What I really love about participating in book clubs is that it can open you up to reading books you may have never considered otherwise. I’m part of a book club here in LA that is made up of alumnae of my college (Wellesley) and includes women of all generations who have a real passion for reading. Our conversations are always really interesting and the participants often bring unexpected book recommendations to the table.
Death Of A Nationalist is a novel I may never have even found out about without my Wellesley book club. Despite it’s 508 reviews and 4 star score on Goodreads, I probably normally would have passed over this first installment in a 4-part crime-mystery series set in Spain leading up to and during World War II. Though I wouldn’t rate this as my favorite book of all time, it turned out to be a really enjoyable read. Find out why below!
Death Of A Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel
Publication Date: 2003
Publisher: Soho Press
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Madrid 1938. Carlos Tejada Alonso y Leon is a Sergeant in the Guardia Civil, a rank rare for a man not yet thirty, but Tejada is an unusual recruit. The bitter civil war between the Nationalists and the Republicans has interrupted his legal studies in Salamanca. Second son of a conservative Southern family of landowners, he is an enthusiast for the Catholic Franquista cause, a dedicated, and now triumphant, Nationalist.
This war has drawn international attention. In a dress rehearsal for World War II, fascists support the Nationalists, while Communists have come to the aid of the Republicans. Atrocities have devastated both sides. It is at this moment, when the Republicans have surrendered, and the Guardia Civil has begun to impose order in the ruins of Madrid, that Tejada finds the body of his best friend, a hero of the siege of Toledo, shot to death on a street named Amor de Dios. Naturally, a Red is suspected. But when his doubts are aroused, he cannot help seeking justice.
What I Liked
The history. I have read my fare share of fiction and nonfiction set during or around World War II, but all of it thus far has been focused on Germany, France, England, the U.S., Japan and Poland. This was my first foray into a circa World War II novel that was set in Francoist Spain immediately following the Spanish Civil War. It was so interesting to learn more about the nature of the Spanish Civil War conflict by getting to know characters who were regular citizens and essentially pawns within this larger historical shift. It’s obvious, given the near-fascist nature of Franco’s supporters, that the reader is more drawn to feel for the anti-Francoist secondary characters Gonzalo, Carmen, Aleja and Elena, suffering with them through hunger, fear and despair. The author does a really skillful job, however, at also humanizing the pro-Franco characters in the book, like sergeant Tejada and the other members of the Guardia Civil, who show moments of reflection on their beliefs that demonstrate they’re in some ways just as trapped within the currents of history as their counterparts.
The flawed primary character. The main character in this crime mystery is a member of the Guardia Civil, which still exists in Spain and is the oldest law enforcement agency in the country. After the Spanish Civil War, the Guardia Civil came under the control of Franco’s government, and therefore its members were all picked from loyalists to the his regime. Our ‘hero’, Carlos Tejada Alonso y Leon, is a sergeant in the Guardia Civil and fought on Franco’s side during the civil war. Often, in detective novels like these, the investigator at the center of the novel is depicted as having rigid morals and superhuman sleuthing skills, which in my opinion caricatures and dehumanizes them. Tejada, on the other hand, is not only starting off his relationship with the reader on the moral low ground (being a Francoist), but also makes one mistake after the other in his investigation. I loved that he was a fully developed and humanly flawed person who the reader can see morph during the narrative, with the promise that his character progression may continue in the next 3 installments of the series.
The writing. Another drawback that often makes me avoid classic detective novels like this one is that often the quality of the writing takes a back seat to the action or suspense of the plot. It was actually the reverse in this novel. The plot, to be honest, is far from elaborate, and for the most part the reader will not be hugely surprised by plot twists. The writing, on the other hand, is at the level of really good literary fiction. Pawel knows how to construct a beautiful descriptive sentence, whether what she’s describing is a plaza in Madrid, the feelings of a character experiencing a trauma (see the quote included in the cover image for this post), or a spectacle of brutal violence. The fact that the writing was excellent, that there was plenty of character development in the novel, and that I was experiencing a part of history through a fictional lens that I never had before, made me more than satisfied with the somewhat simplistic plot.
