The Magazine

Spanish Mysteries

Rebecca C. Pawel's latest detective story, set in Franco's Spain.

Jun 21, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 39 • By JON L. BREEN
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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.