On the eve of the Spanish Civil War, an Italian detective in Morocco investigates a series of crimes in this debut historical novel.
In 1936, Capt. Faustino Equi, 36, has been sent to Tangier on a year’s exile from Italy, where he’s served in the carabinieri following his army stint in World War I. Equi has made life difficult for himself in Mussolini’s Italy by opposing Fascism, which he hopes to keep on doing in the Tangier International Zone, administered by France, Spain, Britain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and the Netherlands. But, as he learns from his boss, the Scottish Chief Inspector Inman, directives called “Tangier rules” apply. These include leaving alone Jews, homosexuals, and others targeted by Fascist leaders but, most importantly, “we keep arrests to a minimum and sort things out best we can,” protecting the zone’s reputation and stability. Both are threatened when a European woman’s body is found “wrapped in copper wire, doused in petrol and burned—perhaps alive.” A Spanish man’s dramatic suicide and confession seem to solve the crime. Equi doubts it’s that simple, especially after a second suicide (or murder?) of a retired Spanish officer, but Tangier rules forbid him from properly investigating. The stubborn Equi, whose aristocratic family motto is “Surrender everything but honour,” nevertheless persists, helped by some allies. But just as Equi is unraveling the final threads, Franco touches off the Spanish Civil War. In his series opener, Hughes makes excellent use of place, history, and character to tell a moving story that goes deeper than crime-solving. Tangier of 1936 comes alive in his telling, with its tangle of cultures, languages, people, and neighborhoods. It’s a fine metaphor for moral ambiguity, summed up by Tangier rules, a phrase so central that it should be the book’s title. Equally well-drawn are the tale’s characters, particularly Equi, who has a complicated past that includes an English mother, an abusive father, and a wife who died 15 years previously. But the novel would benefit from streamlining some of its slowly developed revelations.
A well-written and intriguing mystery; readers should look forward to the hero’s further adventures.