Rebecca Pawel

(Jump down to read a review of Law of Return ) (2nd in series)

"Death of a Nationalist"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JUL 15, 2005)

Death of a Nationalist by Revecca Pawel

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 the next book in the series.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews
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"Law of Return"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JUL 15, 2005)

Law of Return by Rebecca Pawel

Carlos Tejada Alonso y Léon, who was introduced to readers in Rebecca Pawel's Edgar Award-winning novel Death of A Nationalist, has recently been promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the Guardia Civil and transferred from Madrid to Salamanca, a city famous for its university. Tejada studied law here before joining the Guardia during the Civil War. He is just past thirty years-old - certainly very young to be a lieutenant. However, Tejada's entire profile is unusual for a National Guardsman. He is the second son of a wealthy landowner, a conservative, and a staunch Nationalist. A Falangist, he backed Franco from the beginning. 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.

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.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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"The Watcher in the Pine"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JUL 15, 2005)

The Watcher in the Pine by Rebecca Pawel

The Watcher in the Pine is Rebecca Pawel's third novel featuring Carlos Tejada Alonso y Léon, and each book is more intriguing than the previous. Set in post Civil War Spain, the author accurately paints a grim portrait of a country settling into the "normality" of an uneasy peace. Atrocities have devastated both sides of the conflict. The populace's "us" versus "them" attitude will continue for many years, and even in 1941, battle scars are still fresh, as are memories of dead loved ones, and festering political wounds. Many areas of Spain are in ruins, and food shortages leave much of the population hungry - some are literally starving The descriptions of the humiliation, defeat and isolation of those who did not support Franco's cause is made palpable throughout Ms. Pawel's intelligent narrative. However, while Spain strives toward peace, law and order, the rest of the world is in the throes of WWII.

Carlos Tejada is one of the most well developed characters that I have met in recent popular fiction, as is his new wife Elena. They are both extremely bright, well educated, decent people, and polar opposites politically. He is the second son of a wealthy landowner, a conservative, and a staunch Nationalist. He backed Franco from the beginning. Now, as a lieutenant in the Guardia Civil, Tejada's Falangist views have been moderated somewhat through maturity, experience, and the influence of his spouse - the former Elena Fernandez, Socialist daughter of a distinguished Classics professor at the University of Salamanca. Carlos studied law at this university before joining the Guardia during the war. The couple met in Madrid, where she worked as a schoolteacher, while Tejada was investigating a murder. When Elena was dismissed from her position because of her leftist politics, she returned to her family's home in Salamanca, where Tejada had been transferred and promoted to the position of lieutenant. The two eventually marry here, after weathering some major adventures and solving a few mysteries.

Lt. Tejada is extremely pleased to accept a promotion and his first command with yet another transfer, this time to the Cantabrian village of Potes, a remote outpost in the Picos de Europa Mountains of northern Spain. He sees this relocation as an opportunity to lead his own men, and to get away from his difficult former commander. Tension had also developed between himself and some of his fellow officers when they realized he was marrying into a "red" family. Elena is now pregnant and not as content with the new post as her husband. After all, the area is extremely isolated and this is her first pregnancy.

The Tejadas arrive in the middle of a blizzard and there is no one to meet them. The officers at the small post are not exactly welcoming, nor were they expecting a woman - certainly not a pregnant woman with leftist leanings, (all documented in her file). Since there are no adequate quarters for a married couple, the two find lodgings at a local fonda. Tejada takes command of the small force, which appears to be sorely lacking in discipline. He also discovers that the former Guardia commander was killed by the maquis, the Republican guerillas, who still operate in the pine forests and periodically shoot at the patrols. Although the war has been over for almost two years, the small town is a center of smuggling and guerrilla activities. Sergeant Márquez, Tejada's immediate subordinate, is a man of questionable judgement, and the other officers, although good at following orders, are limited.

Within days of the Tejada's arrival, it is discovered that two shipments of dynamite have been stolen from Devastated Regions, a government agency responsible for rebuilding what the war destroyed. In the Devra Valley almost everything was destroyed. Carlos is beside himself. If the maquis have taken the dynamite, then every bridge and building in the area are in danger. Events really seem out of control when the corpse of a local man is found by the river. Unfortunately, Elena discovers the body.

Elena has become caught up in the problems of the town's inhabitants, who shun the Guardia...and her. She is obviously lonely, and her politics and friendly nature make her extremely sympathetic to the locals and their various plights. She discusses opening a school with the area's priest and, perhaps, teaching there.

This rich historical novel is much more than a mystery, although the sleuth-work and suspense are riveting. The characters themselves are the story - and a most compelling one. Obviously Carlos and Elena go through an adjustment period, as do all newlyweds. However, it is rare that a Falangist Guardia Civil officer and a Socialist, university educated woman, choose to make their lives together - at least not in the early 1940s in Franco's Spain. Their commitment to each other, however, to form a good life together, in spite of their differences, seems to me to symbolize the future hope of Spain. The supporting cast and sub-plots are also extremely compelling. Ms. Pawel spent more than a month in Potes, researching her novel. Highly recommended!

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews


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About the Author:

Rebecca PawelRebecca Pawel was born in 1977 and was raised in New York City. She spent a summer studying in Madrid in 1994 and fell in love with Spain. She also majored in Spanish language and literature at Columbia University.

Death of a Nationalist was nominated for Best first Novel for both the 2004 Anthony and 2004 Macavity, and won the 2004 Edgar Best First Novel. It was also a finalist for the LA Times Best Mystery.

She currently a teacher at the High School for Enterpirse, Business and Technology in New York City.

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