The Letter From Spain by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Frances Parkinson Keyes
The Letter From Spain

This was one of those random lovely old hardback books you pick up from a second-hand bookstore with no knowledge of the author or the story, but because the book looks like it needs a home and to be loved. I also liked the name of the publishers, Eyre and Spottiswoode in London (what names!)! It's actually written in 1959 and is by an American author (I had presumed it would be older and by an English author, so a very good reminder not to judge a book by its cover!). It is written in that informal chatty style that American authors so often write in, and which feels so different to English authors of the same time. It was a fun easy to read book which rattled along swiftly.

The Letter From Spain by Frances Parkinson Keyes available on Amazon

This was one of those random lovely old hardback books you pick up from a second-hand bookstore with no knowledge of the author or the story, but because the book looks like it needs a home and to be loved. I also liked the name of the publishers, Eyre and Spottiswoode in London (what names!)! It’s actually written in 1959 and is by an American author (I had presumed it would be older and by an English author, so a very good reminder not to judge a book by its cover!). It is written in that informal chatty style that American authors so often write in, and which feels so different to English authors of the same time. It was a fun easy to read book which rattled along swiftly. 

The main character, Allan Lambert, seems a nice down-to-earth inoffensive man, though undecided what to do with his life after unexpectedly inheriting money. He decides to take a year off from his career of being a Spanish teacher in order to travel to Spain, mostly choosing this location as he grew up in Malaga but also because one of the many begging letters he has received was one from a supposed prisoner in Spain who secretly has potential access via a key hidden in a suitcase to a great sum of money but cannot claim this suitcase through being in jail and who asks for Allan to come to Spain with $15,000 in order to claim the suitcase when he will give Allan a third of the money. Allan sees this story as the con it is, but is intrigued and feels he can spend the time and money and potential fun investigating it further, though this is to his girlfriend’s annoyance, Charlotte Wendell, who had hoped he would propose to her and them then settle to married life in the big family house he has inherited. 

Allan boards a Spanish cruise ship to Spain leaving from New York. He meets Ethel Crewe onboard and becomes enamoured of her, though he tries to prevent himself from doing so as she is married and he has Charlotte. He decides however to tell her how he feels about her, but she doesn’t turn up at the time and place he had appointed to meet her, she later tells him she was called to a friend onboard who is sick. When they disembark she introduces her husband, Anthony, to him, who is annoyed at Ethel for the amount of luggage she has brought for her few weeks’ stay with him. Allan therefore offers to give them a lift to their home in Madrid as the car he has brought with him is large enough to accommodate Ethel’s luggage and he says he had planned to visit Madrid anyway. The Crewes are less keen than Allan to linger on the way to Madrid to sightsee, but Allan visits a few places he wants to see. Anthony recommends the Worthington Hotel in Madrid to Allan, saying he knows the housekeeper there, Leonor de Silva, who used to be an aristocrat but has fallen on hard times, and her niece, Milagrita, who sells the newspapers and magazines from a stall in the hotel and who Allan later saves from the pushy attentions of a man. Allan mentions the Crewes to the housekeeper, Leonor, but she doesn’t say much about the Crewes in return. Allan doesn’t see the Crewes for a few days after they go to their house. He is keen for company, so invites Leonor and Milagrita to dine with him one evening, he has a lovely time with them and realises he is falling in love with Milagrita (he was in love with Ethel just a few days ago, he certainly flits about!) and she seems to also care for him, although Leonor doesn’t respond to his gentle questions about their background, and there is a man at the restaurant who recognises Leonor and speaks to her, who she is clearly keen to avoid. He receives a letter from Charlotte saying she is undertaking a guided educational trip around Europe and hopes to see him whilst in Spain as she is missing him. Allan isn’t particularly enthusiastic about this prospect. He also sends a note to the ‘prisoner’ and receives a phonecall saying the prisoner’s representative will call on him.

Allan is finding the time drags until the meeting with the prisoner’s representative that evening. He wanders in a bookshop and buys some beautiful old books stamped inside with the same bookplate design, and it makes him sad thinking that the previous owners must have fallen on hard times and had to sell their library. He also sees the bookplate stamp for sale too, so buys that, as well as the books. The shop-owner appreciates Allan’s empathy with the previous owner of the books, and tells him that it was his best friend. Allan also bumps into an old school friend, Douglas, who is now working at the American Embassy, and they arrange to meet in a few days’ time. The time arranged for the meeting with the prisoner’s representative arrives, and Allan opens his hotel door to Anthony Crewe who is the prisoner’s representative. Allan is suspicious that the Crewes knew who he was all along from Ethel speaking to him onboard the ship, but Anthony denies this saying he only knew someone had replied to the prisoner’s letter but wasn’t given the person’s name till the other day. Anthony tries to hurry Allan into handing over the money to release the suitcase, but Allan says he wants to meet the prisoner in jail first, Anthony says this isn’t possible but that he is hoping for parole soon so Allan can meet him then. Allan has done lots of research on the Spanish prison system and surprises Anthony by knowing more than he does, particularly that parole isn’t done in Spain. Anthony then says the prisoner is sick and in hospital, so Allan says he will pay for his treatment if he can visit him in hospital, or speak with either the doctor tending him, or the prison guard who has been helping him, or visit the prisoner’s daughter who he mentioned in the letter. Anthony puts difficulties in the way of these suggestions too. Allan also wants to know where the money in the suitcase has come from and if it has been embezzled or stolen as the letter makes it sound, Anthony says it is not from any illegal activity and that he will ask the prisoner for more details about this. Allan also wants to know how the money in the suitcase will be split, he is due to get a third which means presumably the prisoner gets a third and someone else will also get a third, Anthony says the prison guard will get a third and that Anthony will be paid for his time and trouble. Anthony is disconcerted by Allan’s questions and knowledge, he invites him to dinner, obviously thinking Ethel may charm Allan though he says Ethel knows nothing about the prisoner. While at their house, Allan sees books with the same bookplate as the ones he has just bought. 