What I Didn’t Like
I wanted even more history. As I mentioned above, Pawel has her readers experience the history in which this novel is set through the eyes and actions of her characters. Because all her characters are regular people, caught within this historical maelstrom, Pawel barely touches on the broader ideologies and historical events that surround the narrative. While the reader learns about the famine experienced by regular people in Spain during this time, the curfews, the casual violence and the discrimination, there could have been more about the Civil War as a whole to set the scene for the characters’ lives. I think other authors I’ve read have done a better job of not only covering the mundane and personal to their characters but also delving into that broader backdrop throughout their novels to give their readers a stronger footing from which to experience the narrative.
Thoroughly enjoyable crime mystery through which you’ll learn about the Spanish Civil War and Francoist Spain, that will keep you wondering about what sergeant Tejada will get up to in the next novel.
About The Author
Rebecca Pawel was born and raised in New York City. Her first exposure to things Iberian came when she started studying flamenco and classical Spanish dance in junior high school. She spent a summer studying in Madrid in 1994, fell in love with Spain, and has tried to get back whenever possible, either physically or in spirit through writing novels. She also majored in Spanish language and literature at Columbia University.
She wrote all four of the Tejada novels in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn from 2000 to 2011, and also taught Spanish there for two years. In September 2013 she started pursuing her PhD in English And Comparative Literature at Columbia’s Graduate School Of Arts And Sciences.
The Other Books In The Series (Plot Teasers Contain Spoilers)
Law Of Return (2004)
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Lieutenant Carlos Tejada has been transferred to Salamanca, where he studied law before the Civil War. His new duties include monitoring parolees—former professors who were fired for protesting a Franco decree. Elena Fernandez, having lost her job because of her political leanings, has returned home to Salamanca from Madrid, where she and Tejada were first romantically involved. Her father, one of the parolees, was a distinguished professor of Classics. He has just received a letter from a Jewish friend, Professor Joseph Meyer, begging for help to cross into Spain from France before he is forcibly repatriated to Germany. Professor Fernandez cannot violate his parole by traveling to the border town of San Sebastian, so Elena goes in his stead. Tejada, tracing a missing parolee, also finds himself there, and their paths fatefully cross again.
The Watcher In The Pine (2005)
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Spain, 1940. Potes, a remote northern mountain village, is Carlos Tejada’s first independent Guardia Civil command. He soon discovers that this “promotion” is a mixed blessing. The villagers are unwelcoming. He and his pregnant wife, Elena, have no place to live but the jail, and his own men seem strangely hostile. Is it just their suspicion of his wife’s Republican sympathies? Or is there more going on in the beautiful but bleak area, recently devastated by the civil war? Tejada discovers that there may, indeed, be a new outbreak of that war with Potes as its epicenter. And he must find a way to reconcile his love for his wife with his duty.
The Summer Snow (2006)
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
In the city of Granada, Spain, bastion of the conservative Catholic aristocracy, fear of the red menace remains strong in 1945. One rich, elderly lady summons the police to her home almost once a week, sure Communists are plotting against her. She changes her will almost as often. When she is found dead, the long-suffering police can’t believe that she really may have been murdered. But as her latest will has vanished, the death must be investigated.
Influence is exerted to have Lieutenant Carlos Tejada Alonso y Léon transferred temporarily from Potes, in the northern mountains, to take charge because the old lady is his grandaunt. And one of the chief suspects is his father. The family expects Tejada to exonerate its members, but Tejada is a man who puts duty first.
Have you read Rebecca Pawel’s crime mysteries? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my other recent Just Read reviews, including for financial advice book Worth It By Amanda Steinberg, nonfiction pick Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt, historical fiction novel Before The Rains by Dinah Jefferies and contemporary fiction novel This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel.
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