It has been 6 years since the last appearance in English of an Arturo Perez-Reverte novel – that was The Painter of Battles, a contemporary thriller based in part on his experience as a war journalist. His previous novel in Spanish, about the battle of Trafalgar, remains untranslated, as do the two which followed, the first set in Madrid in 1808 as the Spanish fight the French for the city; the second featuring Spanish soldiers in conflict with the Aztecs. The historical novel is clearly Perez-Reverte’s default setting, if not that of English language publishers. The Siege, however, as its title suggests, is an historical novel, set in 1811 in and around the Spanish port of Cadiz, besieged by the forces of Napoleon.
As we have come to expect from his novels, even those considerably shorter than The Siege’s 560 pages, it contains more than one plotline. Its selling point, apparently, (and perhaps one reason for its translation, I would cynically suggest) is that a serial killer is on the loose in the city. One of the novel’s numerous main characters is the police comisario, Tezon, who is responsible for finding the man responsible for killing young girls after lacerating their backs with a whip. Tezon becomes fixated with the coincidence of the murders with bombsites, a connection that becomes all the more mysterious when a body is found before a missile lands.
However, the reader should be careful not to expect a detective story with a little historical window dressing. Firstly, Tezon’s story is only one of many, and although the events and characters of these plotlines coincide at times, anyone who assumes they will all connect will be disappointed. Perez-Reverte is equally interested in his other tales: of the French Captain Desfosseux who is tasked with increasing the range of their artillery; of Lolita Palma determined to keep her shipping business solvent during the difficult conditions created by the war; of Pepe Lobo, the corsair captain searching the sea for prizes; of Gregorio Fumagal, the taxidermist and French spy; of Felipe Mojarra, the salter who uses his knowledge of the marshes to aid the Spanish troops.
Each story contains its own moments of tension and excitement and there is plenty to reward the patient reader. Perez-Reverte is intent on providing a detailed picture of Cadiz during the siege and throughout the novel we mix with all classes from the richest to the poorest. At times historical detail threatens to overwhelm the narrative, particularly when it comes to ballistics, but generally the author’s obvious love of the period is kept in check.
While this is not as riveting as the early page-turners which Perez-Revert made his name with like The Dumas Club and The Flanders Panel, or as much fun as the Captain Alatriste novels, anyone who enjoys intelligent historical fiction should seek it out.