Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
In the first sentence of Aly Monroe’s The Maze Of Cadiz, there is just the slightest uncertainty: “Peter Cotton’s plane touched down at an airfield on the outskirts of Madrid just after 3 p.m. on 5 September 1944”. Readers are not told which airfield and that time is just vague enough about minutes to be unsettling. Peter Cotton himself will learn that his life in wartime Spain will be just as troubled – he will learn little about clarity.
When he goes to the British Embassy for a briefing he will find that his directions are just as uncertain – his best guide will be his inner own sense of direction he will discover. Of course, being a former army officer, invalided out and re-directed into intelligence, might have given him some preparedness, too.
Arriving in Cadiz, in the south of Spain, where tankers and merchant vessels bring in imports – possibly war materiel, possibly trans-shippable to Generalissimo Franco’s friend, Herr Hitler – Cotton finds he has more on his plate. Sent out replace the local agent, the train journey has taken so long that Cotton has had time to receive a telegram telling him that May the agent has been dead for days and that he is to replace him. Cotton will want to know how and why May died. Later, when he occupies May’s office, he will want to know the meaning of some of the contents of the safe.
Wanting refreshment on the journey to Cadiz Cotton has bought an orange and found it dry and tasteless – he was foolish to buy one when oranges are not in season. In the poverty of Spain, in the repressive early years of the Franco regime, in the paranoia that has gripped all of Europe, Cotton will not find himself interrogating suspects or facing down-toting hoodlums – he has to squeeze information out of the citizens of Cadiz – natives and foreign-born – get more out of this dry corner of Spain than he did from that orange. In turn, he will find himself taking slow walks and sharing tram-rides with policemen, lunching with German businessmen, dining with stranger characters. Oddly – for there is at least one ghastly killing described – the worse violence that lingers in the memory is Cotton slipping in a pool of his own vomit after a dinner of bad pork, landing badly.
Cotton himself was chosen for his mission because of his abilities in Spanish, due in part to his Mexican mother. He does not look Spanish, though, and at one point he is mistaken for a German. He clearly is not part of the standard army family, but then neither were some of his real life counterparts. Not only Graham Greene spent his war in similar ways to Cotton, serving overseas, so did the much more unlikely John Betjeman. Like Greene, Aly Monroe has a fine sense of place and time – everything shaded, sun-bleached, washed-out, slowly moving, yet nothing able to reach stasis as the grit-laden winds never cease to blow in and the sewers to sluggishly empty themselves into the sea. Cotton’s finalblows seem just as deliberate, yet just as frighteningly slow.