Rebecca Pawel, . . Soho, $24 (280pp) ISBN 978-1-56947-304-7

The immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War provides the bleak setting for Pawel's stirring first novel. Madrid in 1939 is filled with bomb craters, desecrated churches and nearly abandoned streets, while black markets are just about the only markets with anything to sell. The hatreds and atrocities shared by the Nationalists (supported by the fascists) and the Republicans (supported by the Communists) still simmer and erupt in sporadic violence. The Guardia Civil has the responsibility to maintain authority—and their enthusiasm and ruthlessness for enforcing order terrorizes the citizens. The intertwined fates of Sergeant Tejada Alonzo y Leon of the Guardia Civil and that of Gonzalo Llorente, a wounded Republican in hiding, are handled with unusual skill and subtlety. When Tejada arrives at the scene where a murdered comrade lies, he leaps to a conclusion about the killer's identity. He must follow a tortuous path to find the real killer and, ultimately, redemption. Gonzalo has lost his love as well as his hope for any kind of future. His one aim is for a small measure of vengeance before he dies. Pawel is unsparing in her depiction of the casual brutalities spawned by the war, but also offers evidence of the power of little civilities and kindnesses in a novel that easily transcends the formulaic crime story. (Feb.)

Forecast:As genre entertainment this will be a hard sell, but it should get some serious literary attention for its 25-year-old author, who teaches Spanish in a Brooklyn high school.