Monday, January 16, 2012

Book 2 of 52: Winter in Madrid

January's Compleat Bookseller Book Club book was CJ Sansom's Winter in Madrid.

Set in Madrid in 1940, Sansom's novel is two parts spy thriller and one part historical drama. He has a (justified) drum to beat about the horrors of the Franco regime, but he's fallen well short of a brilliant novel. It's a page turner, and the plot comes together at the end; however, while those are generally fine qualities for a mystery-thriller, when they are the only high points in the novel it's being damned by faint praise.

I'll take the last point first: the plot comes together. Winter in Madrid too Dickensian for my taste, and the characters plod along towards a conclusion that wraps up each of their storylines in a tight little bow. The worst thing, for me, was the ex machina conclusion: (this is no spoiler, because there's nothing to spoil) all the plots we read about for 400 pages are pointless little quiverings, because the characters are all outmaneuvered by another character. Had this seemingly minor player not emerged from the darkness for a classic Evil Gloating Monologue Winter in Madrid could very well have ended with all the main characters shot down in the snow without any explanation of how they were foiled. Truthfully, I might have enjoyed the novel better had it ended that way.

While the story was interesting while it was happening, there was nothing especially memorable. Compared to Hemmingway, who seems to drop witticisms and axioms between every comma, Sansom's writing was flavorless. It went down easily because there was no spice. I finished the book on Thursday; today is Monday and I couldn't describe to you what a single character looked like, how they spoke to distinguish them from other characters, or a particular scene that was particularly intense.

I haven't written at all about the epilogue that jumped the story from a moment of high tension, through a blackout, to 7 years later with everyone the author wants dead already dead, and everyone he wants alive in exactly the spot he wants them. It was everything I hate.

This was a book with a lot of potential, and just like with baseball players who never seem to put it all together, I'm most critical of the book that could have been great, but wasn't. Sansom has a great setting in World War II Madrid. He made the squalor and the rundown terror of the place really breath. But he couldn't find a story worthy of the city.

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