* This suggestion is part of our Sweater Weather Reads series. We’ll be posting cool suggestions all winter long on Twitter @BSPLibrary #sweaterweatherreads. Got a better suggestion? We’d love to hear from you. *
Whenever a favorite author of mine deviates from their usual setting or characters, I approach the new work with trepidation. It’s not that I believe the new work won’t be good – the author has already proven their ability in the books I’ve already read. It’s just that I worry that I am more in love with the characters and setting of the writer’s other books than I am with the writer’s style or storytelling.
C. J. Sansom has written an excellent mystery series starring a lawyer in London at the time of Cromwell. He brilliantly captures the sights, sounds, and dangers of London in a time of political upheaval. I highly recommend any of the books in the Matthew Shardlake series. This review is not about those books. Instead, I’d like to introduce one of his other novels, Winter in Madrid.
Winter in Madrid is set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in Madrid, Spain when the country is on the brink of joining Germany’s war effort in WWII. The main character, Harry Brett, is a spy for England sent into Madrid to cozy up to an old public school friend, Sandy Forsyth, who has turned into a shady war profiteer. During the mission, he discovers that another former classmate has been imprisoned and gets involved with his schoolmate’s lover while trying to free him. Harry also falls in love with a Spanish schoolteacher struggling to survive in the post-war chaos.
These stories intertwine and climax just as an unexpected twist changes all the characters’ lives forever.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the juxtaposition between the British pre-war morality and the weary cynicism that came at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Thousands of non-Spaniards, believing that Spain was the battlefield of the struggle against fascism, had fought, died, committed atrocities, and had atrocities perpetrated on them. What had been seen as a glorious, hopeful enterprise against communism and fascism was crushed by the cruel machinery of war and politics. The schoolboy virtues of honor, self-sacrifice for others, and spirit of fair play were no longer needed nor valued.
Sansom does his usual excellent job of putting the reader into the setting, with the constant political peril so palpable that it’s almost a character in the story. I finished this book relieved that one of my favorite authors had once again delivered a thrilling tale I could not put down.