Law of Return

by Rebecca C. Pawel

Soho, 274 pp., $24

WITH THE GROWING POPULARITY of mystery fiction set in the past, every historical period may eventually have its own sleuthing series. Post-Civil War Spain has been staked out by one of the most capable new crime writers to emerge in recent years: a young New York City high-school teacher. On April 29, Rebecca C. Pawel's Death of a Nationalist won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best first novel of 2003, and her second, Law of Return, has already confirmed that debut's high promise.

As Pawel's award-winning work opens, the Civil War that ravaged Spain in 1936 is effectively over, and Generalíssimo Francisco Franco has assumed a control he won't relinquish until his death in 1975. But times continue to be hard. Food shortages leave much of the populace hungry, parts of the cities are in ruins, and raw political wounds continue to fester. Carlos Tejada Alonso y Léon is an officer of the Guardia Civil, charged with validating Franco's dubious claim that Spain is now at peace. Though such matters are always more complicated than they look, it's clear Tejada and his colleagues are on the winning side for the moment--but on the wrong side of history. Tejada is a Falangist, a Fascist, and thus seemingly an obvious villain. But he is not a Gestapo officer or death-camp custodian. He functions credibly as an essentially decent man who thinks he is doing the right thing, however it may look from a different time or place.

Like many fictional policemen, Tejada has educational and class advantages over most of his fellow officers. He came to the Guardia relatively late and from the university rather than the military academy, but achieved accelerated promotion to sergeant before his thirtieth birthday. Attracted to the military as a youth, Tejada followed his wealthy landowner father's wish that he study law, with the understanding he could join the army after graduation if he still wanted to. His interest in criminal law made the Guardia "an obvious compromise," though not one that pleased his family.

To his hero-worshipping young partner Jiménez, Tejada has the aura of both war hero and supersleuth. The police relationships follow a familiar pattern in procedural fiction: the tough, complex, sometimes ruthless but basically decent cop protagonist; his semicompetent partner; his demanding, difficult superior. But setting them against a historical background little explored in crime fiction makes all the difference. Pawel's treatment of Tejada's ambiguous position as a likable, even heroic figure representing a questionable regime is one of the keys to her two novels' appeal, along with the solid realization of time and place and the creation of vivid secondary characters.

One of the measures of a new practitioner is how mystery fiction's many conventions will be followed, tweaked, or (sometimes) subverted. Observe how Pawel plays with the reader's expectations in introducing Tejada's first case. It is early April 1939. Seven-year-old Maria Alejandra, walking home from school through the Madrid streets, hears gunshots and finds the body of a Guardia corporal who has been shot to death. In her panicked run home, she leaves behind her half-filled school notebook, an unthinkable thing to lose in a time of strict paper rationing. The child's aunt Viviana, a Nationalist sympathizer in her early twenties, sets out to retrieve the notebook. Meanwhile, Tejada and Jiménez have been dispatched to the scene by their superior, Lieutenant Ramos, with clear instructions to "arrest anyone in the neighborhood who seems suspicious" and "if they're Reds, put them up against a wall" and summarily execute them. Finding Tía Viviana crouching by the body, Tejada reasonably assumes she has committed the crime and that the notebook in her hand has some sinister significance.

Pawel has set up a classic dramatic situation: The wrongly accused murder suspect is a Communist; the good-guy cop investigating the case is a Fascist. How will justice be done? Will a star-crossed romance ensue? The possibilities for suspense and conflict are more than sufficient, but what happens next shockingly undercuts the reader's expectations. Tejada feels certain Tía Viviana is guilty of murder, and he knows gang rape awaits a female prisoner. So he decides the most humane course, as well as the most expedient, is to follow the letter of his instructions from his superior. He shoots her in cold blood. Later, of course, Tejada will realize he has executed an innocent person, and he will be sorry. But given how cheaply human life can be valued in wartime, he is far from being as devastated by the knowledge as the reader might wish.

