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Winter In Madrid, by C J Sansom

A compelling tale of secrets and subterfuge in war-torn Spain

It's always a risky strategy for an author to change horses in midstream. If you have enjoyed the critical (and commercial) success that C J Sansom has had with his elegantly written Tudor crime novels, why test the loyalty of your readership by delivering a literary saga set in Spain at the end of the Civil War? Yet if this radical change of direction loses readers, that will be a great shame. Sansom establishes that he is as much a master of this era as of that of Henry VIII.

Harry Brett is a damaged ex-public schoolboy recovering from the horrors of Dunkirk in 1940. After meeting some genteel Whitehall spymasters, he finds himself reluctantly dispatched to turbulent Madrid, with its inhabitants starving. Hitler is moving inexorably over Europe, and Harry has been commissioned to ingratiate himself with an old acquaintance, Sandy Forsyth, who is engaged in various suspect transactions.

Sandy's lover Barbara Clare (who has worked as a nurse for the Red Cross) has her own clandestine agenda. She is searching for her ex-lover, the charismatic Bernie Piper, who is introduced in a grim prologue, fighting - and seemingly dying - for the International Brigade. But Barbara believes he is still alive, and hooks up with some very dangerous people to track him down.

While all of this may suggest literary espionage in the Le Carré vein, that's not quite what we get. Sansom deploys a fractured time scheme, moving between past and present: we are back in Harry's loveless childhood, then in murky 1940s Madrid, where betrayal is the order of the day, or in the public school where Harry and opportunistic Sandy first meet. Similarly, the reader is catapulted from Barbara's relationships with her lovers Sandy and Bernie to the humiliations of childhood, where unhappiness over her appearance is to mark her for life. But as Winter in Madrid progresses, Sansom adroitly draws the disparate strands of his ambitious saga together. His nonpareil evocations of time and place anchor his characters with satisfying precision.

Various literary ghosts haunt this novel. There are touches reminiscent of Graham Greene, such as the threatening eruptions of the brutal Falangists, after the fashion of the Tontons Macoute in The Comedians. Hemingway's here too, in the terse prose. But Sansom transfigures his sources into a moral universe very much his own. The sexual and moral equivocation is handled with cool assurance.

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