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Posts Tagged ‘John le Carre’

If you know where to find Checkpoint Charlie, how to follow Moscow Rules, and can quote from The Third Man, then Dan Fesperman has a book for you. In The Double Game, he pays homage to the classic espionage novels of the Cold War era even as he constructs a clever spy tale.

Former reporter Bill Cage begins to feel like he’s fallen down the rabbit hole of one the espionage tales he read as a Foreign Service brat growing up in Prague, Berlin, Budapest and Vienna in the 1960s and ’70s.  Someone is leaving him cryptic clues harking back to Cage’s old interview with Edwin Lemaster, in which the CIA spook- turned- spy novelist admitted he had toyed with the idea of being a double agent. The anonymous writer suggests there’s more to the story, and his intriguing missives send Cage off from his boring PR job to visit his diplomat father in Vienna. Soon, he’s puzzling over more literary clues in the surprise company of an old girlfriend, Litzi, who may know more than she’s telling.

The Double Game wears its knowledge lightly, thanks to Fesperman’s twisty plot and play on the classic themes of deceit and betrayal. Still, readers of le Carre, Deighton, and earlier greats, will appreciate the numerous literary references, as well as the visits to antique bookstores in European capitals where the mysterious “Source Dewey” plied his tradecraft. An eccentric book scout, Lothar, keeps turning up, as well as the cohort of a retired agent. And a former CIA researcher named Valerie (!) decries her similarities to le Carre’s fictional Connie Sachs, but she sounds just like her as she recalls one secret operation: “Then, in early sixty-five, Headlight struck gold. A man he met in Budapest. On a tram car of all places, right as he was rolling across the Danube on the Margit Bridge. Source Nijinsky.”

Charles Cumming’s nimble A Foreign Country takes its title from the famous L.P. Hartley line from The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” When designate MI6 chief  Amelia Levene goes off the grid, the service taps disgraced former agent Thomas Kell to find her. Given this chance to get back in the game, Kell reluctantly agrees and rather quickly tracks down Levene in a Tunisian resort. But that’s just one byway on a winding route taking Kell (and readers) into the long-ago past, where a French expatriate in Tunis had an affair with a British nanny, as well as more recent events — the murder of a French couple in Egypt, and a kidnapping in Paris. Even if you guess where the story’s going, it’s fun to follow the cat-and-mouse game from a Marseilles ferry to an English country house.

Love and loyalty are also called into question in Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off, a different kind of Cold War tale, narrated by a young PLO operative posing as a student in 1989 London. Michel details his day-to-day errands as a courier for Abu Leila, the mentor who picked him from a Lebanese refugee camp after his his parents were murdered, and who supervised his schooling in Cyprus and his training in East Berlin and the Soviet Union. (KGB agents, we learn, read le Carre for the tradecraft.) As Michel gets to know his rooming-house neighbor Helen, a prickly graduate student, he splices more of his lonely past into the procedural-like narrative. When a routine operation goes tragically awry,  Michel is left holding a sealed envelope his enemies are willing to kill for. He and Helen escape to Scotland, where his education as a spy is tested and a thrilling chase ensues.

Open Book: Dan Fesperman is an old friend and colleague, and I thank him again for the hardcover copy of The Double Game (Knopf). I also had access to a digital version on NetGalley, where I obtained the e-galley of Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off (Little, Brown). I read a paperback advance reading copy of Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country (St. Martin’s Press), after signing up for a giveaway on Shelf Awareness.

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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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I’ve hardly unpacked and I’m already getting itchy feet. Not today, nor tomorrow, but sometime soon I’ll want to go somewhere else for a bit. Considering the state of my budget and my health, I best be content with living in Florida (yeah, it’s tough this time of year!) and letting my fingers do the wandering, flipping through pages of books of faraway places.

And I have just the guidebook, librarian extraordinare Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers. It follows Book Lust, More Book Lust and Book Crush, which are musts for everyone wondering what to read or reread next. 

I have never met Nancy Pearl, although I did interview her by phone when the Sentinel started its “One Book, One Community” reading program in 2002 with E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. When she was at the Seattle Public Library, Nancy developed the program, “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,” which spread across the country. I remember her applauding our choice of Charlotte’s Web, and then we went off on a tangent about other books that had absolutely nothing to do with the story at hand.

Now I listen to her recommended reading on NPR’s Morning Edition and follow her at her website, on Facebook and Twitter. She was recently named Librarian of the Year and was the cover girl for Library Journal. And she has her own action figure. How cool is that?!

