Translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne
So there I am at the beginning of July, wondering how on earth I am going to manage to participate in Spanish Literature Month because I’m in the middle of a busy, busy, busy summer, when the CWA announce that this book, which I really, really want to read, has won the 2014 International Dagger. I have a voucher which means I can get me mitts on it, without breaking the book buying ban (according to Mrs Peabody). I nearly fainted when it dropped through the letter box. At 561 densely-packed pages, it’s not a quick read but it’s all kinds of everything I like.
I’m really enjoying historical fiction this year and this one pitches me right into the Peninsular War, specifically into Siege of Cadiz of 1811 about which I knew nothing. 561 pages later I know lots: Cadiz’s strategic position, the ineffectiveness of the French bombardment, mainly due to French command insisting on using howitzers and refusing to use mortars, and the intense economic battle, waged primarily at sea. These were the days of the commercial corsair; mercenary pirates, we’d call them now, I suppose, but, having sailed the seas and braved the dangers of navigating the Bay of Cadiz, I can but be in awe.
Meticulous as the historical detail is (and let it be said, the translation – I bet Frank Wynne learned English vocabularies he never knew existed), I’m not going to pretend that the research is always invisible. However, it is only the odd paragraph here and there that reads as a history lesson. And there is repetition – perhaps a tad too much about the technicalities of French ballistics ….
That said, I’d rather read this than a history book, for it is alive. It pulsates with characters and viewpoints from all social strata, many of them quite unique: a taxidermist French spy, a young French professor turned artillery expert, a corsair dying of tuberculosis, the corsair captain, Pepe Lobo (I give you his name because he’s – well, you know – a hard man with chinks in his armour), Lolita Palma, a spinster in her 30’s and a shrewd business woman, fighting for the continued viability of the family firm. (In the end using those in her employ as cruelly as Napoleon his troops.)
In the seam that gave the novel eligibility for the dagger, there’s a murderer who is flaying young girls to death together with the detective who pursues him, Rogelio Tizon. Now he’s as complex a character as I’m ever likely to encounter, and not one I’d like to meet. A brutal, violent man, who does not welcome reform (i.e. the abolition of torture as a legitimate tool of police interrogation). After seeing him interrogate those he suspects, a process he almost enjoys, it’s hard to swallow his outrage at the serial killer. Yet there is more than an intimation of “a curious intimacy” with the murderer. How else would he detect the pattern of the killings and their relation to the falling French bombs? Only Tirzon would have the mendacity to enlist the enemy into catching the killer, and to ensure that when justice is finally served, it is chilling ….
It may not be the fastest paced thriller in the world – in fact, given that the climax doesn’t relate to the crime at all, it could be argued that the criminal thread is secondary to the historical. The Siege is nonetheless an absorbing, magnificent adventure from start to finish.
At this juncture I should rush off to read Pérez-Reverte’s backlist but consensus is that this is his finest novel to date. Apparently though, if I enjoyed this, I’ll enjoy Dumas and Stevenson. Well, I love Stevenson but have never read Dumas. Where should I start?
© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)