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The Siege    by Arturo Perez-Reverte order for
by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2014 (2014)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Siege opens in 1811 Cádiz, the port city besieged by Napoleon's army. Bombardment is routine but the bombs don't do huge amounts of damage, most of them not even exploding. However, a serial killer lurks within the city and his timing seems to relate to the cannon fire as his young female victims are found (brutally flogged but not raped) close to the location of French bombs.

Perez-Reverte follows many characters on both sides of the war at a pace that reminded me of a stately Spanish dance, individuals meeting in brief encounters and then moving on. One is Police Comisario Rogelio Tizón, a brutal but effective investigator who is puzzled and obsessed by this case. Early on we get to know taxidermist Gregorio Fumagal who is also a spy for the French. He seems a probable match for the killer - misdirection by the author?

Lolita Palma is heiress to a wealthy merchant family in Cadiz and, after the deaths of her father and brother, runs the family business skillfully and successfully. On the advice of an old family friend, she invests in a corsair cutter and so meets tough Captain Pépé Lobo. An unlikely attraction grows between them - in her thirties, she is considered an old maid, and his station is far below hers; he is no gentleman.

On the French side, Captain Desfosseux (a physics professor before the war) is obsessed with the science of ballistics. He knows how to do greater damage to Cadiz, but his superiors don't listen to him. Spaniard Felipe Mojarra guides Captain Virués through the swampland on a regular basis, to spy on the French side. Mojarra's daughter works as a maid to Lolita Palma. Virués and Lobo are enemies.

As these characters all dance around each other, it's easy to overlook the killer, whose identity surprised me. But the novel's true mystery - how the murderer predicted where bombs would fall - is never fully unveiled. The Siege takes readers to historical Cadiz and explores it in both depth and breadth. Though it is also a mystery it would be of most interest to fans of historical novels, of which it is a master work.

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