The murdered member of the Guardia proves to be Francisco López Pérez, with whom Tejada served during the Civil War. Tejada investigates his friend's murder, certain at first of who did it but unsure as to why. Meanwhile, Viviana's lover Gonzalo, a loyalist soldier severely injured in battle, is released from the hospital to the news of her death and vows to find the man who killed her, though emerging from hiding will risk his own life. The rest of the narrative alternates between Tejada's search for the truth and Gonzalo's search for Tejada.

WHEN HE VISITS the little girl's school, Tejada reminds the director he should have a Spanish flag in his office, along with a picture of Franco and posted words to the national anthem, but he offers the educator an out, suggesting the flag must have been burned by the Reds. Tejada is attracted to Maria Alejandra's teacher, Elena Fernández, a Nationalist sympathizer who is subsequently dismissed from her job because merely being questioned by the Guardia has made her politically suspicious. From their meeting gradually develops the romance of political opposites the reader might have anticipated earlier. Tejada and Elena find they both have connections to the university town of Salamanca, where he studied and her father was a professor.

The novel ends with the mystery solved but Tejada and Elena separated, their relationship calculatedly unresolved. Purely as a whodunit, the book is nothing exceptional, but as an exploration of its time and place, it is remarkable. One might carp about the occasional narrative cliché ("burst into tears," "exchanged glances") or politically correct anachronism ("chalkboard" for "blackboard,"), but generally the telling is fluid and graceful.

Tejada's first case has surprisingly little specific comment on the merits of the political situation in Spain but is more about the atmosphere of fear, mutual distrust, and distorted personal relationships that develop in such an environment. Pawel makes it clear there are decent people and knaves, true believers and pragmatists, on both sides of the divide. In her second novel, however, the stakes become clearer as the true face of fascism is displayed in sharper relief.

Law of Return opens in the summer of 1940, over a year after the action of the first book. Tejada, now promoted to lieutenant, and Corporal Jiménez have commandeered a first-class carriage on the train to their new posting in Salamanca. Part of Tejada's new job is performing weekly interviews with a group of "parolees," suspicious characters kept under government surveillance, one of whom proves to be Elena Fernández's classics-professor father. When she accompanies her father to his weekly meeting, the pair unexpectedly meet again.

Another parolee, Manuel Arroyo Díaz, a law professor from whom Tejada took a class in his university days, has gone missing. Arroyo, along with Elena's father, was one of four Salamanca professors who lost their university posts over a petition they signed in support of a colleague. Though the four professors are fictional, their protest was in reaction to a real event: the removal of Miguel de Unamuno from his post as rector of the University of Salamanca in 1936 after insulting Falangist General Millán de Astray. When a murder victim, found bludgeoned to death at a warehouse under renovation, is identified as Arroyo, Tejada doubts the body is really his.

In search of Arroyo, who he believes has faked his own death and fled the country, Tejada travels to Biarritz in Nazi-occupied France. There he again unexpectedly encounters Elena, who has gone to aid the escape of Joseph Meyer, a German Jew who is a family friend. When Tejada meets Meyer, he seems never to have encountered a Jew and to view him as an alien creature. Still, he helps Meyer to escape into Spain and offers him a strategy to save himself in the event he is found without identity papers. Under the 1924 Law of Return, he can claim descent from Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain centuries before and thus gain Spanish citizenship.

THE MYSTERY is brought to a satisfactorily dramatic and surprising conclusion. The personal story of Tejada and Elena proceeds along happy lines, though briefly derailed by the kind of boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl misunderstanding that is exasperating in fiction. The direction of their relationship at the end of the book opens the way for unlimited sequels.

Rebecca Pawel is a writer to watch. Her instincts will delight those readers who value intelligence over fireworks. Both novels have a continuous sense of menace but little in the way of contrived action scenes or choreographed suspense set-pieces. Instead, Pawel depicts the personal friction between fully fleshed and credibly motivated characters that produces much more satisfactory fictional conflict.

A regular writer on mystery fiction for The Weekly Standard, Jon L. Breen is the winner of two Edgar awards.

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