We have exchanged occasional e-mails on the virtues of various books — we are both fond of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair — and periodically wonder why some favorite authors of yesteryear (Elizabeth Cadell, for instance)  have gone out of print.  I always smile when she singles out a book I adore (Robin McKinley’s vampire novel Sunshine), and when she tweets that she just loves Jo Walton’s new book, Among Others, I order it ASAP. I trust her. 

Back to Book Lust to Go. It’s divided into short sections, “A is for Adventure” to “Zipping through Zimbabwe/Roaming Rhodesia,” and you can hop on and off at any spot, as if on a tour bus. The commentary is witty. On Ireland: “Let’s not start with James Joyce and just say we did, okay?”

Hong Kong is a place I’ve visited only via books and movies, and I’ve read several of Book Lust’s recommendations: Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher, Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha, John le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy. Up next for me, Gail Tsukiyami’s Night of Many Dreams. I’m also going to reread The Honourable Schoolboy, which Nancy loved on first reading but can’t bring herself to reread because of what she “perceived as its desperate sadness.” Yes, but it’s sooo good, and the middle book in the Smiley trilogy.

Off to Venice, where I once spent a solitary Sunday because my traveling companion had tummy trouble. After finding him some Gatorade (no translation needed), I wandered the city, keeping in mind Donna Leon’s series of mysteries starring Commissario Guido Brunetti, Henry James’ Wings of the Dove, and Salley Vickers’ charming Miss Garnet’s Angel. I even went in search of the church in Vickers’ novel only to find it covered in scaffolding and closed for restoration. If I ever get back, I’ll look for it again.

 Meanwhile, I’ve never read Mary McCarthy’s Venice Observed. And I’m going to shop my shelves for John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy and the Great World, and Sarah Caudwell’s Thus was Adonis Murdered. I may need a map to find them, though.

But who needs a plane ticket? In my fabulous new armchair, and with Nancy Pearl as my guide, I’m off to see the world.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust to Go (Sasquatch Books), a handy paperback to take on your Grand Tour. The chair’s from Pier One.

 

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I’m not ready to close the book on 2010, or any other year for that matter. Perusing others’ year-end best lists, I’m gratified to see many of my own favorites (Tana French’s Faithful Place, Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile, Emma Donoghue’s Room) and that President Obama is reading John le Carre and David Mitchell. But mostly I see all the books I’ve read but still haven’t written about, plus all the ones I want to read, including the lovely stack from Santa and friends.

 Just yesterday I finished Peter Robinson’s Bad Boy, which was very good, and came out six months ago. It’s the 19th in the Inspector Alan Banks series, which is hard to believe. Was In a Dry Season really 10 books back? I’d like to reread it if I can find my copy. I’m always looking for books lost in my own house, and while searching for them, I inevitably turn up others I’d like to reread — or never read in the first place. A constant chorus seems to emanate from the shelves and stacks: Pick me! I’m next! Over here!

I’m on vacation at my mom’s but can’t escape the books begging for attention. In fact, my bed is shoved up against a bookcase on one side, and I fall asleep — and wake up — eye-to-eye with a shelf of Maeve Binchy novels, a couple of Barbara Kingsolvers and some Tony Hillermans. All read and read again, still enticing. I turn my head, and the TBR stack of new volumes threatens to topple off the nightstand.

Susan Hill understands. The prolific British author, best known forThe Woman in Black — although I love her Simon Serrailler crime series — also loses books in her house. It’s why she wrote Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home. Looking for one elusive volume, she turned up a  dozen more she’d forgotten about. So, swearing off new books for the most part and curtailing her use of the internet, she decided to “repossess” her own books. She writes:

“A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.”

Her books also turn out to be a map of her own life, and her reading journey becomes a memoir. For fellow bibliophiles, the result is as hard to resist as the title — charming, anecdotal, opinionated. The temptation to quote is endless. “No matter what the genre, good writing tells.” And, “Ah here is Muriel Spark, sharp as a pencil, cool, stylish.”

She is talking about Sparks’ novels and stories, but Hill has led a literary life, and her descriptions of her encounters with older, famous writers are just as pointed. Edith Sitwell is haughty and terrifying, but the “small man with thinning hair and a melancholy mustache” who accidentally drops a book on her foot in the London Library offers “a small flurry of exclamations and apology and demur.” As she returns the book, she finds herself looking into the watery eyes of an elderly E.M. Forster. “He seemed slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable and I have remembered everything about him for nearly 50 years.”

