C. J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid is a much longer affair altogether, coming in at well over 500 pages. And yet it probably took me no longer to read than At Swim-Two-Birds at less than half the length. The plot moves apace, very much at the speed of the thriller that it is on one level, yet what impressed me was the level of historical detail and context that gives the novel its texture. Sansom sets the story in Spain during the early years of the Franco dictatorship, in the aftermath of the bloody civil war and when Spain is teetering on the edge of joining the European war on the side of Hitler and Mussolini. The historical background is vivid and evocative, yet Sansom is admirable in his restraint – he doesn’t tell us too much, doesn’t overegg the pudding. He doesn’t let anything, ultimately, get in the way of the story. I was reading an article in The Observer a couple of weeks ago by Philip Pullman. His argument was that all novels are a balance between ‘literature’ and ‘narrative’. He wasn’t arguing that the quality of the novel was dependent on the balance being towards any one of these polarities, but simply stating a fact, as he saw it. Indeed, he was really responding to criticisms that The Golden Compass, the new film version of his book The Northern Lights had dumbed down the novel. He argued that this was inevitable, since the Hoollywood form simply demands more narrative than literature – again a fact – and suggested that the film should be watched (and judged) for what it was and not for what it wasn’t. Reading Winter in Madrid, I felt that the story always had the upper hand, but the literature was never that far behind. Another one I would recommend.