Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Review of The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield (Head of Zeus, 2012)

2009, Ana Maria Galindez, a young forensic investigator, is sent to a disused mine to examine the bodies of fifteen bodies enclosed behind a bricked-up shaft entrance. The bodies appear to be victims of an execution squad related to the Spanish Civil War. 1953, Comandante Guzman is head of the Brigada Especial, a unit answerable directly to General Franco dedicated to tracking down and handing out summary justice to former Republican combatants. Guzman is a brutal policeman used to getting his own way, but General Valverde and a group of Dominican gangsters attached to an American trade delegation are challenging his authority. Galindez’s discovery of the bodies provides a link from the present to Guzman’s handiwork in the past. As she investigates Guzman she attracts the attention of dark forces that seem intent on halting her digging. Perhaps Guzman didn’t disappear in 1953 as the records suggest and Galindez’s prying has raised a monster?

The Sentinel is the first book in a trilogy focusing on the aftermath and legacy of the Spanish Civil War, and in particular the exploits of Comandante Guzman. Guzman works to the orders of General Franco and runs the Brigada Especial, which specializes in hunting former Republicans, torturing them for information, and executing them. He’s a cunning and savage policeman who rules by fear and violence, leading his fellow officers from the front as he teases, beats, rapes and kills his victims. There’s really no redeeming side to his character, yet Oldfield manages to make him a fascinating protagonist despite his savagery. The Sentinel is told through three narratives, two of which focus on Guzman directly, and one by proxy. The first is his youth in the civil war, the second his actions in 1953 as he’s caught in a vicious power game within Franco’s court. The third is set in 2009 and tracks the investigation of a young but well-connected forensic investigator, Ana Maria Galindez, as she tries to uncover evidence of Guzman’s post-war activities. I have mixed feelings about the book. While on one level the story is engaging and interesting, on another it is uneven and over-extended. The Galindez storyline is unnecessary and unconvincing with respect to plot, relationships and dialogue and is driven by endless plot devices and for me the book would have been a far better read if it had been absent. For the first third of the book, the Guzman plotline was too much tell and not enough show. The second half of the Guzman story saves the book as the intrigue and tension deepens. My dilemma now is that I’d like to know what happens in the subsequent books, but I don’t want the same frustrating reading experience. Since both are longer than this one, I’m not sure that’ll be the case.

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