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by Aly Monroe
John Murray, November 2008
293 pages
16.99 GBP
ISBN: 1848540256

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE MAZE OF CADIZ opens with British agent Peter Cotton arriving in Madrid in September 1944 on his first mission which, initially, is to proceed to Cadiz and relieve another agent, R.A. May, of his duties, arresting him if necessary. Within the first chapter however these orders are changed as Cotton is informed that May is dead and he now has to ensure that everything is tidied up. In the case of this book any further plot details would be injurious to the reader's pleasure.

All good things come to those who wait - in this case, for me, an excellent debut novel! Mysteries set during the Second World War seem to be very much in vogue at the moment, but Monroe sets THE MAZE OF CADIZ completely apart by locating it in Spain. I, and I suspect the vast majority of non-Spanish readers, know almost nothing about Spain during the Second World War so Monroe is covering virgin territory, and she does so with great skill and aplomb. The historical, political and social situations are all conveyed with vividness and precision but without ever becoming intrusive or over-bearing. One of the cleverest ways in which she manages this is by making Cotton, to some degree, an innocent abroad. It is his first mission and he has never been to Spain before (although he spent his early years in Mexico and is thus a fluent speaker of Spanish), so that protagonist and reader learn and absorb together.

The virtues of Monroe's writing are numerous. First she never over-writes. This is, sadly, genuinely rare especially in historical mysteries. This does not mean her prose is dull or colourless; on the contrary she manages to convey both location and character with sharpness and precision, but one never thinks 'ahh here comes another purple descriptive passage'. The descriptive writing is integrated into the narrative. Secondly she is extremely good at characterisation, and there are many memorable characters here. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly she is very good at narrative and plot. The narrative carries one along not so much because of its force or pace, but because the reader is genuinely interested in Cotton's progress and indeed in what the point or resolution of the book will turn out to be. When that resolution arrive it is completely satisfactory and also very sad. The plot manages to be both complex and simple, and the endings for the various characters are both tragic and to a limited degree happy. Cotton himself is an interesting if not compelling protagonist, but Monroe clearly wants to develop him slowly over time which is a very good idea. THE MAZE OF CADIZ is a spy novel which never degenerates into macho posing or into some over-blown thriller. It never pretends to be more significant than it is. If it made me think of anything it was Graham Greene on the one hand (though Monroe is obviously lighter) and the film Casablanca on the other.

Monroe is a writer who manages to vary her tone, and this is what makes her debut so enormously promising, THE MAZE OF CADIZ moves from the serious and sad to the quirky to the historical to the literary to the near poetic. It is truly good news that it is to be the first in a series which will follow Peter Cotton's career in the closing years of the Second World War, and beyond into Britain's imperial collapse. THE MAZE OF CADIZ is right up there with Laura Wilson's STRATTON'S WAR and Andrew Taylor's BLEEDING HEART SQUARE as the best historical mystery I have read this year. It is extremely well-written, involving, clever, emotional and satisfying - a debut novel of the very highest promise.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, November 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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