On the surface, Perez-Reverte’s The Siege is an historical fiction mystery set in Cadiz, Spain during the siege of that city by a Napoleonic army. However the story has much more depth and complexity than a straight-up murder mystery.
Perez-Reverte’s story starts a year into the siege and the setting is a major component of the story. In 1811, Spain has been occupied in one form or another by France for almost four years and Cadiz has been under siege for one year. A coalition of English, Portuguese and Spanish forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington are operating in the western part of the country. Cadiz is a major port supporting those operations. It is also the center of the reconstitute government of Spain. Because of this, in 1810, a French Army lays siege to the city. Perez-Reverte takes the reader into all parts of the city: You see the central part which, out of range of the French bombardment and well supplied from the sea, goes on almost as if there isn’t a war. This is in contrast to the city’s outskirts, which are bombarded by the French and are the preserve of the poor and refugees. Further out still are the salt marshes that serve as a no-man’s-land between French and Spanish armies. Finally, the French camp, with it’s trenches and artillery emplacements.
All of these places have their own cast of characters, and like most of his novels, they are very strongly drawn. There is Lolita Palma, who is running her father’s export/import business after his death. There is Felipe Majoarra of the Salt Marsh Fuzalers, who scouts between the lines for the Spanish in Cadiz. Captain Desfosseux, the enigmatic French artillery specialist tasked with the excruciating task of squeezing every last ounce of range out of his canon, trying to bombard the whole of Cadiz. All of these characters (and more) interact with each other and the main plot of the story: the murders.
Young women are turning up near where French shells have landed on the outer edges of Cadiz, flogged to death. The man responsible for catching the murderer is Police Comisario Rogelio Tizon. If you like nice, morally upright heroes in your murder mysteries, Tizon is not for you. His specialty is torturing confessions out of people, which he does without compunction. He takes bribes and generally hates and is disagreeable to almost everyone. His only redeeming quality seems to be his willingness to solve the crimes.
As you might imagine in a story that covers such a wide expanse of places and people, the pacing is not very fast. However it doesn’t feel like it drags, either, as the characters and setting hold the readers attention.