The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield

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The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: In 2009 a forensic scientist starts to investigate a war grave, but the real action focuses on 1953 and a power struggle involving one of Franco's most brutal henchmen. The modern day story stretches belief but the historical take is scarily plausible. Not nice, but good reading all the same.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 585 Date: October 2012
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 9781908800183

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Plaza De Toros, Badajoz, 15th August 1936: a group of prisoners are marched across the sands of the bullring, lined up against the barrera and, mown down rifle-fire. The first group of many.

Cut to 2009. In the mountains known as the Sierra de Gredos in central Spain, there was a mine. For some reason it was abruptly closed in 1953. On another newbie-assignment forensic investigator Dr Ana Maria Galindez is about to find out why.

Fifteen corpses at a guess, the skeletons jumbled and dumped in heap. None of them died naturally. Just another war grave.

Galindez was bored by this work. She hadn't studied for so long to just bag and tag people long dead, and if not forgotten, wished to be so. There'd even been an Act of Parliament to try to close the books on what had happened back then. Trying to live up to her father's memory, but haunted by the fact that all she can remember of him is the morning his car was blown up by separatist bombers, Galindez is driven to do right.

In Spain even in 2009, the fact that she is a lesbian, just complicates life even more than it should. There's no real reason why one of Oldfield's central characters should be gay, but it does serve as a useful plot device to introduce some elements that wouldn't work without it. Or at least wouldn't work as well. And if some of those come across as just a tad misogynist, I'm sure that's just my mis-reading.

She doesn't just happen to be a karate expert… he gives her a back-story to justify it. He also makes her good, but not necessarily, always, good enough.

Because being called in to investigate those fifteen bodies will turn out to be anything other than just another day at the office.

At the scene she meets Profesora Louisa Ordoñez, professor of contemporary history at the University Complutense in Madrid. Ordoñez is researching the life of the Hero of Badajoz, one Comandante Guzmán.

The Profesora's approach to history isn't quite the same as Ana Maria's, but to begin with they find a way to use that as complementary to the research.

To begin with…

So much for the investigators. Let's go back. Madrid. 1953. Guzmán is head of the Brigada Especial, Franco's secret police force. Not quite so secret. Everyone knows enough about them not to mess with them, not to charge them for their brandy and tapas, not to want to end up anywhere near the Comisaria on the Calle De Robles. They don't know exactly how bad it will be for them if they do, because generally no-one who goes in, comes out again.

Guzmán is doing ok. Life is hard. Spain is economically bankrupt and if people aren't literally starving in the streets, many of them aren't far from it. There is food and drink for those with money to pay, but having the money means having a job, and having a job is entirely dependent upon having been on the right side in the civil war that ended a decade and a half previously. The regime does not forget. The people do better by not forgetting either.

Life is brutal.

Guzmán is even more so. He is a killer. Franco's favourite executioner. He justifies his existence by choosing to believe that he is working (as ever) for a Spain united, great and free. Freedom is relative.

In 1953 he has problems. A new lieutenant has been assigned to him, one with no taste for the job and a tendency to throw up at inopportune moments. His superior officer is on his case. The mad Seargent who serves as his real second-in-command has to be watched, because even by Guzmán's standards he enjoys his job way too much.

And then we're back in 1936 at Badajoz…a kid trying to escape the nationalists as all of his comrades are falling and dying around him. A daring escape into the hills, a hope…

These are the strands of Oldfield's novel. The aftermath of the battle in 1936, the events in 1953 which led up to Guzmán's disappearance (he hasn't been seen since) and the 2009 historic-cum-scientific investigation into the man.

We switch from one to the other without warning, but that doesn't jar as much as might, because the story is told in short interrupted bursts anyway. Although formally divided into chapters, each of those is broken down further into short sections, each preceded by the scene information. To begin with this is as annoying as Oldfield's use of Spanish, but eventually you do get used to both.

