The hunt for the missing Velázquez begins … and ends! In between, however, several very exciting events overtake this particular Englishman, Anthony Whitelands, described in the blurb as a ‘gentleman, libertine, [and] art historian’. He sounds very much like my kind of fellow, don’t you think? Reviewers are allowed, on suitable occasions, to work in shameless plugs for their own work and so you may discount the next few words if you wish. Having written about an art historian of questionable morality and considerable ambition in my own novel Rembrandt Sings, I am always interested to read about the adventures of similar characters. Whitelands, the creation of Spanish writer Eduardo Mendoza, is called to Madrid in March 1936; that fraught and fractious period prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. His ostensible mission is to evaluate paintings owned by a nobleman who, it might appear, wants to sell them and bank the proceeds abroad to provide for his family should they have to flee the coming crisis.
But, as thriller readers are entitled to expect, nothing is exactly as it seems. Whitelands is not without courage but is also susceptible to (female) temptation. For someone who has made himself an expert in Spanish painting, especially the work of Velázquez; speaks excellent Spanish and has been a regular visitor to the country, he does seem remarkably naïve regarding the conflicting currents in Spanish politics of the period. However, his various experiences and the roles played by some real-life characters in the story, fill in many of the gaps for the reader. The book has the cinematic quality of revealing what is happening among the various groups of interested players; the republican government, the security police, the Falangists, the ultra-royalist Catholics, the Communists, and the poor and downtrodden Spaniards caught in the middle of all of this, and carrying all their intertwining story lines along together. For English readers, this owes a great deal to the quality of the translation by Nick Caistor.
Although the story comes to a tense and dramatic climax, perhaps the dénouement shows signs of a pair of scissors being used rather than patient unravelling of the knot, but maybe that is a more accurate portrayal of real life than fiction writers often tend to create. Wit and humour, crafty characterisation and a page-turning pace are all to be commended in his prize-winning novel.