The uneasy relationship of three British schoolmates haunts their adult lives during the first years of Francisco Franco’s dark Spanish dictatorship in a novel from the author of the excellent Matthew Shardlake Tudor detective stories (Sovereign, 2007, etc.).
Shell-shocked and deafened, Lt. Harry Brett was evacuated from Dunkirk moments after the man next to him was blown to pieces. Unable to return immediately to battle, he reluctantly accepts an undercover assignment to Spain, where he is to look up his public-school classmate Sandy Forsyth to see whether Sandy might be recruited as an intelligence source. Sandy was not really Harry’s friend at Rookwood. He wasn’t anyone’s friend. The rebellious son of an Anglican bishop, Sandy was cynical and a bully, but Harry was as close to a friend as he had before getting kicked out for cruelty to a faculty member. Now he has turned up in Madrid, a sleek and prospering businessman, cutting deals with the Falangists and Monarchists who recently ousted the Republicans. It won’t be Harry’s first trip to Spain. He was there once before to see Bernie Piper, Harry’s best friend from school and Sandy’s arch enemy. To the great disappointment of his working-class parents, Bernie’s scholarship to Rookwood gave him a deep distaste for the ruling class they hoped he would join, and he eventually turned to communism and joined the International Brigade defending Republican Spain against the Nationalists. When Harry, undercover as an embassy translator, reaches Madrid, he finds Sandy in possession of Barbara, a Red Cross nurse who loved Bernie before his disappearance and presumed death in the civil war. Harry takes up with the couple, worming his awkward way into Sandy’s confidence. As Harry learns details of Sandy’s sleazy high-level dealings, Barbara learns that Bernie is not dead. He’s a secret government prisoner, and she immediately begins to plot his escape as Harry at last finds a little love.
Wise and melancholy and, eventually, very tense.