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Arturo Pérez-Reverte


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The main action of the novel takes place over two weeks in Seville, though it begins in Rome, where Father Lorenzo Quart is being briefed by his chief about the mission he is to undertake in Seville. He is an agent of a shadowy organisation called the Institution for External Works (IOE), which appears to function something like a Vatican CIA.

The IOE has been alerted because an intruder has broken into the Vatican computer network and has almost gained access to the Pope's personal computer. The Vatican IT team have nicknamed the intruder 'Vespers', because he or she works at night. Vespers is leaving messages asking the Pope to intervene to save an ancient parish church in Seville, Our Lady of Tears, which is threatened with closure. It is in a bad state of repair although restoration work is under way.

Quart's task is, in part, to find out who Vespers is, but there is more to the matter than this. Two people have died in the church, apparently accidentally though the possibility of foul play has not been excluded. The elderly parish priest who is the incumbent is being cantankerous and obstructionist, and there are other people involved as well. These include Macarena, a beautiful aristocrat who is estranged from her husband, Pencho Gavira, a banker; Gavira wants the church to be destroyed, as does the Archbishop of Seville, while Macarena and her mother, the duchess, want to preserve it. Quart is supposed to discover exactly what is going on.

Numerous other characters appear in the story as well, including a friend of Macarena's, an American nun with the unlikely name of Gris Marsala; she is semi-laicised and is monitoring the restoration of the church. Comic relief is provided by a trio of incompetent minor crooks consisting of a fake lawyer, a fading flamenco singer, and a punch-drunk former torero and boxer. And the city of Seville is, in effect, another character in the story; the author describes it with almost as much loving attention as he does the beautiful Macarena.

We see events largely though not wholly through Quart's eyes. He is a complex character, reserved and proud but prepared to undertake skulduggery if necessary. Although he does not really believe in God he adheres to a strict code of personal honour and sees himself explicitly as a kind of latter-day Templar knight. Predictably, of course, he falls in love with Macarena. Although she, in turn, is attracted to him, she has her own agenda and uses his feelings for her to achieve her own ends.

The elderly parish priest is also a complex character. Initially he is rude and hostile to Quart, but as the story unfolds we learn that they have more in common than at first appears. Like Quart, the priest does not believe in God but he attends scrupulously to his duties because he knows that the consolations of religion are important to his parishioners in an indifferent and impersonal universe—he is an amateur astronomer. Gradually a certain sense of comradeship and mutual respect develops between the two priests.

This is in part a tale of intrigue, mystery and murder, and our attention is caught and kept by the progressive revelations that take place. The author plays fair with his readers: we do learn the identity of Vespers and who committed the murder that occurs in the church. Essentially, however, it is a study of character. I enjoyed it.

15 August 2008

%T La Piel del Tambor
%A Arturo Pérez-Reverte
%I Alfaguara
%C Madrid
%D 1996
%G ISBN 84-204-8201-3
%P 589pp
%K fiction

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