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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Reluctant Spy In Franco's Spain

Winter in Madrid - C.J. Sansom

Set in Madrid just after the Spanish Civil War, this is the story of a reluctant spy. Harry Brett, a traumatised veteran of Dunkirk, who is persuaded to take up a post as translator at the British Embassy in Madrid as a cover for his real mission - discovering exactly what his old school friend, Sandy, is up to. Sandy is a businessman with very close ties to the Spanish government and the British suspect his activities may be increasing the chances of Spain entering the Second World War on the side of the Axis powers.

I found the first hundred pages of this book slow. There was a great deal of setting-up of the situation. But it really picked up after that and I became absorbed in the characters and also fascinated by the setting. I knew next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship, and this very well-researched novel provided some fascinating historical context.

The writing did strike me as slightly clunky in places: the dialogue felt a bit stilted, and the author has an annoying habit of telling you what to think about the characters. But there are some marvellous little vignettes - Franco stifling a yawn at a concert was one of my favourites - and the plot is really quite ingenious, if a little over-engineered. There are also a couple of terrific twists towards the end that really took me by surprise.