3 aren't same ol' stories

As I greedily wolfed down whole chapters of C.J. Sansom's vast, captivating new thriller, "Winter in Madrid," I began calling it "Casablanca North," although that sobriquet is ultimately more whimsical than fully accurate.

Still, some fundamental things apply: The era described in both works is about the same. The geography is not that far off. Each is a tale of love and glory, a case of do or die. Both have plenty of hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate. There's even a "You're getting on that plane..." moment in the book to rival Bogey and Bergman's.

Despite the comparisons, "Winter in Madrid" (Viking, $25.95, 537 pages) stands on its own. Sansom uses vividly drawn characters to recount all the intrigue, conspiracy, bloodshed and betrayal that marked the various reigns in Spain in the decade leading up to World War II. (In brief, Spain staggered in those years from monarchy to republic to ghastly civil war to fascist Franco dictatorship.)

Although there are plenty of flashbacks and key subplots, Sansom begins with the Madrid winter of 1940-41, as Hitler and Mussolini seek to lure Franco to the Axis and Churchill plots to keep Spain neutral.

At the center of that plot is reluctant spy Harry Brett, an upper-class university foreign language teacher recruited by British intelligence to snoop on an old school chum, shady businessman and Franco admirer Sandy Forsyth.

Undercover as a British embassy translator, Brett worms his way into Sandy's confidence to find out Franco's intentions. He finds out lots more. For example, Sandy's girlfriend is working under cover, on a more personal level, to discover the fate of her true love, Bernie, killed or captured fighting fascists during the civil war. Only limitations of plot summary prevent me from explaining how it is an acceptable coincidence that Bernie, Sandy and Harry roomed together at school.

There's lots more, including cameo appearances by Franco and Churchill; an ill-advised secret romance between Harry and a beautiful Spanish woman; a couple of shootouts; a car chase or two; a prison break; and evocative descriptions of Madrid and the rugged Spanish countryside.

This sweeping novel is not "Don Quixote," but it is a true modern epic of Spain, a suspenseful "tale of love and glory." In short, it is a beach book worth the sunburn you'll forget you're getting reading it. Its only flaw is that Sansom's five-page mini-history of the Spanish Civil War is tucked after the final chapter. He could have saved a lot of Googling by putting it first.

If you're looking for something both literally and figuratively lighter (you could use "Winter in Madrid" as a free weight), try either or both of two popular Florida series detective stories: "Black Widow," by Randy Wayne White (Putnam, $24.95, 337 pages) and/or James W. Hall's "Hell's Bay" (St. Martin's, $24.95, 306 pages).

Although different in temperament, both White's CIA operative turned marine biologist Doc Ford and Hall's reclusive, fly-tying beach bum Thorne (whose first name we finally learn here), are alpha males with sufficient humane instincts and hard-earned wisdom to soften their rough edges.

In "Black Widow," Ford is grudgingly enlisted by his gorgeous, rebellious goddaughter, Shay, to recover a scandalous video surreptitiously taken of her and three girlfriends with strange men during a bachelorette party. Shay is about to be married to the scion of a wealthy family and her friends are either engaged or married to equally humiliation-averse rich guys.

Ford quickly ransoms the tape but doubts it is the only copy and fears the blackmail will continue. Of course it does. But as he pursues the blackmailer, he learns that a much more dangerous and widespread conspiracy is at work, and that the web of the titular evil genius behind the perverse money-making scheme is right in his midst on Florida's picturesque Sanibel Island.

In "Hell's Bay," Thorne similarly dumps better judgment to help a beautiful, willful woman. When former lover Rusty asks Thorne to leave his comfy shanty on the edge of the Everglades to help launch a fishing guide business, he dubiously complies.

On the first outing, deep into uncharted Everglades backwaters, things go speedily wrong as Thorne finds himself face to face with an unknown past (he is an orphan) that seems at odds with everything he ever believed about himself. For one thing, he is rich. For another, the source of that wealth has been destroying Florida's fragile landscape. Quite a revelation for an anti-materialistic, anti-social, passionate nature lover. Fans of Hall's lengthy series will find lots to chew on in this fast-paced tale of murder and mayhem in the mangroves. Newbies will finish "Hell's Bay" and quickly seek out its predecessors.

With all necessary homage to P.D. James, Elizabeth George and other paragons of the classic British police procedural mystery writing today, it remains a mystery to me why Peter Robinson, with his elegant and engrossing series featuring Yorkshire Chief Inspector Alan Banks, isn't more widely read. I offer "Friend of the Devil" (Morrow, $24.95, 372 pages), the 17th in the series, as Exhibit A.

This time the decent, mildly diffident Banks and his colleague and sometime lover Annie Cabbot are working, separately, on what may only appear to be two particularly nasty but unrelated killings.

It's testimony to Robinson's narrative skills that he intertwines the two cases so cleverly that we realize there may be a connection between the two only as Banks does himself. There's a barrelful of red herrings, witnesses and suspects who are not what they seem and enough small-town English repression to fill a season of PBS' "Mystery."

Here's to you, Mr. Robinson.