Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Hidden Assassins by Robert Wilson: terrorism and crime in Spain

A thriller and police procedural with international intrigue and espionage all included just as part of the story, The Hidden Assassins (THA) is Robert Wilson's third novel about Chief Inspector Javier Falcon, lead murder investigator for the historic city of Seville, which is located in Andalucia, southern Spain. The novels are intertwined, sharing many characters in addition to the Inspector himself. To understand the relationships that Falcon is embroiled in (and you will want to), the stories should be read in order of publication, starting with The Blind Man of Seville (TBMOS), followed by The Vanished Hands (TVH).

The beginning to this series, The Blind Man of Seville, is a tour de force, an astonishing novel of byzantine family history, pride, violence, jealousy, love, betrayal and "all the other departments." As I have previously mentioned, The Vanished Hands is very good, but pales somewhat in comparison to its predecessor. With The Hidden Assassins, however, Wilson has given us another masterpiece. This time, the story is both personal and global in scale, and it is very much a novel that reflects today's post 9/11 world. THA manages to reflect so many different aspects of the world that the story is a true gem.

After a brief interlude in London, The Hidden Assassins starts with the discovery of a body, but this is no ordinary discovery, even for a murder squad, because all distinguishing marks have been removed from the dead man by a variety of techniques that I'll leave to the imagination. The novel is propelled in a multitude of directions by this discovery, like the Universe after the Big Bang. Occasionally, we follow Falcon's thoughts backwards in time, to events familiar from the previous novels, which are revealed even more clearly now, before we can move forwards and try to catch up with the flood of investigative information needed to solve the present-day mystery.

Before long, the trajectories of the novel's various plots are deflected by another significant explosion, this time not metaphorical at all: a huge detonation completely destroys an apartment tower in a poor section of town, devastating families and putting the entire city on edge. A mosque in the basement of the tower block is the epicenter of the explosion, and this fuels public suspicion of the Islamic community. The Islamic population originally arrived in Seville in 711 AD, and flourished until King Ferdinand III expelled them in 1248. Even today, those years can be referred to as the Arab Occupation. The Jews were later expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. During The Hidden Assassins, talk of once again expelling the Islamic population begins to gain steam, especially with the poor, who are courted by xenophobic, nationalistic, right-wing political forces. This time around, it appears that the Jews are safe in Seville, at least for the moment, but Fascism is being embraced by some prominent Roman Catholic citizens, and, in addition to stirring up the crowds with tabloid propaganda, these minority extremists may have infiltrated as far as the National Intelligence Agencies themselves.

Falcon's investigators, who include a former nun, react with varying but significant degrees of distaste to the "need" for a simple story and an identifiable, preferably Islamic scapegoat. However, we can be sure of one thing: the police investigators want to identify all of the criminals and all of the victims with great specificity and detail, and then treat them accordingly. There will be no rush to judgment by these investigators, but will they move fast enough to satisfy a growing civil unrest? Will powerful forces in politics, the intelligence services and business gain the upper hand and control the outcome of the investigation?

To complicate things, the massive scale and terrorist nature of the bombing means that the police now have to contend with the appearance of two feuding Spanish National Security agencies who, at times, do as much to hinder as to help. Simultaneously, the city grows more restless and angry, with most of the anger reserved for the Islamic minority (and some for the police and government). Has the explosion possibly revealed an Islamist plot to "liberate" Andalucia and return the region to Islamic rule? This theory is popular in the tabloids, but it doesn't seem credible to the investigators.

Trying hard to keep an open mind, Falcon directs his team and the forensic investigators through the painstaking work of sorting through the rubble for clues, identities of the victims, and a time-line of events. Relentless in the face of a chaotic assemblage of information, Falcon manages to keep his focus on the facts in spite of political pressures and the stone walls that are constantly being erected by the security agencies.

Breakthroughs in the case can only occur in fits and starts, especially because, though Falcon's intuition tells him that the parallel murder and bombing investigations are linked, evidence of the links is sorely lacking. Unfortunately, this evidence is needed to create a path forward. However, things do begin to take shape around certain key events, like the suicide of a counter-terrorism agent and the discovery of a mysterious group that had the basement mosque under surveillance for some time. This group has intimate ties to pockets of the Roman Catholic community and to some major corporations. Oddly, these corporations don't hire women and seem to do all of their recruiting after prayers at church.

In addition to a grueling work schedule with grim deadlines, Javier Falcon has family problems to deal with and personal demons to struggle with: Falcon's ex-wife is now (unhappily) remarried to a prominent Judge; the woman Falcon loves refuses to see him; relationships become increasingly complex with Falcon's recently-discovered Islamic family in Morocco. All of these matters conspire against a decent night's sleep. However, the story's exceptional balance mirrors Falcon himself. In many ways, Falcon's respect and understanding of Islamic culture allow him to see through smoke screens and around corners, bending light through a multicultural prism to find the truth.

In a familiar role, the CIA makes brief appearances and doles out information according to its own interests and perceived needs, and this is a case where the American agency can and does help with vital intelligence. However, nothing comes for free, and Falcon's Moroccan family connections attract all of the spy agencies, who try to elicit Javier's help with under-cover work. In some cases, these agencies are spying on each other as much as on the nominal enemy, but such paranoia may turn out to be justified, especially if the actions of the right-wing Nationalist groups have become indistinguishable from the deeds of Islamist killers... indistinguishable without great forensic and investigative teams, anyway.

With all of these plot elements, a lesser writer would eventually have succumbed to stereotypes and stock solutions. However, the author Wilson and his man Falcon keep all of the balls in the air like master jugglers and refuse to settle for the cheap and easy solutions that the tabloids and growing rabble crave. Along the way, we meet vicious opportunists, cold-blooded killers, grief-stricken parents, genuine (if naive) politicians, corrupt would-be king makers, and men and women of great strength and outstanding character, more often in the poor Muslim and Catholic communities than in the upper echelons of society.

As the mysteries unravel under Falcon's guidance, new problems are revealed, and the suspense mounts: can the investigators identify, locate and thwart the next terrorist plot? Can any of the high-society Christian fascists be brought to justice? Can Javier Falcon survive his battle with the twin monsters of Christian and Islamic terrorism and find his way back to normalcy through the labyrinth of his frayed emotions?

The Hidden Assassins reward us with rich detail, panoramic vision, plenty of suspense, terrific pacing, a compelling, thrilling and horrifying set of story lines, and a view of the world that is, to my eyes, balanced from very many perspectives. In the end, the reader sees violent religious and political fanatics for what they are, regardless of their ethnic origins: common criminals who leave innocent victims dead and broken in terrorism's wake.

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  1. I love this series from Robert Wilson. Excellent writing.

  2. Thanks for reading the blog and for commenting. I agree completely about Wilson's writing- it is wonderful. The writing style itself is consciously different from the West African Bruce Medway novels. Those are also very good, but the language is richer and more complex when Wilson has employed the Iberian Peninsula and related places as his setting. Best wishes, Jim

  3. I am a total fan of Robert Wilson's work. I look forward to his next fiction. I like both Falcon and Medway characters, I just hope Robert will write another instalment of Medway west Africa series.

  4. Dear Anon: thanks for stopping by and commenting. I agree- I read these books as fast as they appear in both series. They have some of the best writing available in the genre. Best wishes, Jim