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Onyx reviews: The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Spanish journalist Arturo Pérez-Reverte's latest mystery novel is set in Madrid in the summer of 1868. The air is thick with humidity and political turmoil as rumors of insurrection against the court of Queen Isabella II abound in the streets and cafes. Reports of Don Juan Prim, destined, everyone believes, come from all corners of the country.

Don Jaime cares nothing for politics or scandal. He spends his mornings scrounging a living teaching the gentlemanly art of fencing to the sons of rich benefactors. He wishes to keep the dying art of the foil and the epee alive in a society which is more interested in duels by gun at a safe distance than the intimate contact required of the sword. Don Jaime has been involved in a sword duel or two of his own, and the memories of those fights lurk in his past.

In the afternoons, Don Jaime hangs out in the tiny Cafe Progresso with a motley crew from every corner of the political spectrum who discuss the latest rumors of the impending rebellion as he sits, dunking his toast into his coffee. Politics mean little to him, but these are his only friends and he enjoys their company.

In the evenings, he works on his comprehensive Treatise on the Art of Fencing. This volume is his opus, but one thing eludes him -- without some masterful new move, a perfect, unstoppable thrust, he feels his book will be a failure.

There is no room in Don Jaime's concept of fencing for females. It is a man's sport, without argument. But he is forced to reevaluate this belief when a mysterious woman, Dona Adela de Otero, shows up at his door, pressing him to show her his most famous attack, the "two hundred escudo thrust," named for the price he charges to teach it. Only when he has been thoroughly satisfied of her interest and astonished by her skill does he agree to set aside his and agree to tutor her.

Don Jaime becomes smitten by the beautiful woman and the 'unstoppable thrust' comes to have more significance with respect to her than merely a fencing move. Dona Otero has more on her mind than fencing as well, and when she vanishes from his life and one of his cafe companions turns up dead, the victim of the "two hundred escudo thrust," Don Jaime finds himself embroiled in a political melee where he is ill-informed and ill-equipped to defend himself.

The confusion that readers may find in the unfamiliar names and 19th century Spanish history is shared by Don Jaime who, even though he lives in those times, is equally unfamiliar with the importance of political events going on all around him. He is in possession of letters entrusted to him by his now-deceased friend, but he cannot understand why anyone would kill to get them.

Pérez-Reverte's previous novel, The Flanders Panel, relied on the game of chess for its structure and for the solution to its puzzle, and The Club Dumas led the protagonist on a chase guided by the story of the Three Musketeers. In The Fencing Master, the plot resembles a fencing bout, with thrusts, parries, counter-attacks and lunges. While the object of the chase between Don Jaime and his adversaries may seem obscure and ultimately unimportant to the reader, the same may be said of many of Hitchcock's finer movies. It is the chase which is worth the price of admission and Pérez-Reverte has conjured up an intricate and involving tale.

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