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Why did the world forget one of Spain’s greatest composers? Top UK scientist uncovers mystery in historical novel

Gordon L. Thomas, Historical Novelist

The Harpist of Madrid redefines the historical novel

Juan Hidalgo de Polanco was a musical genius who at just 17 years old, was summoned to King Philip IV's Court in Madrid to become a Royal harpist. He went on to write Spain's first two opera's and although some of his music survives, very little about his life has been recorded. But a former Home Office civil servant and nuclear physicist, Dr. Gordon L.Thomas, has re-examined this enigma with the eye of a forensic researcher and the imagination of an author.

In the 1970s Gordon was a bright young scientist at the UK Home Office. He worked on breakthrough fingerprint technology that led to the conviction of notorious serial killers and rapists. Now in an altogether different role, tracing fingerprints of the past, Thomas delves into the mysteriously forgotten life of Juan Hidalgo. The story pivots around King Philip's IV's Madrid Court, which was a hive of creativity, with the world famous artist Diego Velázquez working as the Royal portrait painter. Velázquez painted numerous courtiers, but though he would have known Juan well, not a sketch of him exists. Also Hidalgo's musical contemporaries, such as the English composer Henry Purcell, are world famous but Juan’s story is all but unknown - that is until now.

In The Harpist of Madrid, Thomas dusts off layers of Renaissance cobwebs and breathes new life into Juan’s fascinating double life. The novel depicts Hidalgo as a young man who becomes involved in more than musical composing and concerts. Without divulging too much of the incandescent plot, a highly treacherous secret organisation exists within King Philip IV's court. In the novel, the murky exploits of this agency hold the key to why Juan was all but written out of history.

In his preface to The Harpist of Madrid, Gordon says, ‘You, the reader, may believe that what is not verifiable fact must be fiction. But you should beware. The difference between history and mystery is not always clear, especially in such troubled times.’ This warning pinpoints why The Harpist of Madrid seduces our literary senses. The meticulous detail subtly builds up to an unrelenting, unexpected climax. It so accurately mirrors real life that it is impossible to decipher where fiction and fact diverge. Thomas unnervingly reminds us, that ultimately we have no control over the most moving, be they joyous or tragic, events in our lives. Gordon’s expert analytical eye displays ‘the sinister’ which continues to lurk in the shadows. The Harpist of Madrid cautions us that dark forces never show their cards in the complex, often duplicitous game of life, especially at the highest levels of power. This insight alone raises the bar of what we know as the historical novel.

With a scientist's precision and a novelist's dramatic plotting, Thomas, In The Harpist of Madrid, traces Juan Hidalgo’s role in the dark, ruthlessly cruel, secret world which answers to Madrid’s elite, a role those closest to Juan know little about. Thomas applies that same attention to detail, honed whilst working with Scotland Yard’s Serious Crime Squad, to lay bare, in this novel, why Juan Hidalgo was forgotten. Indeed we are left asking, could Juan have been purposely written out of Spanish history? The Harpist of Madrid redefines the historical novel. The result is the most ‘forensically’ imaginative novel of its kind. Thomas's distinctly British humour, ironic flair and exacting prose, wherein no syllable is superfluous to plot, characterisation, style or structure, is pure quality; this is more than befitting Thomas the man, an understated doctor of science - and now master of the arts too.

The earthy erotic scenes in the novel are handled with the sharp wit of a connoisseur of life. Thomas is himself the epitome of The Renaissance man, embracing the arts as naturally as the sciences and keenly aware that all is never quite what it seems, especially when powerful rulers direct undercover assignments. Gordon’s characters, who include the Spanish royal family and a host of fellow composers, playwrights, adversaries, unyielding religious elites, enemies and allies alike, are all fully believable. The equally fine architecture of the sturdy dramatic structure, with its mosaic intricacy of colourful earthy relationships, secret liaisons both light-hearted and deeply disturbing, is faultless. The Harpist of Madrid is a cut well above the norm in the historical novel genre. There is no doubt, that Thomas's writing style is a throwback to his years as a senior administrator at the Home Office, with strict ministerial deadlines and no time for fluff or fancy. Such lack of verbosity in The Harpist of Madrid allows the historical story of Juan Hidalgo to unfold with the quality and texture of the finest silks of Renaissance royalty.

Only the very best historical novelists successfully sift out the finest material from a mass of historical research. But a sense of expectancy and drama is as important as historical background and the impending climax of Thomas's novel is there from the start. The ending, though never revealed, is cleverly preempted on several occasions. This is especially true when we enter the dark and cruel world of the Spanish secret service, as seen through the eyes of the young innocent Hidalgo. Thomas presents the Spanish Inquisition as if it were simply a career choice, with membership being a chance to advance in the world. He convinces us that it was possible to get involved in this dangerous brutal secret society, as did Juan, without full realisation of what it was really all about, until it was too late to step away.

Historical novels can be as much about the author as characters from the distant past. Gordon Thomas, the son of a hardworking postman, with the support of a loving family and excellent teachers, became a highly talented scientist spearheading groundbreaking developments in UK fingerprint technology. He witnessed gruesome murder scenes whilst working with Scotland Yard, just as Hidalgo witnessed scenes of violence and killings in The Harpist of Madrid. Thomas ultimately, like Hidalgo, reached the pinnacle of his chosen profession, becoming a top Civil Servant working with a host of Home Secretaries at the British Home Office. He now heads the International Carnahan Conference on Security Technology which met this year in Taiwan and from which he has recently returned. When asked to sum up his new career as a novelist, as compared with his role as a senior civil servant and scientist, Thomas says, “I moved from solving real problems in security to having the unfettered freedom to create an amazing story, precisely assembled but essentially a work of fiction.”

One single journey to Italy in The Harpist of Madrid holds the key to the ultimate outcome, reaching epic proportions in Hidalgo’s life; and it is totally unforeseen. Only in the final chapters, as in all great mysteries, will we discover the relevance of this clue. So has Gordon Thomas uncovered the mystery surrounding Juan Hidalgo, within this debut historical novel? Only when fact is extracted from fiction will we ever truly know. One thing is certain, he has certainly touched on a wonderful story as to why Madrid forgot the life of their greatest 17th century harpist and composer, the musical genius, Juan Hidalgo.

Gordon L.Thomas is the emerging author to read and The Harpist of Madrid is a ‘must buy’ for the festive break. It will make a beautiful quality Christmas gift.

The Harpist of Madrid is published by Olympia (£8.99). Click here to buy

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