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Death of a Nationalist    by Rebecca C. Pawel order for
Death of a Nationalist
by Rebecca C. Pawel
Order:  USA  Can
Soho, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Imagine writing a first novel at age 25 and then having it win several prestigious Best First Mystery awards including an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America. Rebecca Pawel has accomplished just that with Death of a Nationalist.

Set in 1939 Madrid in the painful aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the book skillfully paints the cruelty and moral ambiguities of war. Franco's Nationalists, supported by the fascist German and Italian governments, have won the war. The foreign idealists, socialists and Communists, who fought alongside the Republicans, have gone home leaving the Reds in sad disarray, hiding in fear for their lives. The frightened general populace is caught in between, just trying to survive the food shortages amidst an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.

The protagonist is Carlos Tejada, a sergeant in Franco's Guardia Civil assigned to investigate the murder of an old friend, fellow Guardia Civil officer Paco Lopez. The authorities immediately suspect the killer is a Red. When an innocent woman, Viviana, is seen near the body, Tejada orders her execution on the spot. Viviana's distraught lover Gonzalvo, having already lost many Red comrades, now decides to take revenge on the Guardia Civil killer regardless of his own safety.

Pawel recreates a period that's neither black or white, but many shades of gray. As Tejada searches for Paco's murderer, he uncovers a world more complex than he realized, with many people who are not what they seem. Depicting her main character on the less popular fascist side was an unusual choice for Pawell, and it's fascinating to watch Tejada's thinking evolve. Tejada's investigation and Gonzalvo's quest for Viviana's killer eventually intersect in a surprising but satisfying conclusion.

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