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Friday, 24 January 2014

FFB - Winter in Madrid


Sansom is not strong on good memorable book titles but he’s strong on writing style.

For too many decades, there was a ‘pact of forgetting’ concerning the Spanish Civil War atrocities, not least the forced abduction of thousands of children of Republicans; this book is dedicated to their memory.

Madrid, 1940. The Civil War is over and Spain is struggling to recover. While Hitler rampages throughout Europe, Franco maintains Spain’s neutrality though he and his government are on friendly terms with their fellow fascists.  The British government is understandably concerned about Franco abandoning neutrality. If he should allow the German army into Spain, they would immediately march on Gibraltar and use that stronghold to strangle Allied access to the Mediterranean.

Shell-shocked survivor of Dunkirk, Harry Brett volunteers to become a spy for the Secret Service. The spymasters believe that Harry might prove useful as he knows from his school-days a shady English businessman, Sandy Forsyth, who seems to have the ear of powerful men in Madrid. 

Bernie Piper is another of Harry’s old school acquaintances. Communist supporting Piper went missing during the war in 1937.  Bernie’s girlfriend Barbara Clare had been a Red Cross nurse but she’s now married to Forsyth and is barely coping with the children in the state orphanages.  Then Barbara discovers that Bernie might not be dead, but working in a secret labour camp in the mountains.

The scene is set for several character threads to be intertwined in the traumatised city; indeed, the city itself is almost a living, breathing character thanks to Sansom’s ability to evoke a place and time.

The walls of Madrid had ears after the war. Neighbour against neighbour. It only took a few words of denunciation to have you carted off to a labour camp or even shot.  Harry found love with the tragic Sofia, another victim of the war. He also helped Barbara search for her ex-lover Bernie while she deceived her husband Sandy. And Sandy was not above deception either. 

Every character, no matter how minor, rings true in this book. You feel what they feel. The action scenes are few but they’re depicted with great verve and you’re there with the protagonists, so vital is the writing.

Sansom captures the deprivation and ugliness of modern post-war urban living. It’s squalid and grim, especially in winter. This is an authoritative piece of writing, combining the elements of a thriller, a romance and an historical drama.  The political chicanery, the ideological imperatives and the treacherous double-crosses seem very believable in Sansom’s hands.

These 500-odd pages are turned very quickly because you want to know what happens next and the last few chapters are tense and suspenseful.  After any conflict, there are survivors and they carry the scars for the rest of their lives. The surviving characters in this book are scarred by politicians as much as the violent men with guns. Masterful writing. 

Note. Sansom has enjoyed success with his historical tales about Matthew Shardlake in Tudor times. Recently, he published his alternative history novel Dominion, set in 1952, with the Nazis in power in Britain.
The short story 'Grave Concerns' featured in the above Spanish Eye collection
is about the 'pact of forgetting' and its tragic consequences today
Spanish Eye paperback can be purchased post-free worldwide here
Kindle e-book from here
Kindle e-book from here

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