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Sansom, C J - 'Winter in Madrid'
Hardback: 544 pages (Jan. 2006) Publisher: Macmillan ISBN: 1405005467

C J Sansom is, of course, best known for his Matthew Shardlake series, set in Tudor London. In WINTER IN MADRID, he springs forward some three hundred years and proves that sixteenth century ecclesiastical struggles are not the only string to his bow.

The book is set in 1940, that year of terror, tension, and despair, when the armies of fascism seemed invincible, the Communist revolution was utterly betrayed by the Stalin-Hitler Pact, and the Battle of Britain as yet unresolved. Harry Brett, ex-public schoolboy and survivor of Dunkirk, is dispatched to Madrid ostensibly as a translator, but in fact to spy on his former schoolmate, Sandy Forsyth, who is involved in a shady gold-field development scheme that could tip the Franco regime's entrance into the war on the side of their old allies, the Nazis. Harry's masters, the real Sir Sam Hoare and Alan Hillgarth, act within the classic style of Empire political manipulation - tricky Great Gamesmanship, dedicated to producing the desired result while taking care not to threaten the conservative power structure. As he arrives in Madrid, Harry has no reason to question this approach. He is the product of a public school education that provided him with the sense of family and community that he, orphaned by the Great War and the Spanish flu, so desperately longed for. Rookwood promised him that its values and its codes would see him successfully through life, but Rookwood belongs to the world even before the Great War and is ill-suited to the shifting allegiances, ambiguities, and treacheries of 1940. It was not even strong enough to protect him against the psychic damage of Dunkirk.

Harry has been to Spain before. He first came in the nascent days of the Republic along with his schoolmate, Bernie Piper, and again, sadly, in 1937, at the behest of Bernie's parents, to try to find out what precisely had happened to Bernie, a volunteer for the International Brigade, following the Battle of the Jarama Valley. His search was unsuccessful and he had reluctantly to conclude that Bernie indeed had perished and been buried in an unmarked grave. Going about his assigned mission, he meets Sandy socially and finds him living with Barbara Clare, an ex-Red Cross nurse and Bernie's former lover. Barbara is unreconciled to Bernie's death and is secretly engaged in a search she hopes will prove him still alive. And Harry will himself fall in love, with Sonia, a working-class Spanish woman and Republican, whose life and experiences will shake Harry's bland neutrality and sense of British superiority to their foundations.

This is a hard novel to classify. It has elements of the thriller, but these largely occupy only the last third of the book. Primarily, it is a political novel in the very best sense of that term - a novel that thoughtfully considers what can happen to an ordinarily decent man of no great intelligence or imagination, at the crowning moment of Auden's 'low, dishonest decade'. WINTER IN MADRID is much more about England than Spain, about why Empire failed, and about the inability of ironic detachment to deal with an ideological universe. The book climaxes in a kind of LeCarre-esque action sequence, but its epilogue is far more sober and deeply distressing. There have been a lot of novels, beginning with Hemingway, set in and around the Civil War; this, I think is the most clear-eyed and the most honest. Its readers will have not only to consider the ambiguities and treacheries of the past, but those they shadow in our own time.

Yvonne Klein, Canada
July 2006

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 30/03/2008 13:24