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Posts Tagged ‘George Smiley’

When Hurricane Irma made a mess in Central Florida last month, I ran away to the Circus. Cambridge Circus, that is, headquarters for John le Carre’s legendary British Secret Service and spies like George Smiley. In A Legacy of Spies (Viking Penguin, hardcover gift), Smiley, long retired, haunts the memory of  his protege Peter Guillam, called out of his retirement in Brittany for a reckoning with the past. Remember Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold? He had a son, now grown, who blames the Circus for his father’s betrayal in the long-ago Operation Windfall, which Smiley oversaw at Control’s behest. A new generation with little or no memory of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall demands Guillam revisit the mission and its old files with the intention of erasing any embarrassment or responsibility. Guillam reluctantly complies, and le Carre artfully unlocks the puzzle of past and present, of old lies and loves, an agent called Tulip. It’s vintage le Carre, with references to Smiley’s nemesis Karla and the search for the mole detailed in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but also the silky prose, the mordant wit, the moral ambiguity clouding the whole in every shade of gray. And, finally, Smiley — “grown into the age he had always seemed to be.” By George, it’s good to see him.

There were other windfalls. Celeste Ng’s new novel Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin Press, purchased hardcover) begins with a two-story house in picture-perfect Shaker Heights, Ohio, going up in flames, then goes back in time to chronicle the events leading up to the conflagration. Ng has talent to burn — read her Everything I Never Told You — and is a mesmerizing storyteller. When free-spirited artist Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl move into a modest rental house owned by the affluent Richardsons, the two families’ lives intertwine. Quiet Pearl is soon enamored by teenagers Lexie, Trip and Moody, their seemingly carefree wealth, and admires their mother, organized reporter Elise. But the youngest Richardson, unruly Izzie, is drawn to Mia’s unconventionality and reticence about her past. Then the proposed adoption of a Chinese-American baby by friends of the Richardsons divides loyalties and reveals secrets. Sides are chosen, boundaries crossed. What does it mean to be a mother? Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the Clinton ’90s, but the issues it raises and the emotions it evokes are timely and timeless.

Just thinking about Robin Sloan’s Sourdough (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley) makes me smile. Rich with whimsy, deliciously odd, it reminds me of nothing so much as Sloan’s first novel, the endearingly quirky Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Sloan fused books and technology and a touch of magic in that book. In this one, food combines with the tech world of robotics; as for the magic, that would be the sourdough starter that software engineer Lois Clary inherits from two immigrant chefs forced to leave San Francisco because of visa problems. Lois isn’t much of a baker, but even her first attempts with this starter taste wonderful. The cracks in the crust seem to smile, and Lois realizes the starter itself burbles melodically. It soon will change her routine life as her bread gains her entry first to the company cafeteria and then to an odd farmers’ market. Can she teach a robotic arm to bake? Or will the starter revolt?  Talk about wonder bread!

I generally veer away from “how-to” books, favoring fiction over DIY.  So it’s ok that Victoria Henry’s How to Find Love in a Bookshop (Viking Penguin, digital galley) doesn’t actually give directions to finding romance among the shelves. This sweetly predictable novel of books connecting hearts is just the ticket for escape. Nightingale Books enjoys a central location in a lovely English village, which makes it prey for real estate developers. Emilia Nightingale, who suddenly inherits the bookshop when her father dies, has to figure out a way to keep the little store going or watch it turn into a parking lot. Fortunately, the town’s book lovers band together to keep the shop open, and several of them discover love in the process, including Emilia — maybe. The object of her affection, an old family friend, is otherwise engaged, but a charming single father is definitely interested. Other would-be couples include the terminally shy caterer who has a crush on the cheesemaker, the famous visiting author who recognizes an old flame at his book signing, the stay-at-home mom with business skills who suspects her commuter husband of having an affair. Then there’s Sarah, the wealthy older women with a secret. Nightingale Books is well worth a visit.

Salman Rushdie’s satirical, Gatsby-like novel of New York City during the Obama Years, The Golden House (Random House, digital galley), is like an extravagantly rich cake. The main characters — wealthy patriarch Nero Golden, his three grown sons, the supermodel second wife, the observant narrator, the crass politician — are larger-than-life, and it’s as if Rushdie has written the whole with a Bedazzler. It was all too much, and I only read about half before setting it aside. I may get back to it one of these days, maybe not.

I was all too happy to finish to Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (Riverhead, digital galley), a beautifully written book about an ugly subject. Martin Alveston, a disturbed survivalist, physically and sexually abuses his 14-year-old daughter Turtle, who is desperate to please him. She intimidates her middle-school classmates and scorns those who might help her, then meets high school student Jacob. The promise of friendship leads her to question the value system instilled in her by Martin and will ultimately end with a violent reckoning.

