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Law of Return (Carlos Tejada Alonso y Leon Investigation Set in Spain) Kindle Edition
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The proceedings are rather more conventional than the previous book, and the novelty of having a right-wing protagonist has worn off (in interviews Pawel has been careful to call him an anti-hero). Throughout his investigation, Tejada must tread cautiously due to a choleric superior and the influence of Slamancan grandees who are related to the missing man. Elena and her family must tread carefully due to both the precariousness of their situation (limited food rations and income) and the illegality of aiding someone trying to escape the Germans. These two threads gradually bring Tejada and Elena closer together, despite their being on opposite sides of the political spectrum. While the story is rich in period detail and atmosphere, neither plotline is particularly compelling (although a cross-border foray to Biarritz in occupied France adds some much needed spice). It's not a bad read, just not a gripping one, and nowhere near the quality of Death of a Nationalist.
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I wrote in my review of "Death of a Nationalist," that author Rebecca C. Pawel presents the reader with a very interesting dilemma. How does one 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? This continues to be an issue in "Law of Return," although personally, I resolved my problems with Tejada in the last book. I find too many admirable qualities in him to pass over because of his politics - which I am definitely not in agreement with. I accept him for the man he is, and for the man he has the potential to become.
It is 1940, and although the Civil War has been over for a year, fear, paranoia, hunger and shortages are everywhere. One of Tejada's new responsibilities in Salamanca is overseeing local parolees who must report to him weekly. There are approximately seventy-five, and many are considered troublemakers because of their Socialist leanings and/or former affiliations. Of particular interest are a group of four, all former university professors called "the petitioners."
These men are labeled "petitioners" because of a historical incident which occurred on October 12, 1936, at a public ceremony at the University of Salamanca commemorating Dia de la Raza. Keynote speaker, Falangist General Millan de Astray finished his address with the slogan, "Viva la Muerte!" ("Long Live Death!"). Miguel de Unamuno, a great Spanish author, educator, humanist and philosopher, was standing next to the general on the platform. He said, "Vencera pero no convencera."). ("You will win but you will not convince"). Enraged, Millan had to be physically restrained from striking Unamuno, who was immediately removed from his position at the university and placed under house arrest. He died two months later. Ironically, Unamuno was a devout Catholic and accepted by the Falangists. He had misinterpreted Franco's cause, however, thinking it represented nationalism. Manuel Arroyo, Guillermo Fernandez , Tomas Rivera, and Arturo Velasquez are fictional characters who, as professors, circulated and signed a petition protesting the treatment of their colleague.
There are times when I so dislike our protagonist, even though I understand his reasoning. This is due to the author's extraordinary talent in developing complex, true-to-life characters. She is also on-target when portraying the political conflict of the period. Tejada, when interviewing Dr. Rivera, thinks, "You were a damn fool to meddle in what didn't concern you." (Because Rivera signed the petition knowing there would probably be retribution). Yet one knows, from reading about him, that Tejada would never just obey orders or keep silent when faced with what he believed to be injustice. Carlos Tejado is an anti-hero, 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.
When one of the petitioners disappears, Tejado's investigation takes him to the seaside resort of San Sebastian, and then on to Nazi occupied France. On this trip he comes into contact, once again, with the lovely schoolteacher he met in Madrid, Elena Fernandez. She had been dismissed from her job because of her leftist politics, and returned home to Salamanca to be with her parents. However, this is not Tejada's first post-Madrid encounter with Elena. Her father is Guillermo Fernandez, a distinguished Classics professor. He is also one of the "petitioners" and a parolee. When Elena accompanied him to one of the weekly meetings, she and Tejada saw each other. The growing relationship between these two greatly enriches the narrative. Their mutual attraction, affection and respect, along with their opposing political viewpoints, makes for a good match and an interesting read. Both Elena and Carlos are extremely bright and literate people which provides a strong base of commonality. It helps that she is clever at figuring out mysteries too.
There is an important and moving side story here. Professor Joseph Meyer, a German-Jewish friend and colleague of Professor Fernandez, writes begging for help to cross into Spain from France before he is forcibly repatriated to Germany and sent to a concentration camp. The Fernandez family's humanity, as individuals and as a unit, is emphasized here considering the risk they are willing to take for an outsider.
"Law of Return" is just plain fascinating. Its originality is refreshing and the taut, well written prose is far different from what is found in many formulaic crime novels on today's market. This is much more than a mystery, however. It is historical fiction at its best. Ms. Pawel paints a vivid portrait of post-war Spain, whose people are trying to come to grips with past horrors and return to some semblance of normalcy. The author's descriptions of the humiliation, defeat and isolation of those who did not support Franco's cause is palpable.
I highly recommend "Law of Return," and suggest reading "Death of a Nationalist" first for maximum enjoyment. Both books stand on their own, however, without any prequel. I am about to begin the third novel in the series, "The Watcher In The Pine," and can't wait to get started.
It looks like Ms. Pawel has set down her pen for a few years. I hope she picks it up again. If she comes back to this storyline that would be great, but even if she doesn't I trust she will find another world to explore.