Senoritas and Spies

I enjoy reading books in groups— a pair of books by the same author, a few books that take place in the same location, or a couple of novels about the same time period. Each new book can add dimension to the others.

In spite of my extensive research into World War II for my novel, Immigrant Soldier, The Story of a Ritchie Boy, I had little knowledge about Spain during the same period. I knew that many Jews fleeing Germany, and later France, struggled to get to Spain because of its neutrality. Yet I also was aware that the Spanish Fascists had won their recent revolution with Hitler’s help. How could both these things be accurate? A visit to Spain last fall piqued my interest even more. My solution was to tackle two historical novels—a total of over 1,100 pages—about Spain just before and during World War II.

I read Winter in Madrid, by C. J. Sansom, first. The story of a reluctant English spy, Harry Brett, who is recruited to go to Spain because of his school association with a man of interest to the intelligence service, has all the twists and turns of a thriller. During his time in Madrid, Harry connects with his old school friend, the ultimate con-man. That man’s girlfriend, Barbara, is a nurse who still harbors a deep love for another of Harry’s schoolmates, Bernie, who came to Spain to fight in the rebellion. There is plenty of intrigue, lots of action, and a complex love triangle. The novel answered many of my questions about the Spanish Civil War, the repressive nature of the early years of the Franco regime, and the pervasive influence of the Nazis in Spain during World War II.

The Time in Between, written by Spanish author María Dueñas, was a best seller in Europe before it was translated into English. Told in the first person by the heroine, Sira Quiroga, the daughter of a single dressmaker, the novel begins as the romantic coming-of-age story of a young woman who rashly follows her first passionate lover to the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco. She soon finds herself abandoned, penniless, and unable to return home because of criminal charges against her as the result of her lover’s larceny. Stranded in North Africa while the civil war rages in Spain, Sira is a most unlikely candidate to become a spy yet, as a result of connections that result from her profession as a dressmaker, that is exactly what happens.

About halfway through The Time in Between, when Sira returns to Madrid as an undercover agent for British intelligence, the parallels between it and Winter in Madrid become pronounced. The main assignment for both Sira and Harry Brett is to uncover information about Generalissimo Franco’s ever changing alliance with Nazi Germany —an alliance that could lead Spain into joining the war on the Axis side. In both novels, the superior who directs the new spies Sira and Harry is the historical naval attaché in Madrid, Captain Alan Hillgarth. Though Dueñas doesn’t get to the captain until somewhere around page 374, Sansom describes Hillgarth quite early in Winter in Madrid. In both novels, he is described as tall, handsome, and dark-haired and portrayed as confident, calm, direct, understanding, and a chain smoker.  When he finally appeared in The Time in Between, it was like meeting an old friend after a long absence.

I can recommend both books for their ability to hold a reader over many pages with complex plots, interesting characters, tender love stories, and excellent writing. Both describe vividly the devastation in Madrid after the civil war, the tense political situation, the British concern to keep Spain neutral, and the lies and subterfuge that were part of the life of a spy.

If you find the 1,143 pages of the combination too daunting and need to choose only one, there are differences to consider. Winter in Madrid reveals the role of the communists in Spain’s civil war, the shocking story of Franco’s prisons for political dissidents, and the struggle of Jews to move past Fascist Spain and into Portugal to await visas to permanent places of refuge. The Time in Between recounts the more peaceful life in Morocco in the 1930s and in Lisbon, Portugal in 1941, as well as the struggles of a young woman on her own trying to make her way as a dressmaker for the wealthy.

Winter in Madrid, by C. J. Sansom Paperback, 534 pages Published in 2006 by Penguin Books Ltd, England

The Time In Between, by María Dueñas Paperback, 609 pages Published in Spanish in 2009 by Ediciones Planeta Published in English in 2011 by Simon & Schuster.


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