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Winter in Madrid    by C. J. Sansom order for
Winter in Madrid
by C. J. Sansom
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2009 (2006)
Hardcover, Softcover, Paperback, CD
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

C. J. Sansom's Winter in Madrid takes place mainly in World War II (post Civil War) Spain, where the fates of three men - who attended Rookwood public school together in England - converge. Its cynical depiction of the authorities and coverage of tough historical topics - in this case the Spanish Civil War (discussed in a Historical Note at the back of the book) and the treatment of both orphans and prisoner of war in that era - reminds me of John le Carré's spy stories.

Orphaned Harry Brett was sent to Rookwood by his aunt and uncle. There he befriended scholarship student Bernie Piper, who shared his study. Bernie later joined the Communist Party and fought on the Republican side in Spain, where he met and loved Barbara, an ex-nurse and Red Cross worker. Harry traveled to Spain to search for Bernie, who disappeared in 1937 after the Battle of the Jarama, and was believed dead. The third man, Sandy Forsyth, the black sheep son of a bishop, was expelled from Rookwood. Before that, he and Harry bonded to some extent, scouring the countryside for fossils together.

As the main story opens in 1940, Harry (invalided out of the army after Dunkirk) is recruited by British Intelligence to go to Spain under the guise of an Embassy translator, make contact with Sandy, and delve into his involvement in a gold mining venture - if Franco had gold reserves, he would be more inclined to enter the war on Hitler's side. Harry becomes a reluctant spy and discovers, when he makes contact with Sandy that Barbara is living with him. They got together when she was devastated with grief over Bernie's loss. Harry also learns that Sandy is helping Jewish refugees on the side.

While Harry makes cautious inroads into Sandy's affairs, Barbara learns (through an English jounalist) that Bernie might still be alive, held in a brutal prison camp. Keeping this secret from Sandy, she works with her contact to develop a plan to help Bernie escape and get him to the Embassy. In the meantime, through a Spaniard hired to watch him, Harry meets and gradually falls in love with Sofia, who was training to be a doctor before Franco took power and now works in a dairy. Eventually, both Sofia and Harry are embroiled in Barbara's plan to aid Bernie.

Of course nothing goes as planned. But though shocking betrayals layer Winter in Madrid like the skin of an onion, survivors do go on - as happened in reality. If you enjoy historical mysteries, you don't want to miss this brilliant one, both for the story and also for its insights into an era whose history remains controversial to this day.

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