I finished Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Siege yesterday. His Captain Alatriste books are autobuys for me, I love that character with a fiery passion. The rest of Perez-Reverte’s oeuvre is good enough to warrant a look whenever I find it. His Queen of the South is, in my humble opinion, one of the few times a male author has actually written a believable female character, and of course The Club Dumas–with its attendant movie The Ninth Gate–is just straight-up fantastic, even if the latter is directed by Roman Polanski.
The Siege was a bit difficult in places, because even though Perez-Reverte’s written a believable woman once or twice, there is no guarantee for any of his other female characters. There’s a certain amount of brutal historical misogyny–the setting is, after all, Cadiz in the Napoleonic era–but the one female main character, Lolita Palma, is…problematic, at best. (I mean, really, you’re going to choose that name for a grown woman who’s supposed to be this serious, spinsterly paragon?) Palma’s relationship with the corsair Pepe Lobo veered into quasi-romance when it shouldn’t have; it could have been much more effective as a friendship based on mutual respect. Poor Dona Palma was sadly misused; I could have read a whole book about just her if the “ohGod gotta put a romantic subplot in here” bug hadn’t bitten the author. Also, Ricardo Marana, Lobo’s first mate, is the tubercular Doc Holliday to Lobo’s nautical Wyatt Earp, and I could have read a whole book about just their exploits, too. I didn’t get enough of Marana, the Letter of Marque corsairs, or a believable Palma.
The rest of the book is a murder mystery set during the siege of Cadiz, and it’s full of the sort of historical detail I’ve come to expect from Perez-Reverte. The French artillery captain Desfosseux is the hands-down the most enjoyable way I’ve ever read about trajectories and cannon fire; the taxidermist Fumagal served nicely in his appointed role and could have filled a whole book in his own right, but where The Siege really shines is in its sounding of the depths of Rogelio Tizon, the unscrupulous, oddly magnetic comisario of Cadiz’s police force.
Tizon is a nasty bit of work. Cruel, venal, and brutal, he’s also strangely engaging. He makes no excuses for what he does, and it’s that honesty that gives him depth and interest. He veers between offhandedly calling most women “whores” to deciding not even a “whore” should be brutally murdered–whipped to death with a wire whip, their backs flayed to ribbons and internal organs exposed. It’s those murders and the choices Tizon makes while hunting the murderer that function as the spine of the book. Tizon’s chess-playing alter ego Barrull was my initial guess at the murderer, and sometimes I think it might have been more satisfying if he’d turned out to be the actual killer instead of just a scholarly foil for Tizon and a way for Perez-Reverte to do some exposition. The added layer of mystery–the murderer invariably chooses places where a French shell has landed (or memorably, is about to land) is well done, treading the edge of believability and a chilling meditation the eerie logic of chance and instinct.
There are….problems, though. It’s telling that as well as making Dona Lolita Palma into a soapy paragon of a love interest instead of a believable character in her own right, only one of the murdered girls (because of course girls are the killer’s preferred target) is “respectable” and she is the one that ends up being “avenged.” The others are almost doll-like, their bodies only there to provide Tizon with his angst and to mark his changing (or slowly revealed) inner landscape.
There’s plenty in the book to love–the historical details, the naval battles, the picture of a city on the brink, the unblinking enumeration of all the things a siege does to human beings trapped by war, and some outright lyrical writing even in the middle of describing brutality. I’m glad I read it, but I hope next time Perez-Reverte treats his female characters as, well, human beings in their own right, as he’s sometimes done so memorably in the past.
All in all, two thumbs up, recommended, checked out from the library and would buy to keep in my personal library.