Frozen season: Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom (2006)

I’ve read all of Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake Tudor novels and thoroughly enjoyed them, but for some reason I wasn’t initially attracted to this straight historical novel, and decided to pass on it, as it wasn’t historical crime, but the library got the audio version in and I decided I might as well listen to it in the car. Had I been missing a treat! Winter in Madrid is a marvellous novel. It’s rich and many layered, displaying a complete familiarity with its period.

It’s set in Madrid (as we can obviously tell from the title) during the early part of the second world war. The only previous acquaintance I have had with Spain in this period was in the marvellous Pan’s Labyrinth, which I saw last year, but going by my previous knowledge of Sansom’s writing, I’m confident he knows his stuff. Sansom gives a wonderful evocation of a shattered city – shattered in both infrastructure and spirit, and captures a brooding sense of hate, fear and hypocrisy that lends the novel much of its tension.

Former Cambridge lecturer Harry Brett has been invalided out of the army after Dunkirk suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. He is recruited by the British government to work undercover in Spain, spying on a former school friend who has some involvement with the Spanish government and some rather unsavoury types. The British are desperate to keep Spain out of the war; Sandy Forsyth could jeopardise this. Harry has a long familiarity with Spain – he travelled there ten years previously with another school friend who subsequently became a communist and died during the Spanish Civil War.

This is not a novel of black and white, but of many shades of grey, and these characters, and others, all reflect this. Harry is not exactly a dashing hero – he has his problems, and Sandy Forsyth, as the ostensible villain, is one of the most interesting characters in the novel. Other characters, such as Harry’s handler at the British embassy, who initially appear as single faceted, ‘good’ characters subsequently appear to have other motives and desires, which makes them appear much less attractive.

I liked the ending – it was not what I expected, but seemed appropriate for the style of novel this is.

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3 responses to “Frozen season: Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom (2006)

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but unlike you, I found the ending a real disappointment – I thought it weak, and a bit of a cop out. I didn’t really go for the cliff-hanger, followed by ‘it’s 10 years later, and now let me tell you, in a few paragraphs, what happened next.’ But as all endings, a matter of personal opinion. I’ve read several modern novels recently where the endings seemed feeble, so perhaps it’s a problem of my advancing years!

  2. I think it was the downbeat nature of the ending that I liked – I felt it fitted in with the shades of grey of the novel as a whole. There was no happy ever after, things just carried on for the surviving characters.

  3. I loved this book – no-thing and no-one was painted in one-dimensional black and white. The realistic (and presumably accurate and well-researched) historical background was evocative and worked well.
    I thought the ending, including the Epilogue, included some cheap shots that seemed to indicate a sequel in the making…. The ‘taster’ of Kim Philby, the obviously imminent meeting between Barbara and Sandy (and the role she could play in devastating his plans to cash in on England’s pain ….
    “The Winter of 1947” wasn’t too easy a time either ….

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