The Sentinel – Mark Oldfield

Mark Oldfield’s Spanish-set The Sentinel is the first in a trilogy called Vengeance of Memory.  The author has credentials of credibility: Oldfield has a PhD in Criminology, has worked in criminological research for more than 20 years and is a man who is passionate about Spain and its history.  New publisher Head of Zeus, declares this an ‘ … epic, surprising and brilliantly plotted …’ story, ‘ … into the dark heart of Spain’.

The novel weaves three strands of narrative.  In 2009, on the discovery of 15 bodies at a disused mine we join forensic scientist Ana María Galindez as she starts her investigation and encounters the evil work of Comandante Guzmán for the first time.  Meeting Profesora Luisa Ordoñez at the scene, Galindez is soon drawn to Guzmán’s history, intrigued by the project Ordoñez is leading.  The second narrative strand takes us back to 1953 and enlightens on how those bodies came to be there as we hear the story of Comandante Guzmán from that year.  As Franco’s Head of the Brigada Especial – the infamous secret police – Guzmán’s role was to hunt down and silence Franco’s opponents.  Where this strand focuses on Guzmán’s legend and the events leading up to his disappearance in Madrid’s great snowstorm, the final strand of 1936 takes us further back to the Civil War period and the making of the monster that was Guzmán.

This is an ambitious first novel in what promises to be an ambitious trilogy and it proved to be a very gripping read.  Faced with a chunky narrative extending to 585 pages, I had expected to struggle, but The Sentinel proved impossible to put down, demanding to be read as quickly as possible and in few sittings.  However, the speed with which I read also exposed some flaws that should have been dealt with in the editing processes.

As monster in such a regime, Guzmán was not always entirely credible and he never felt as malicious and manipulative as he would have had to have been to survive in such a role.  On times, his actions and reactions felt more like plot mechanisms than brickwork in his character.  (At one point I thought he was suddenly being portrayed as autistic.)  With timeline markers restricted to the year only, some relationships appeared very speedily built and broken and hence also suffered in credibility – applying to both Guzmán and Galindez here.  In one scene with Guzmán and his team, the dialogue felt like it was heading into comedy territory, and was certainly reminiscent of movies seen many years ago.  Descriptive narrative quickly proved repetitive.  Certain words and descriptions are invoked many times: men in shadows wearing hats; the red tips of lit cigarettes identifying presence; ‘shabby’, ‘dingy’ and ‘damp’ accommodation in 1953; dry ground in 2009 being ‘desiccated’; comparisons to apes.  In terms of character portrayal, the Spain of 2009 did not feel much further forward than 1953.  Has it really been so full of blatant misogyny in this new millennium?

That said, The Sentinel is an extremely compelling read.  And it does have its gems.  In relation to that apparent misogyny, in 2009 one male character opines

‘Have pity, Ana.  I’m old school.  Men like me see a pretty girl and it goes to our heads. Women take everything so seriously these days.  Even those in uniform.  They sue at the drop of a hat if a man so much as looks at them.  Lesbians, most of them.’

And in 1953 when Guzmán is told ‘I’ve never killed anyone before’ he reacts with

‘Well, there you are,’ Guzmán was suddenly cheerful, ‘you’ve got an interesting story to tell the wife when you get home.’

At its heart, the theme of The Sentinel is one of the nature of survival in an environment of intense deception and power play.  Where Guzmán’s story lies at the core, the experience of Galindez reflects this in the contemporary setting.

When Franco discusses one character with Guzmán he says ‘… He’s always been one of those people whose ambitions are far in excess of those talents.’  The Sentinel may grip and entertain, but the sum of its parts in the delivery doesn’t quite match the level of its ambition.  But on this outing, and with a keener red pen for the further novels, the trilogy should make its mark.  Oldfield builds and maintains tension like a pro, and is one to watch.