Winter in Madrid is a book that I picked up due to the prettiness of the cover and the name of the author. I’d seen but not read C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series, and he seemed to be quite a popular author so I wanted to give him a go. I’m very glad now that I picked up one of his stand-alone books rather than committing to a whole series because, to be brutally honest, while I could give or take the basic plot of Winter in Madrid, C.J. Sansom’s writing was not a style which I enjoyed.
Winter in Madrid, as the title suggests, is set during a winter in Madrid; specifically a winter after the Spanish Civil War, which is not a subject I know anything about. Harry Brett had been asked to return to Madrid as a spy. He had visited Madrid during the Civil War with a school friend, Bernie Piper; Bernie had stayed on to fight and was missing, presumed dead. Bernie’s old girlfriend Barbara was now living in a pretend marriage with another school friend, Sandy Forstythe, and Harry was sent to Madrid to spy on Sandy and find out the truth behind his shady business deals. During this time Barbara finds out that Bernie is actually alive and living in a concentration camp, and she (and later Harry) becomes involved in a plot to help his escape.
C.J. Sansom has been praised for his level of research and his accuracy regarding the living conditions in Madrid at the time of the novel’s setting. Some of the characters working at the British Embassy are also based on real people, and the book contains elements of some real events. I know absolutely nothing about the Spanish Civil War so I can’t really comment on the accuracy or effectiveness of his research. However, I do feel that he perhaps focused too heavily on gaining a high standard of historical accuracy, at the expense of creating or developing believable characters, and writing them effectively. I really didn’t like the way he portrayed his character’s emotions. Everything was made too explicit and too obvious, it just felt a bit clumsy. He makes Barbara literally say things along the lines of “I just find it so hard to believe that anyone could love me because I was bullied so much at school”, and I found that really aggravating. It doesn’t have to be spelt out so much, I’m sure we as readers would be capable of putting two and two together without the reason being clearly written down in front of us. Characters shouldn’t have to physically explain their emotions. It really felt to me like C.J. Sansom was yet to master the classic “show, don’t tell” rule. All of his characters’ emotions were made to be so explicit all of the time, and I really think the novel would have been improved greatly if he’d been a bit more subtle in his writing of emotion and dialogue. I thought he was especially weak at writing female characters, which is probably why I took such a dislike to the character of Barbara. She was such a whiny little sap all of the time, I just wanted to give her a shake and tell her to man up, for goodness sake!
I also found it harder and harder to connect with the story as the novel went on. It felt like it was losing all of its believability from Bernie’s escape onwards. Again, it just seemed a bit clumsy to me. Sansom spent so long setting up the novel and preparing for this particular event, and then when it came to it he rushed through all the important bits so quickly that I didn’t really have a clue what was going on. The escape plan turned out to be a set up, and yet I’m completely confused about the motivation behind the set up, or even who was ultimately responsible. Everything was wrapped up pretty quickly without being properly resolved, and then we’re left with an extremely unsatisfactory epilogue. I felt like the novel was building and building towards a big climatic event, but then it happened so abruptly and in such a jumble, and then the book just ended. It was really unsatisfying and I felt a bit cheated, because nothing had really been explained, but this was an area which actually would have benefited from a clear and explicit run down of what had occurred and why. The reappearance of Sandy at the end suggests to me the possibility of a sequel, so perhaps everything will be revealed at a later date. All in all though, I found the epilogue especially displeasing, and actually rather depressing.
Winter in Madrid is meant to be a thriller, but I felt no sense of thrill, just frustration directed at the confusing, muddled storyline and the awkward, undeveloped portrayal of the characters. I think there’s a fine line between focusing on the historical accuracy of the work at the expense of a believable story and/or characters, and while C.J. Sansom’s research and portrayal of post-Civil War Madrid are to be praised, unfortunately he just got the balance wrong. If I’d known more about the Spanish Civil War, perhaps I could have appreciated Winter in Madrid more. As it stands, with no knowledge of the period whatsoever, I was left to rely mainly on the storyline itself and the characterisation, which sadly meant that I didn’t enjoy reading it very much.