The Spanish is a real irritant until you finally start to get into the story. The pages are littered with it. Some of it is where you'd expect it. The titles (Señor, Profesora), the army or police ranks (Comandante, Teniente). Ordinary phrases (Buenos tardes, que pasa…) Local swear words and the like.

Occasionally there are longer phrases, some of which go on to be explained, others that we're left to work out for ourselves.

None of that was the real problem. The problem is that every Spanish word is -italicised. So it is emphasised. The result is that rather than do what I imagine is intended and reinforce the Spanishness of the setting, it simply brings the reader up sharp against the unreality of it.

Trying too hard methinks. Though to be fair, I'm not sure whether that criticism is levelled at the author or the editor. Either way, if this is the first of a trilogy as some commentators suggest, I urge future volumes to be less heavy-handed in their deployment of the lingua franca. Use it by all means, just don't underline the fact that you're doing so. We can work it out!

As for the stories…

1936 is really one short episode, told in fragments, to back-light the main action. It's well told, drip-fed with accuracy.

2009 is the weakest of the three. The action is hot and rapid, but the motivations are flimsy and the characters not substantial enough to carry the weight they're asked to. The idea of the Sentinels – the gold-ring wearing, conspirators, working to restore the fascist regime – has a touch of the Dan Browns about it that really isn't necessary.

Fortunately we spend most of the book in 1953, by far the strongest of the three elements. Strong enough to stand alone in fact, though I can see why a historian or a criminologist would want to put it in true context. In terms of atmosphere this is Spain at its darkest since the days of the Inquisition: mediaeval torture in dripping dank vaults is back on the agenda, but this time there are more direct measures as well. The anti-hero shows traces of maybe being human on occasions, but only enough to make you wonder. The tale twists and turns with everyone a potential traitor, political intrigue, drugs, international trade politics all slither along the side-lines of a story which is really about one man's fight for survival. The fact that he isn't a good man somehow doesn't stop the reader from being drawn to him.

It is explosive. Nasty. Violent in a cold, calculated, business-like way.

It is also horribly believable.

Plaza De Toros, Badajoz, 15th August 1936: a group of prisoners are marched across the sands of the bullring, lined up against the barrera and, mown down rifle-fire. The first group of many. This is the opening of Oldfield's bloody novel about the Spanish Civil war and its aftermath in Franco's Spain. It is also true.

The battle of Badajoz actually happened, the inhabitants of the town near the border with Portugal were rounded up and slaughtered. The general in charge did become a minister in Franco's regime. I hesitate to call it a government.

Las Trece Rosas(the Thirteen Roses) who are referenced in Ana Maria's search for forensic evidence are also real. They were: Carmen Barrero Aguado (age 24), Martina Barroso García (age 22), Blanca Brissac Vázquez (age 29), Pilar Bueno Ibáñez (age 27), Julia Conesa Conesa (age 19), Adelina García Casillas (age 19), Elena Gil Olaya (age 20), Virtudes González García (age 18), Ana López Gallego (age 21), Joaquina López Laffite (age 23), Dionisia Manzanero Salas (age 20), Victoria Muñoz García (age 19), and Luisa Rodríguez de la Fuente (age 18). They were captured, imprisoned, tortured, humiliated and ultimated shot by a firing squad against a cemetery wall, after the war had ended, but just as another war was beginning, one that would lend increased power and fascist support to Franco.

These are just two details among many that lend weight to The Sentinel. I dread to think how much else came directly from the Author's research.

I studied modern European social history as part of my degree course many years ago and remember reading an academic primer Dictatorship to Democracy, but whilst I do remember reading and highlighting night after night… I suspect the images of Franco's Spain slipped into my subconscious through The Sentinel will linger longer.

Four stars because it takes such a time to get into it. Without the irritations it could easily have been a 5.

For more Spanish crime with historical links, you could do a lot worse than Blood Wedding by P J Brooke

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