof’, as if they were shot out of a cannon in the 50’s and landed in the 21st century by accident. Cámara is circling around a world that needs to change, whether people like it or not. The criminals are evolving, still scum, but evolving. Cámara needs to as well. Both he and Alicia are essentially good people, but this time have not done a great job with their investigations or behaviour.

Congratulations to Jason Webster for his latest installment; six novels based on one central character is no easy feat for a writer, and Webster has successfully moved the character into a new stage in his life in Fatal Sunset, rather than just churning out a book which could have just coasted on the success of previous editions. Thank you, Jason; I have not had a book in my hands that had me turning the pages this fast in a while, or thrown it in frustration at times. This book is certainly not a boring read.

If we see Cámara and Alicia for book seven, I hope they get a holiday first! Cámara needs to chill and eat rice again, but ease up on the marijuana – really, at your age, Max? Just don’t ever leave Alicia behind; a crime character with a steady relationship is rare (no rolling through women like he’s at a drive-thru for Max), and one main reason that sets Webster’s series apart from the generic crime series that are available. I have no interest in reading any crime series other than Webster’s.

JANUARY SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Boadilla’ by Esmond Romilly

In 1936 Esmond Romilly, nephew of Great Britain’s ‘War Chancellor’ Winston Churchill and outspoken pacifist, went to fight with the International Brigades for the democratically elected Spanish government against the insurgent fascist general Francisco Franco. This is the unheroic, unsentimental account he wrote immediately after the fighting, fresh and personal like no other, spiced with dry English humor.

There have been other records of the part played by the British members of the International Brigade at the siege of Madrid. But Mr. Romilly’s is the most full. He is one of the two survivors of the original ten British volunteers attached to the Thaelmann Battalion in the early days of the war. So his book has its place in the annals of the contemporary struggle for liberty. He writes easily and simply. There are occasional breaths of Hemingway, but in the later chapters especially he displays a detached casualness—unusual in so young a writer (Mr. Romilly is nineteen)—that is genuinely dramatic and moving. Without heroics he conveys the feelings of those untrained enthusiasts (the author’s military experience was confined to refusing to join his school O.T.C.) suddenly plunged into a battle fought apparently at random. Caught between a cross-fire, the little group was almost wiped out. Their bodies were never found.

cover art and blurb via amazon and spectator

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As mentioned a few weeks in ago in This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 25: 1 -7 January 1937, the battles for Corunna Road and the fight to take the town of Boadilla del Monte, just outside Madrid, were chronicled by 19-year-old English volunteer Esmond Romilly.

The book starts off by promising to account the battle of Boadilla in a straight-forward fashion, as that it does. It tells a very simple story of what happened, all written while fresh in the author’s mind in 1937, as he holidays on honeymoon in France. Romilly came from a rich family, married in another rich family, but for a few months in late 1936 and early 1937, he fought to make ‘Madrid the grave of fascism.’ He had little stamina for the war, but he was an excellent example of unprepared men thrown into a poorly planned battle, so typical of volunteers in Spain.

The book starts with a background of all the main characters that Romilly met on the trip – Joe Gough, Harry Audley, Aussie Whateley, Jerry Fontana, Lorimer Birch, Arnold Jeans, Bill Scott, Tom Mann and Martin Messer. It seems in this short time, Romilly got to know these men very well. After the battle to claim Boadilla, he would go home alone.

The early chapters show him working to get by in France as he makes his way south, arriving in Spain by ship at Valencia. The Albacete training bases had been set up by this time. Romilly describes this as playing at soldiers. He had no idea how to use a rifle, couldn’t speak any Spanish and was constantly suffering dysentery. He met many Germans, Latvians and French men, as well as his fellow Englishmen, and the story tells of the usual difficulties marching with supplies and being hot, of the whole thing having a ‘field day’ atmosphere while away from the front. Romilly has given some people assumed names, most those who were German or went to Germany after the war (it was illegal for Germans to aid the Republicans. Those returning home were jailed).

One thing that stood out was Romilly being told by French communist André Marty that the Republicans needed three things to win the war – political unity, military leaders with experience, and discipline. They had none of these.

Romilly uses assumed names for the towns of his initial battles. Battle starts in chapter 5 when out of nowhere, Romilly finds himself under fire, his first reality in the civil war just south of Madrid. As soon as they hit the front at ‘Noreno’, Romilly gets lost under darkness, and ends up walking miles the wrong way, meeting up with others, and eventually making their way to ‘Melilla’ (thought to be Villaconejos. No one know why Romilly changed the town names). Though as dawn air raids strike, the men are lucky to have gotten lost and in the wrong town.

Romilly seems to run around, never really having a clue what is going on, where they are heading or what to do. Dysentery is the one thing everyone shares, and the bitter cold of being up on the plain around Madrid really hits home, with only those prepped by anarchists in Barcelona are ready for it, as the rest of the Thaelmann Battalion have to struggle on.

The battalion team up with the Garibaldi battalion and thrown into fighting in University City on the northern tip of Madrid. Romilly recalls seeing Moorish soldiers shooting into trenches were his comrades were, their bayonets slashing at those trapped but not killed. He details his time fighting in University City very well, saying the night smelled night ‘dead men, crackling flames and drizzle’.

Romilly soon is in Madrid at the Ritz, swirling brandy and bathing again. He gets eight days’ training in the town (now suburb) of Fuencarral north of Madrid, before heading back to Majadahonda, a village (now suburb) west of Madrid. Now the battles for Corunna Road and the surrounding towns are all on, and Romilly is sent to hold the tiny town of Boadilla. Under the air raids and against the well-prepped Nationalists, the whole battle falls into total chaos, of watching close friends die and running away in blind panic. One by one, as they retreat, Romilly’s friends are killed, not by the Moorish soldiers that anticipated, but by uniformed Spaniards.

Romilly is one of only a couple who survived Boadilla. He speaks of meeting English poet John Cornford along the way, another young Englishman, with his head bandaged. Cornford never made it out alive either. The few remaining living foreigners (just over a dozen volunteers from a combined Spanish and volunteer group of 15,000 at Corunna Road battles) made it to El Pardo (just outside Madrid) where they came to grips with the brutal losses.

Romilly was diagnosed with neuralgia, damaging nerves causing excessive pain, and was sent home, where he married Jessica Mitford, and then wrote the fresh accounts of the men left in the mud at Boadilla. Romilly went on to fight in WWII but died in 1941.