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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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.