Allan is invited to accompany Douglas to the town of Alvira, which is where the prisoner said in his letter that he used to be a banker before he fled. Allan goes round all the banks in Alvira asking the director of each if any of their staff had been imprisoned and showing them the prisoner’s letter. All say no such person had ever worked for them, so Allan concludes this is yet another lie. Anthony phones inviting Allan to his house, he says he has a hospital worker who has been tending to the prisoner, and the priest who has given him the Last Rites, and the prison guard from the jail who has helped him, all at his house for Allan to meet with. When Allan drives over to the Crewes’ house, a man steps out infront of his car causing him to suddenly stop, and when he gets out of the car he is attacked and beaten, all his money is stolen as well as his cheque book and travellers’ cheques and any papers identifying him, he is taken far from the Crewes’ house and left for dead and does almost die. He wakes in hospital to be told that a passerby found him but he couldn’t be identified and was unconscious, that Leonor realised he was missing from the hotel and went to every hospital until she eventually found him, she contacted the American Embassy so Douglas heard about it too and realised this was Allan. Douglas tells Allan that the Crewes have fled, probably into France, that Anthony was jailed in America for mail fraud, and the Spanish and American authorities have been watching him since he came to Europe as he was known to make money by ‘helping’ confused Americans abroad and fleecing them of their money. Douglas says that Ethel was involved with the prisoner letter scam, that she would regularly seek out suitable people for the letter to be sent to and then become friendly with them on their boat or plane over to Spain with the money for the suitcase. The Chief of Police tells Allan that they suspect Anthony will have forged Allan’s signature to cash the travellers’ cheques and use the cheque book, as he is an expert forger. Allan tries to remember anything he knows about the Crewes, in order to help the police, including the woman on the boat to Spain who was ill and who Ethel looked after, and the friend Anthony had borrowed a car from, and even Allan’s suspicions with the Crewes having books from the bookshop owner’s friend. The police discover that the woman onboard ship who Ethel cared for was Marta Rodriguez, who was probably working illegally for Ethel rather than being her friend, and has since died, possibly as a result of poison. They have also found Allan’s car dumped in a river, and suspect the Crewes’ servant was instructed to do this and hope he will confess to this soon. The Wendells have also come over to Spain, as Allan’s story was in the Spanish and American papers. 

Allan asks to speak with Leonor in order to thank her for saving his life, and to find out more about her connection with the Crewes. She says she is from a very old rich family with many estates, but that her grandfather and father were both gamblers and lost lots of the family’s money. Her husband was killed in the Civil War, and there was left just her brother Pablo and his wife and their daughter, Milagrita, her sister Pilar who left to become a nun, and then Pablo’s wife died. Her brother Pablo had never worked but the family needed money, so he began gambling and one of his debtors was Anthony, that the money Pablo owed to Anthony was enormous and all the remaining family possessions and houses were sold to try and meet the debt, and finally their library was sold which were the books that Allan had found. Pablo then became seriously ill with the stress and shame of this and was admitted to a sanatorium which was arranged by Anthony, so Leonor got herself and Milagrita jobs at the hotel and they give a portion of their wages to Anthony to continue to try and pay off the debt, she says Anthony also has them watched by the man Estrado who spoke to them at the restaurant, in order to ensure they aren’t earning more than he’s aware of. Allan promises to help Leonor get as many of their possessions back as is possible, and says he will visit Pablo and Pilar. He says he’d like Leonor’s permission to ask Milagrita to marry him, he also suggests Milagrita give up her newspaper stall at the hotel which she is happy to do. 