Jennifer Egan’s  Manhattan Beach (Scribner, digital galley) is quite different from her award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, being a more traditional historical novel.  It has the expanse and depth of an ocean as Egan details the story of Anna Kerrigan, who becomes a civilian diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, seeks answers to her bagman father’s disappearance, and becomes involved with gangster Dexter Styles. While still working as a machinist at the Navy Yard, Anna visits a nightclub with a girlfriend, who asks her if she’s an angel. “Anna was aware of the rattle of fall leaves over the pavement, the gardenia smell of Nell’s perfume. No one had ever asked her that question before. Everyone simply presumed that she was. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m not an angel.’ “

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I caught the elephant walk on the local news last night; yes, the circus is back in town. As much as I enjoy the animals and the acrobats, I’m too busy to head to the arena. Besides, I’m being vastly entertained by events at the Circus, which John le Carre fans know is his name for the British Secret Service, or MI5.

The novels that make up the Karla trilogy — Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; Smiley’s People — are among my favorite books, and every few years I reread them all, immersing myself in bespectacled George Smiley’s bleak world of scalp-hunters and lamplighters, Sarratt and the Nursery, London Central and the American cousins.

In Tinker, Tailor, Smiley hunts for the mole planted by Russian spymaster Karla in the heart of the 1970s Circus. The mole’s unmasking leaves the Circus in tatters in Schoolboy, and Smiley sends philandering journalist Jerry Westerby back to Hong Kong. Then, in Smiley’s People, word is out that Karla’s in search of “a legend for a girl.” Time for the Circus to get its act together and bring Karla over.

My latest rereading was prompted by the new film version of Tinker, Tailor, which I liked very much, an excellent distillation of the book although not as suspenseful as the 1979 miniseries with Alec Guinness as Smiley. Who is the mole? “There are three of them and Alleline” among the suspects, and  the miniseries allows for more backstory. Gary Oldham (and his glasses) makes for a wonderful Smiley, and the rest of the cast, including Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong and Toby Jones, are all well-suited to their roles.

Still, I have quibbles. It doesn’t make much difference that Boris appears in Budapest rather than Hong Kong, but why is Jerry Westerby the night duty officer instead of Sam Collins? What’s the point of Peter Guillam having a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend? And why does everything look so dull and brown when the script is actually as slick and sharp as steel knife?

Oh, apples and oranges. I like them both, or rather all three: book, mini-series and new movie. And all three Karla novels, too. Smiley’s People also was a good miniseries. I’d like to see the same Tinker film team take a crack at that story. Meanwhile, I’m in Hong Kong with Jerry and then on to Switzerland with George. Don’t tell Karla we’re coming.

Open Book: I have multiple copies of all of le Carre’s books, but I lent my paperback of The Honourable Schoolboy to a friend several years ago, who then lost it on a trip to Hong Kong.  Or so he said. I bought the digital editon for the Nook tablet.

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Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and, oh, yes, Cairncross. The infamous Cambridge Five, the spy ring that upended British intelligence in the 20th century. Now, name the Sixth Man.

 Right, there wasn’t one. Or was there? Espionage aficionados, historians and conspiracy theorists have long speculated that perhaps another Trinity College student was recruited in 1930s Cambridge by Moscow Centre. The Brits covered so long for Blunt and Cairncross, perhaps they covered for another mole. What if this ancient agent is still alive?

Charles Cumming uses this unlikely premise as a springboard for his new thriller, The Trinity Six, which reminded me how much I love a good spy novel in the tradition of early John le Carre and Len Deighton. I reread Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carre’s classic mole hunt, every few years even though I know its secrets. Alec Guniness and Ian Richardson starred in the excellent 1979 British miniseries; I’m not sure the new film version due out later this year is needed, even with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth among the stellar cast.

On the other hand, Cumming’s novel appears tailor-made for a film, with its engaging characters and atmospheric scenes in European capitals. It’s written cinematically, too. When history professor Sam Gaddis excuses himself from the bar in Budapest just as his source is primed to spill all, you want to yank him back to his seat. No, don’t go write up notes for your book in the men’s room. Don’t you know about the assassin just waiting to pick off the man you’re with? 

Readers do, of course, because they’ve seen him outside on the street. Shots are going to ring out. Sam’s going to be on the run again, hunted by both the British and the Russians because he’s getting to close to identifying ATTILA, the sixth man with the really big secret. Didn’t Sam learn anything after the fiasco in Berlin? Has he counted the bodies piling up in his wake? Can he really trust the lovely and efficient Tanya, who has betrayed him before? Just as well Sam doesn’t know the British have tagged him POLARBEAR, as in soon to be extinct.

Cumming knows the conventions and tradecraft of the spy novel inside out. The movie The Third Man figures in a code; Sam reads the spy novel Archangel on a train. In the end, he even invokes the Moscow Rules in a kind of rueful homage to a past that didn’t include e-mail and throwaway cell phones.

The Trinity Six is as old-fashioned and entertaining a Cold War thriller as you can find in the age of Google and the Taliban. As one old spymaster instructs Sam, “Never underestimate the extent to which SIS and the Russians loathe one another. It’s a blood feud.”

Still, I wish the story held better secrets and surprises, that the foreshadowing wasn’t so heavy, that betrayal came like a knife to the heart. Ah, where have you gone George Smiley?

Open Book: I received an advance readers’ edition through a web promotion of Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six (St. Martin’s Press). Now, I want to read  Cumming’s previous three thrillers as I eagerly await his next.

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