After I finished reading The Lighthearted Quest, the first of the Julia Probyn series by Ann Bridge, I could barely wait to read the second book. As the title suggests, this time Julia’s in Lisbon, covering a royal wedding for one of her newspapers. Naturally she’s staying with the bride’s family which gives her an entreé into high society. Julia’s friend, Major Hugh Torrens, who she met in Morocco when she was searching for her missing cousin, Colin, is also in Lisbon. He works for British Intelligence & has been given the task of getting a Hungarian priest, Father Antal Horvath, out of Communist Hungary to the United States so that he can tell the West what’s really happening behind the Iron Curtain. He must go through Portugal because the Vatican has an emissary there to talk to him about the fate of a Cardinal imprisoned by the Communists.
As the book begins, another Hungarian refugee is making headlines. Young Countess Hetta Páloczy was left behind when her parents had to suddenly flee during the Soviet invasion. Hetta has spent the last six years first in her convent school & then, when the convents were shut down, working as a cook in a country village for Father Horvath. At the age of 22, she arrives in Lisbon as the result of an exchange & is reunited with her mother, a social climbing woman who would give her right arm for an invitation to the royal wedding which is the only topic of conversation at cocktail parties & receptions. Hetta is truly an innocent abroad but she knows her own mind. She refuses to speak to journalists when she first arrives, insists on an explanation for everything asked of her &, although she has nothing in common with her mother & her values, she is intent on rebuilding their relationship. Hetta’s stories of life under Communist rule could make her a celebrity but she refuses to talk to idle people who see her as just the new sensation,
The fact was that Hetta Páloczy found herself rather up against the western world as presented to her at Estoril in many of its aspects, of which the social ease, the urbane worldly wisdom of her mother’s confessor was most definitely one. The richly-dressed congregation at Mass on Sundays, with shiny cars waiting outside, the interior richness of the churches themselves, with all their treasures displayed, not hidden away in the deep reed thatch of some peasant’s house for security – the very safety of it all jarred on her, after the passionate devotion of the people at home, holding with such stubborn intensity to the practice of their religion in the face of persecution and danger.
Richard Atherley, Secretary to the British Ambassador in Lisbon, takes Hetta under his wing & his protective feelings soon become something more. When Torrens asks Hetta to help him identify Father Horvath, she is pleased to think she will see her mentor again but Atherley begins to realise the danger she may be in as they are followed around Lisbon by thugs who speak Spanish with German accents. His fears are realised when Hetta is kidnapped on her way to visit Father Horvath at Gralheira, the Duke of Ericeira’s country estate where Julia has arranged for him to stay until he can leave the country. A further emotional complication is that Richard’s former mistress, the elegant Mme de Vermeil has arrived in Lisbon for the royal wedding, & Hetta soon discovers their relationship.
The Portuguese Escape is a terrific adventure story with car chases, espionage & a plot so convoluted that I can’t even begin to summarise it. The descriptions of Lisbon & the countryside are wonderful, it’s almost like reading a beautifully written travel narrative at times & the reader learns of the culture & some of the history of Portugal as well. This isn’t the kind of thriller that could be set anywhere. Even the car chases are written so that we can enjoy the countryside they’re all racing through. Julia is magnificent as always. She has the Duke & his family completely entranced & has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Portuguese road networks that mere mortals can only marvel at. I could barely turn the e-pages fast enough to find out what would happen next. I’ve already downloaded the rest of the series, & it won’t be long before I move on to The Numbered Account, set in the world of Swiss bank accounts & a Greek heiress who is engaged to Julia’s cousin, Colin.