The Spanish Civil War and the subsequent thirty-six year rule of General Franco provides rich pickings for historical novelists. The turmoil of the times led to split allegiances across families and scope for advancement for those willing to undertake Franco’s dirty work. At first glance, Mark Oldfield’s debut novel might seem to be following a well trodden path but what distinguishes The Sentinel from other crime novels is the powerful central character. In Commandante Guzman, Oldfield has created a memorable anti-hero whose violent actions provide a disturbing metaphor for extreme violence that characterised the whole regime.
Dr Ana Maria Galindez is a forensic scientist employed by the guardia civil who is called to the site of a massacre in a disused mine. She discovers the role played Guzman in the killings and becomes drawn to his personality and his mysterious sudden disappearance at some point in the early 1950s. However, she and her lesbian partner come under the scrutiny of enemies who are obsessed by what the two women have uncovered. In 1953, we see Guzman head up Franco’s secret police and take sadistic delight in personally carrying out many of the punishments that he is ordered to supervise.
The book’s split narrative, oscillating mainly between 2009 and the early 1950s with some exceprts set in the 1930s, provides a tight structure for what is a pretty complex plot. By far the most interesting portions of the book are the sections set in the latter part of Franco’s government. Guzman dominates the narrative. Totally corrupt, he has little to redeem him for a reader. And yet he is a compelling read. Just when he is given some human qualities, such as his attraction to a young Republican widow, we find out he has a hand in her brutal humiliation at the hands of his guards. Part of the attraction is his enigmatic background that he spends most of the book trying to eradicate all traces of.
The modern day narrative is interesting and gives an insight into modern Spain’s attempts to document the atrocities of an earlier period, although I think more could have been made of this given recent court cases over the place of Franco in the country’s history. Nevertheless, it is a well plotted narrative with an surprising ending leaving the reader wanting more.
The Sentinel forms the first part of the Vengeance of Memory trilogy being written by Oldfield. Judging by the quality of writing in his debut novel, it promises to be a cracking series and, given the ending, it will be interesting to see how the other two books develop. We haven’t seen the back of Guzman, I’m sure.
Thanks to the author’s agent James Wills for sending me a copy of the book.