It’s not very often I have feelings of loss or nothing to look forward to after finishing a book, but my latest read had me totally gutted when I turned the last page and read the end. El Sid by Chris Haslam is the last book he wrote following the Alligator Strip and his first book, Twelve-Step Fandango.
Chris Haslam works as ajournalist in London and gain food for the mind through various experiences and some diverse jobs from around the world, including a ski guide and firearms instructor. You get a sense of his research skills when reading his books and feel as though he has been to the places he describes so vividly.
We start in present day, meeting Sidney Starman ‘El Sid’ at the penultimate episode in his life. He wants to spend his last time on this planet looking for gold and to find out what happened to a lost love. He entices the help of a couple of troubled likely lads who are more than likely to scupper everything they tried to do to reach the goal.
This is a journey into the past, unravelling the truth by flitting back to 1937. When El Sid was a soldier with the foreign brigades in the Spanish civil war and was embarking on an unauthorised covert operation, led by a hard-ass American, named Cobb and a dodgy German killer called Kreuz. They travel across enemy lines to stop the execution of a Gypsy thief, who knows the whereabouts of a hundred boxes of stolen Spanish gold, apart shipment of a larger hoard on its way to Russia, naively for safe keeping.
The progression of their road trip and a combination of bad luck and listening to El Sid’s stories force Sid’s companions, Lenny and Nicholas, to become more and more sceptical along the way whilst facing their own inner demons and questioning their own worth. The journey starts across the bay of Biscay and Santander, Alhambra, Palencia and eventually on to their destination of Montalban, Teruel province in Aragon.
Numerous visits to Spain made sure the historical side is well researched and chilling to think of a world that existed like that, not so long ago and how cheap life was then.
As usual in Chris Haslam’s books, like twelve step fandango and the Alligator strip. The ending starts to collect momentum and finishes with several directional choices, with the author choosing a less than obvious route.
First the characters, you can look at an older person and think that what you see is what you get, in regards to their lives, judging them by how they are and look now and not really putting any thought into how they were. Even at my age, my daughter is astonished when I know the words to the latest hit song. She not realising it is a remix from my youth.
The author gives us chapters in present day and then contrasts it with events that took place in 1937, the two subordinate characters, Lenny and Nick, treat old Stanley like a doddering old fool. Yet when we read what he was up to in the war, it’s amusing and shocking. We share the secretes that Sidney has been hiding and get a feel for what he is capable of, it also shows in contrast how much these ex-cons are loses. I have some more reasons, but I think they could spoil it for those that may read the book.
Towards the end, you realise just how powerful and heart-breaking Sidney’s journey is. Remembering what had happened in the past and painfully thinking what if, as you shift uneasy on your seat, wondering where this is going.
Twelve Step Fandango
Twelve Step Fandango introduces us to Martin Brock, a likable, yet amoral anti-hero and drug dealer living up a mountain in a forgotten pueblo with a wild and bitter, German Chica, whose unquenchable habit and deceit lands them on the wrong side of some scary French gangsters. This is a cringing, kick-ass ride at breakneck speeds.
Once I read it I had to get his next book Alligator Strip, about the same character, but this time starting in Marrakesh Morocco, the place he fled to at the end Of Twelve Step Fandango. He eventually ends up in Florida, dodging bullets, ex-husbands, tornadoes, and falling in love with a hot pole dancer, whilst working a scam with a gold coin dealer. Superb!