She notes that knowing about a writer’s life is rarely necessary to appreciate their works but makes an exception, at least for herself, where Dickens and the Brontes are concerned. As for her own life, she has published books by other authors and found it an enjoyable sideline. She loves the feel and shape of books, the smell of them, the sound of pages being turned. She’ll put money on books — real books, printed and bound — being around as long as there are readers.

When I started this blog almost a year ago, I had the ambitious idea of giving away at least one of my old books for every new one I brought home. I would even chronicle this pruning of my collection in occasional posts, “Going, going, gone.” I think I did this twice before realizing the futility of my donating books or releasing them into the wild in any organized fashion. I always have a give-away box going, but it contains mostly recent acquisitions in which I’ve lost all interest. Rarely can I survey my shelves, stacks, piles, bins, carry-alls, table-tops, etc. and see a book I think I might not want to re-read — or get around to reading for the first time. Just reading Hill’s memoir has reminded me of at least half a hundred of which I already have copies.

So that’s my plan for 2011. Not to stop reading new books; I know my limits — as well as what’s on the horizon that looks wonderful. I’m already counting the months — eight — when the sequel to Lev Grossman’s  The Magicians is supposed to be published. But I am going to make a concerted effort to “repossess” the books I have, to indulge in the companionship of old friends, to acquaint myself with new-to-me volumes. I’ll let you know how it goes, and how often whimsy wins out over the call of the current. As soon as I get home later this week, I’ll probably start with Forster. Howards End is in the white wicker chest beneath the bedroom window. I think.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill (Profile Books) when it was published in the U.S. in early November. It moved to the top of my TBR stack about a week ago.

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Word is that Moscow Central has put out a hit on the colonel who defected to the U.S. this past summer and then allegedly blew the covers of the Russian spy ring that included a flame-haired party girl.

It is, news anchors have been quick to point out, like something out of a John le Carre thriller. Yes and no. Yes, in that le Carre has always been best with Russian adversaries, especially when terms like “moles” and “double agent” are in play, and betrayal is his favorite theme. No, in that le Carre despises U.S. intelligence and his turncoat colonel would be whisked to safety by the British Secret Service. Unless, of course, the whole thing is a cover story, or a cover-up, by MI5, who are using the Americans to their own ends, and the party girl is actually the former lover of a both a powerful MP and a naive British diplomat. Or something even more complex.

As proof, we have Our Kind of Traitor, le Carre’s best book in years, although not up there with those of the Smiley/Cold-War era. But at least readers are spared the partisan rants, unsympathetic characters and Third World woes of recent novels that have beeen more earnest than entertaining.

The layered narrative begins somewhat slowly with a tennis vacation in Antigua, where young Brits Perry and Gail, a professor and a lawyer, become entangled in the affairs of the outsized Russian businessmen/crook Dima and his large family. Almost before they know it — as they later recount to British intelligence — Perry and Gail have been entrusted by the world’s No. 1 money launderer to negotiate his safe passage to England, where his sons will go to Eton, Dima will reveal his secrets, and all will live happily-ever-after. Oh, if it were only that simple.

But events soon become deliciously complicated as le Carre flexes his storytelling muscles and introduces some characters that might well have worked at the Circus in the old days: Hector, the veteran, flamboyant spymaster and loose cannon; his trusted lieutenant, Luke, loyal to the Service if not his wife; Ollie, the best back-door man in the business; Yvonne, demure, clandestine researcher; and ambitious Matlock, who the others must convince of Dima’s worth. With idealistic, athletic Perry and the smart, secretive Gail as go-betweens, it will be a barefoot operation — no logistical support, deniability all around — at the French Open in Paris, then Berne and the Swiss countryside. Dima’s criminal cohorts have him under tight surveillance and a probable death sentence. One errant text message, or misplaced memory stick, or nosy train conductor, and the whole thing could blow up. And that’s even before the warring factions of intelligence and London finance decide to referee.

Le Carre’s writing is fluid, his pacing nimble, his comparison of tennis to the great game apt and timely. Yes, he’s done the money-laundering thing before (Single & Single) and the innocents abroad (The Night Manager), the Swiss and all their rules (Smiley’s People), the entire hall of mirrors (20 previous espionage novels). But that’s what makes Our Kind of Traitor vintage le Carre — and my kind of thriller.

Open Book: A good friend gave me John le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor (Viking) for my birthday. Thanks, Dean.

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