Monroe, Aly - 'The Maze of Cadiz'
Peter Cotton, a former English Army Officer, as a child lived in Mexico and Colombia and thus spoke fluent Spanish. He is sent by Military Intelligence to Cadiz on the coast of neutral wartime Spain.
Spain under Franco in September 1944, was for the most part, very poor and backward. It still suffered from the effects of the crippling civil war which ended in 1939 following the victory of the fascists. There was much poverty and strict rationing of all food. Often there were power and water shortages.
Cotton has the codename "Pedrillo" and his original operation is to go to Cadiz and relieve an agent named "R A May" of his duties, close the office and then return to the UK with May. However, whilst at the Madrid Embassy, Cotton is given a coded message from his masters saying that May is dead. His revised orders are to proceed to Cadiz. Secure the position and close the office.
Cotton arrives in Cadiz after a 30 hour train journey. The heat and oppressive humidity is absolutely sweltering. He discovers that "R A May" was gay and this, in a deeply Catholic country had caused him a lot of problems. Cotton also discovers that May had formed a relationship with a young 18 year old man but had been devastated when his boyfriend was conscripted into the Spanish army. He went for a last drink with him and then apparently disappeared. Some time later his drowned body was discovered.
Had he died of natural causes or had something else occurred? Cotton has to check all this out with help and advice from Ramirez, the enigmatic local Spanish detective.
I thought this charming debut novel from this new author really very evocative of the period and vividly recreates the almost stifling heat of a Spanish September. The plot consequently moved slowly and in a very deliberate way. Spain in the latter stages of the Second World War is finely and minutely observed and commonplace things that we take for granted, for example room service in a hotel with only one client, seemed to take ages to occur.
Similarly to the author, since the 1960s I've spent a lot of time in Spanish speaking areas of Spain, Colombia and other parts of South America and I was able to appreciate the author's authentic attempt at capturing the atmosphere and flavour of those countries. In Spain in particular, there is a procrastination about getting things done which the author has demonstrated, which makes "manana, manana" or leaving things until tomorrow or the following day (or never), almost too urgent! This can be extremely frustrating to foreigners such as Peter Cotton.
So the slow pace of this novel is deliberate and perfectly authentic as it captures the Spanish approach to life. Even so I found it a joy to read and a real page turner and I hope this author writes many more such books and I look forward to reading her next one.
Terry Halligan, England