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.