Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom Viking Books HK$208 (three and a half stars) 'Readers who are fans of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind ... are sure to fall in love with Winter in Madrid,' according to the blurb that accompanies the novel. Even the jacket image seems like a conscious echo of the international best-seller first published in English in 2004. It's true there are similarities: Winter in Madrid is set just after the Spanish civil war; the backdrop for The Shadow of the Wind is Barcelona in the same period. Religion makes its presence felt in both books; both authors create shadowy priests who hide behind the hypocrisies of the Spanish Catholic Church of the time. The parallels end there: The Shadow of the Wind is a mystery with elements of the supernatural, a meandering pace and a twisting plot. Winter in Madrid is a straight-forward, page-turning, spy thriller. Harry Brett, still partially deaf from his experiences in Dunkirk, is recruited by the 'sneaky beakies'. His mission: to spy on an old schoolfriend called Sandy Forsyth, a bad egg who's now involved in a gold-mine scam. Brett, armed with his public school morality, sets out for the British embassy in Madrid where he is to work under the guise of being a translator. There he comes across Barbara Clare, a redhead who was once the girlfriend of another of Brett's schoolfriends, communist Bernie Piper. Clare is on a mission of her own; she believes her former lover is still alive but incarcerated in one of Franco's prisoner-of-war camps. The relationship between Clare and Piper is pivotal to the narrative so it's a shame that it's the one area where Sansom falters. The grand passion in The Shadow of the Wind finds no equivalent here. It's not that Sansom can't do love scenes; Brett's affair with an impoverished local Spanish girl is heart-breaking. Sansom abandoned his mystery series set in Tudor England (which started with Dissolution) to write this stand-alone thriller but, because of his masterly use of historical detail, you'd never guess the period was new to him. He uses the language and sensibilities of the times to great effect, working real events and characters into his fiction. Sansom's study of bad-tempered appeaser Sir Samuel Hoare, Brett's boss and the real-life British ambassador in Spain, is enlightening. Sansom also writes well about innocent people who suffer from the consequences of war. A powerful moment comes when a woman's dress is caught by the wind - her emaciated body is revealed and she is led away by the civiles for 'offending public morals'. It really happened, Sansom tells us in an interesting historical addendum. On occasion, the reader can almost hear Sansom rubbing his hands with glee over his historical deftness. Towards the end of the book, when 1940s Madrid is revealed to be a place rife with duplicity and betrayal, Hoare complains, 'This is a fine thing for this new man on the Madrid desk in London - what's his name -'. 'Kim Philby,' is the ironic response. Sansom has written a confident and finely observed piece, with vivid imagery, believable characters and a plot that keeps you gasping until the bloody denouement.