The Episode at Toledo is the 6th book in the Julia Probyn series of novels by Ann Bridge. I’m so pleased that Bloomsbury included these books in their wonderful Bloomsbury Reader list of e-books as I’ve loved reading them. There are only two more in the series & I was very tempted to go straight on to the next one last night when I finished this. It’s that old dilemma – do I space the books out so that they last or rush on to the next one & finish the series knowing there will be no more?
Hungarian Countess Hetta from The Portuguese Escape has married British diplomat Richard Atherley & they’re now living in Madrid. When an American admiral arrives to inspect the location for a NATO base, Hetta is horrified to recognize a Hungarian Communist acting as his chauffeur. The chauffeur, Luis, was involved in the expulsion of the nuns Hetta lived with in Hungary during the Soviet invasion & she recognizes him even though he’s changed his name & now has American papers. She discovers a plot to assassinate Admiral Luxworthy but in foiling the attempt, the chauffeur, Luis, recognizes her & her life, & that of her unborn child, are in danger.
Hetta retreats to Gralheira, the Portuguese estate of the Duke of Ericeira, along with the Duke’s daughter, Luzia, who is hoping to become engaged to Nick Heriot, the young man she met while living with Julia in the previous book, Emergency in the Pyrenees. Even at Gralheira, Hetta is not safe, as the Spanish members of the Communist cell follow her & make another attempt on her life during a partridge shoot. Again, it’s unsuccessful & the gunman is captured. He attempts suicide & Hetta’s quick thinking means that a Spanish speaking priest is available to give him comfort & hear his confession. However, as he’s a Communist, he refuses to confess yet tells the priest vital information before his death. Even after the Atherleys return to Madrid, Hetta has to overcome further danger before she can retreat to Glentoran to spend the few months before her child is born in safety.
This is much more Hetta’s story than Julia’s. Julia is living at Glentoran, the Highland estate of her cousins the Munros, with her son while her husband, Philip Jamieson, is on an assignment in the Middle East. She starts the ball rolling by contacting an old friend in British intelligence when she receives letters from Hetta & Luzia with cryptic information. She also arranges Hetta’s retreat to Scotland with her usual efficiency. Hetta has grown up considerably since we last met her. Where she was once a headstrong girl with very definite ideas about right & wrong, she has learnt to modify her opinions a little in the diplomatic circles she now moves in. Her relationship with the worldly priest, Monsignor Subercaseaux, shows this very well. Hetta disliked the Monsignor when they first met because she had very austere ideas of how priests should live. She discovers in this book that a priest can be wise as well as worldly & the Monsignor’s connections are vital in helping to expose the Communists & prevent an assassination attempt on another American official.
As always the main delights of these books is not really the espionage plot but the setting & the recurring characters. I loved the few scenes set at Glentoran, meeting Mrs Hathaway again & especially the scenes at Gralheira, the Ducal estate in Portugal. Nick Heriot arrives to meet Luzia’s father, the Duque & they are soon great friends. Nick is eager to learn about the estate which will be his home & he has some ideas of his own about modernising & improving life for the estate workers as well as the family. Nick’s parents, Lord & Lady Heriot also arrive for a visit & the Duque is soon eagerly showing them the wine pressing & arranging a partridge shoot.
Hetta & Luzia are the driving forces behind all the detection. The local security forces & even Richard Atherley & the Ambassador, just trail around in their wake trying to catch up. They’re energetic & determined young women – assassins & Communist plots haven’t got a chance. The Episode at Toledo is an exciting, adventurous story with engaging characters & beautiful settings. I loved it & I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get to the end of the series.