He goes with Leonor to see Pablo, who is the Duke of San Ricardo, at the sanatorium. While there, Allan attempts to find a tactful way of acknowledging Pablo’s disgrace and loss of the family’s money, and his own keenness to help with this without making Pablo feel inadequate or offend him. Allan says they have both been victims of the same man, and that Pablo could be useful in seeing Anthony brought to justice. Allan also says that he wants to study Spanish literature and needs a quiet house to do it in, such as their old family home, and he’d like all the family including Pablo to be there with him. Allan also says that he thinks Pablo should be checked by another doctor for a second opinion as his condition may not be as lingering and debilitating as he has been told, and that a change of scenery may bring him back to health. Allan and Leonor meet Pablo’s head doctor, Buchner, who isn’t impressed by Allan’s determination for another doctor to check Pablo, but Allan says he will arrange all this through the American Embassy and that he has a particular doctor he wishes to use. Allan and Leonor then go to the family home, this is a very grand old stately home with towers and fortifications and lots of land. The servants are still there, living a very basic life but always in preparation and hope for the family’s return, and Allan is surprised at the European feudal system. He is impressed by the house, and the servants are told that the family and Allan will soon be living there again. Allan and Leonor also visit Leonor’s sister, Pilar, the nun. Allan and Leonor then decide to go to the sanitorium again on the way back to Madrid in order to check that Pablo isn’t too exhausted by their visit, and they are suspicious when told that Buchner has gone to Madrid, his assistant says this is to arrange the second opinion for Pablo that Allan had suggested but Allan says that he had told Buchner he would organise this himself. Allan asks for the address in Madrid that Buchner has gone to. Allan is also alarmed to learn that Buchner was one of Pablo’s card-playing friends, along with Anthony. He is further suspicious to learn that Pablo has been sedated, and demands a list of the medications given to sedate him, as well as demanding that Leonor will be accommodated at the sanitorium overnight to observe her brother. Allan goes back to the Worthington Hotel in Madrid, and then learns the address given to him to find Buchner is false and there is no such street. 

The following day he meets the Chief of Police who confirms that Marta Rodriguez was poisoned, presumably by Ethel so she could have time to dispose of the information Ethel had employed Marta to gather for her while she was studying at the university in America courtesy of Ethel, this information was a list of rich families who sent their sons to the university Marta was studying at who would then be targeted by Ethel for Anthony to guide around Spain and fleece of money, and a list of shop owners who would be suitable targets for the prisoner letters. The Chief of Police also says Marta’s brother, Diego, has gone to France to search for the Crewes and is feeling very vengeful. The Chief of Police also says the Crewes’ servant has admitted being told by Anthony to dispose of Allan’s car by dumping it into the river, and that Ethel was driving this car with three men in another vehicle, one was Anthony and one man was unconscious which was Allan. Allan asks the Chief of Police to investigate the sanitorium, saying he suspects Pablo is being kept there in order to extort money from Leonor supposedly for his treatment but actually in payment of Pablo’s card debts, and that Pablo is being drugged to keep him unaware and placid, and Allan also asks about the process of getting Pablo released from the sanitorium. Allan meets with Mr Wendell, at the latter’s demand, who says he is determined to go to France in order to discover and apprehend the Crewes, as he says they are blackening the American name abroad. Allan suggests that the spy, Estrado, that Anthony employed to watch Leonor and Milagrita may be useful to Wendell in this plan. Allan also learns that Charlotte is to marry his friend Douglas. The owner of the bookshop contacts Allan to say the Crewes’ butler and his wife the cook, long unpaid, are aware that the landlord of the Crewes’ home, which they actually rented rather than owned, and who is also long unpaid, is claiming back the property and all the furniture that the Crewes had purchased, so the butler was keen to give Pablo’s books back to the bookshop owner knowing he had not yet been paid for these, rather than the landlord take them, so the bookshop owner contacted Allan knowing he’d be interested in these books himself.

Ethel has been found by Diego, he gets the lists from her which were compiled by Marta, and poisons both her and himself saying extradition would take too long, having previously given the lists to his landlady with a signed confession from himself saying he has poisoned Ethel. Estrado and Wendell find Antony cheating at cards in a cafe in France, Anthony recognises Estrado and tries to escape, Anthony stabs Estrado but he shoots Anthony, and both die.

Allan and Milagrita marry, with Leonor and Pablo present, as Pablo has been released from the sanitorium and is gaining in strength. Allan and Milagrita visit Pilar to leave the wedding bouquet with her, and then head off for a honeymoon through Cordoba and Malaga and Seville and Granada and Cadiz and Jerez. Allan plans to study Spanish literature for half the year at Leonor’s family home, and spend the other half of the year in America at his family home with Milagrita teaching his students what he has learnt.

The book was very readable, not a memorable classic and nothing very in-depth but quite entertaining, considering it was a gamble reading it without having heard of the author or knowing anything about the storyline. It being set in Spain was an attraction, as well as its old-fashioned hardback look. Some of Allan’s observations are quite humorous, him being a seemingly typical American who expects action immediately and who makes swift decisions and rushes around, in contrast to the Spanish ‘mañana’ attitude. I liked the references to Spanish food and places, the Spanish words used, and the references to Spanish culture and traditions, as well as the humorous references to the often inefficient Spanish system at that time compared to the American system and the difficulties that the Spanish unquestioning put up with, to Allan’s horror, such as the poor phone system and poor roads, but also the Spanish people’s politeness and friendliness and pride in their country and its heritage. There is the slight mystery about the ‘prisoner’ too, and a slight mystery about Leonor and her history as well, although quite a few coincidences, namely Allan finding the books that used to be owned by Leonor’s family. It got more action-packed as the book neared its close. And everything ends happily and justice is done! I probably wouldn’t read it again, but it was fun to read.

The Letter From Spain by Frances Parkinson Keyes available on Amazon

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