Every now and then I read a book about Spain which helps make understanding this country a little easier. Winter in Madrid, by C.J. Sansom, is one of those books.
This thriller is set mainly in Madrid just after the Spanish Civil War in 1940. I know what you’re thinking, not another blooming book about the Spanish Civil War, but this one is so much more. It’s not only an education read, helping you clarify exactly what went on back in those miserable days in Spain, but the detailed, colourful images paint superb images in your mind and the gripping plot and variety of characters keep you entertained.
The main character is Harry Brett, a World War veteran who reluctantly becomes a spy for the British Secret Service. Harry is sent to Madrid to check up on an old school colleague Sandy Forsyth, a dodgy business man. The main problem is that Harry is not really up for being a spy and dislikes having to lie. He soon becomes a professional though and works his way into Sandy’s corrupt life.
Barbara Clare, Sandy’s girlfriend, is desperately trying to discover whether her real love Bernie Piper, a Communist in the International Brigades – thought missing in action, is alive, or not.
It’s a bit slow to start with, but once Harry gets involved in Sandy’s crooked business, and also meets Sofia, a Spanish lady, the story becomes enticing. Not to mention the scenes in Bernie’s mind while he’s in prison.
The fact that Harry, Sandy, and Bernie all went to the same public school together adds to the storyline and creates an intense build up.
Why would I recommend it?
If you have a passion for Spain and an interest in finding out more about what really happened back around the Spanish Civil War then this is a great book.
I felt sorry for Harry from the start. He’s a bit of a clumsy old fool and is thrown in the deep end by being told he needs to become a spy. The job obviously isn’t for him but he is passionate about his feelings and wants to give it his best shot; jolly good show.
I also sympathised with Barbara. I’m sure a lot of people have lost their soul mates during wars and it must be a dreadful feeling not knowing whether the person of your life is alive, in a prisoner of war camp, or dead.
It shows you exactly what was happening in Spain around the Second World War as well, which is bizarrely interesting, as is the relationship between Franco and Hitler. I found out the other day that the car that drives around the King of Spain, now Felipe VI, was actually a present from Hitler to Franco.
It also makes you realise how far Spain has come since then. Fair enough, times are tough at the moment, there is a lot of hardship, people unemployed and losing their houses on a regular basis, but at least people aren’t killing each other, well, not yet anyway.
I always find Civil Wars the hardest to contemplate. How can people with the same blood feel that strongly about something that they would grass on their own brother or father and send them to their death? I find it incredible that this happened in Spain all those years ago, but it does explain sometimes the passionate personalities of people I have met over the years, and also why there is often still a lot of tension between people here.
Christopher John Sansom, born in Edinburgh, is the man responsible for this marvellous novel. I love the way he brings old Spain to life, develops the characters, and drip feeds details of the story to keep you intrigued.
Sansom is a writer of crime novels, which explains how he was able to devise such a thrilling plot. You can check out his website here.
Have you read Winter in Madrid? What did you think? Do you know any other excellent books about the Spanish Civil War?