The Dead by Mark Oldfield

Review published on August 30, 2017.

There is enough action and excitement in The Dead to keep any thriller fan happy. The twisty plot should satisfy those who like an intelligent read with a serious point to it. The Spanish location will please those seeking the slightly exotic. I haven’t read any Mark Oldfield before but I enjoyed this novel so much I will be buying the two other novels in the Vengeance of Memory series and starting in on reading them soon. This is the third book in the trilogy and strictly speaking it would probably be more rewarding to read the others two first. However, even though the two main characters here are also the focus of the other novels this story is not dependent on the previous plots. Details from the earlier stories aren’t referenced heavily here. So The Dead can be read as a standalone story without feeling like something is missing.

The Dead is structured in three time periods and these stories gradually merge:

2010 – Forensic investigator Ana Maria Galindez is on the trail of Commandante Guzman, torturer and murder for Franco’s regime. Ana has no idea just how complicated and close to home the dark past of Fascist Spain will turn out to be for her and those she loves. When she narrowly escapes the clutches of Commandante Guzman (and a horrible death at the hands of his henchmen), her hunger for the truth remains undiminished. The problem is who to trust in a world where old loyalties to the dead Generalissimo still exist? Some will stop at nothing to keep the secrets of the past hidden.

1982 – Commmadante Guzman of the Brigada Especial has finally realised that his time is up, Franco has been dead for nearly seven years and he is an embarrassment to those who still have political ambitions in the inchoate democracy. The new order in Spain wants to forget about the past, bury it in a dark hole rather than face up to it. There is a power struggle between factions on the right and with the newly recognised left. Guzman is caught in the middle of it with one last mission to perform. He won’t go quietly, there are scores to settle and for a new life Guzman needs money.

1965 – Llanto del Moro is a quiet town, Inspector Villanuevo can drink to his heart’s desire and siesta all afternoon. That is until one fateful day in October.

There are a number of things to really like about this novel. The three time periods are really well handled and the story unfolds clearly and stylishly. There is plenty of mystery to keep the reader guessing and even though the general thrust is clear there are a number of twists along the way that make the plot edgy. Oldfield saves the best to last in an explosive ending that flips some of the earlier assumptions of the reader upside down. The setting is pitch perfect; from the seedy hotels in the big city to the provincial villages across fifty years. The attitudes and mores of the different times are well observed. There is a real sense of claustrophobic life under fascist dictatorship, the sense of control, fear and terror during Franco’s reign. Also, the dichotomy between the change to democracy and the forces that refused to bend to the burgeoning new era stands out. Essentially, the plot deals with Spain failing to come to terms with its past and with all those who won’t accept that the past is gone for good. The raw issue of the disappeared, the murdered and, most horribly, the trade in babies create an overall effect that is haunting and authentic.

The characters are interesting; gutsy detective Galindez, her loyal friend and lover Isabel Morente and, most intriguing, the villain of the piece, Commandante Guzman. He is genuinely nasty, a depraved murderer but at times he can be wickedly funny. Enough to make me feel a little guilty at being amused by the actions and words of such an appalling man. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t willing his demise or comeuppance from the first time of meeting him on the page.

All this detail of modern Spanish history is worn lightly, the story takes precedence. The Dead is a well structured exciting thriller, complex enough to tax the reader but easily read. The action is constant and the pace strong right to the end. I’ve always had a thing for Spanish twentieth century history and particularly the Spanish Civil War. So I was drawn to The Dead but that meant that my expectations were high – I am glad to say they were met. I think lovers of the Robert Wilson Falcon series will enjoy this novel. For me it was better than C.J. Sansom’s popular novel Winter in Madrid. If you like this book you might like The Sadness of the Samurai by Victor del Árbol – another book that deals with the fascist past of Spain.

Paul Burke 4/5

The Dead by Mark Oldfield
Head of Zeus 9781781851692 hbk Aug 2017

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The Quiet Child by John Burley

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The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

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