Author Rebecca C. Pawel presents the reader with a very interesting dilemma from the first page of her most original whodunit, the Edgar Award-winning "Death Of A Nationalist." How does the reader empathize with a protagonist who is a member of the Fascist cause, one of the victors in Spain's bitter, bloody Civil War? How does one embrace, in a literary fashion, someone who works to enforce Fascist policies, especially when we meet him in the act of killing an innocent civilian?
The novel is set in Madrid, 1939, in the terrible aftermath of a war which ravaged Spain from 1936 to 1939. Generalissimo Francisco Franco and the Nationalists have prevailed over the Republicans, who backed the democratically elected and progressive Popular Front government. Large numbers of American volunteers went to Spain during this period, under the auspices of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, to defend the Spanish Republic against the military rebellion led by General Franco, who was aided by Hitler and Mussolini. The men and women, who fought from 1937 through 1939, represented the last hope of stopping the spread of international fascism. The Lincolns fought alongside the Spanish and approximately 35,000 anti-fascists from fifty-two countries who, like themselves, sought to "make Madrid the tomb of fascism."
Ms. Pawel accurately paints a grim portrait of post-war Madrid, a city settling into the "normality" of an uneasy peace. Atrocities have devastated both sides. The populace's "us" versus "them" attitude will continue for many years, and at this early stage, battle scars are still fresh, as are memories of dead loved ones, and festering political wounds. Many areas of the city are in ruins, and food shortages leave much of the population hungry - some are literally starving. Carlos Tejada Alonso y Léon is an officer, (sergeant), of the Guardia Civil, a rank rarely obtained by a young man not yet thirty years-old. Tejada is the second son of a wealthy landowner, a conservative and a staunch Nationalist. A Falangist, who backed Franco from the beginning, he studied law in Salamanca before joining the Guardia. Now he enforces the laws and policies of the Generalissimo's authoritarian government, and searches for "enemies of the state," usually Republicans, who are jailed, sometimes tortured, and frequently killed. Tejada is basically a decent man, a hero of the siege of Toledo - and while I am certainly not an apologist for Fascism, (on the contrary), there must have been some good people who fought and believed in the Nationalist cause, even if they were on the wrong side of history. One has to read the book to determine if it is possible to accept Sergeant Carlos Tejada Alonso y Léon for the man he is.
The story opens with the sergeant and one of his subordinates investigating the death of a fellow Guardia member. Reports have it that the man was shot by a sniper. Unfortunately, when Tejada arrives at the murder scene, he discovers the corpse of his best friend, who shared with him the long hardships of Toledo. He also finds a young woman near the body, clutching a notebook in her hands. After some words with her, he decides she is a "red," (she is wearing a red scarf, after all), and probably the murderer. He shoots her in cold blood. This brutal act will change him forever. Later, as he investigates further and begins to have doubts, he becomes driven to seek justice. During the investigation process, he comes into contact with various "rebels," and a lovely Socialist schoolteacher, Elena Fernandez. As he meets more politically diverse people, and converses with those who would have been adversaries a short time before, the more human their faces become to him. Tejado also begins to discover flaws in his own personal and professional attitude.
This novel is just plain fascinating. Its originality is refreshing and the taut, intelligent, well written narrative is far different from the formulaic crime novels usually found on the market. Ms. Pawel's anti-hero Tejada is a complex character, struggling with his personal political beliefs, his firmly entrenched dedication to justice and the law, and the grim post-war situation he finds himself in. He begins to understand that in the tonal scale of life, the differences between right and wrong are more subtle and variegated than black and white. The author's descriptions of the wounded streets of Madrid are eerie and unsettling - as is the overall ambiance.
"Death of a Nationalist" is the first of a series of novels featuring Sergeant Tejada. I have already ordered book 2. Highly recommended!