I am a big fan of Sansom’s work, though so far I have only read his Shardlake series – crime thrillers set in Tudor England. This is a departure from that work; it’s a spy novel rather than a crime and it’s set in Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Though I like historical fiction, it’s not very often I read books set as late as the 20th century.
Harry Brett is a WWII veteran; he was there on the shores of Dunkirk. With war still raging in France, he is recruited by the British Secret Services, not to enter into Nazi-occupied France, but to Spain where the Civil War has just ended and General Franco reigns supreme. The Secret Service want Brett to connect with an old school chum and pretend to be an interpreter in the British Embassy – but this is a cover story for something else, naturally.
As spy stories go, nothing is ever simple. It is a spy story after all and it wouldn’t be a spy thriller if everything went according to plan, on schedule with no hiccups or obstacles or external elements threatening to unravel the story. He runs into another school friend quite unexpectedly and eventually falls in love with somebody he meets in the course of the plot. It wouldn’t be a spy story without a tale of seduction and love across the miles, it wouldn’t be a spy story without at least one other sub-plot. He’s no James Bond though, Brett is a level-headed and cautious man, a million miles away from the playboy 007 and his clones.
The style is surprisingly simplistic. Sansom’s work is known for being quite dense and heavy-going, but this is not the case here. It’s very easy to read but no less detailed because of it; it’s slow moving but not boring; it’s richly detailed but not bogged down in detail to the point of drowning in itself. This is a surprising alteration to Sansom’s style, but it still feels very much in the tradition of previous works by the same writer. It’s also surprisingly more of a love story than I expected. Thrillers are rarely laid back and romances are rarely page turners (at least, not to me) but Sansom has done really well to gel all of these elements together. It’s perhaps a little less pacey than the average spy thriller though.
How he compiles Madrid is also well written. It’s not that often I get a good sense of place in a novel, but Sansom does it just as well, if not better, than he managed in the Shardlake books. Madrid in the early years of the Franco dictatorship feels vivid and colourful, threatening and beautiful, alive.