Book review: Call for the Dead

le_carre_call_for_dead_penguinCall for the Dead by John le Carré

My rating: ★★★★☆

There has been some excellent recent news for fans of John le Carré and his greatest character creation George Smiley: a new novel featuring Smiley will be published in late 2017. This seems like the perfect time then for a review of le Carré’s first book, which was also the first of the Smiley books which long ago appeared to have concluded in 1990 with The Secret Pilgrim.

Call for the Dead, published in 1961, takes place in a London in the midst of the Cold War. The plot sees the intelligence officer George Smiley conduct what seems like a courteous and straight forward security interview with a Foreign Office civil servant, Samuel Fennan, who is then found dead the next day, a suspected suicide, at his suburban home.

Shocked into action by this, as well as his nervous boss, Smiley visits Fennan’s home and is racked with guilt upon seeing his widowed wife who demands an explanation about their interview the previous day. It is at this point that the Fennan’s telephone rings, which Smiley answers assuming it is head office for him, only to discover it is a wake up call from the Foreign Office requested by Samuel Fennan the previous day.

Here, the novel receives it’s name and with it Smiley a purpose. He immediately thinks why a man who was apparently contemplating suicide would request a wake up call the next morning? His suspicions of foul play kick start a murder investigation alongside his trusty companion, Inspector Mendel, from the Metropolitan Police.

Without spoiling the plot, Smiley’s forensic approach to the case, alongside practical support from Inspector Mendel and Peter Guillam, another character to appear multiple times in the le Carré canon, leads to some uncomfortable findings surrounding an East German spy ring operating in London, which then mercilessly attempts to cover it’s tracks to Smiley.

One of the main things which stands out from this novel, written and based in the early ’60s, is how different British society was then. Certain turns of phrase are either out dated and no longer in use or today deemed down right offensive. The Second World War also hangs over this book with an imposing and tragic shadow. Most characters have stories and shared histories from that period, with the history of the conflict providing a central plank of Smiley’s discoveries. Reference to the ‘glory years’ of WW2, where Britain still had (declining) power and ultimately a purpose,  are also implicitly present in much of le Carré’s depiction of the British Intelligence Services. They were his employers when he was writing this book, and the depiction is largely implicit but came to influence much of le Carré’s later, more famous work.

What is remarkable is that this was le Carré’s first book and he is still writing as brilliantly as ever in a completely different world in 2017. As mentioned above his new book out this year, which will include Peter Guillam and flashbacks to Smiley, will certainly be a treat and may well hark back to this rather distant history.

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Book review: Our Game

our-gameOur Game by John le Carré

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: This post contains plot spoilers.

The Basics: Tim Cranmer’s life, of an idyllic retirement winemaking in Somerset, is turned upside down when the love of his life and a spy who he used to ‘run’ in the Cold War disappear. Cranmer’s search for them becomes increasingly desperate and drawn into the dangerous nationalist politics of post-Soviet Russia and the Caucasus.

In-depth: Our Game pits Tim Cranmer, a former intelligence officer of ‘the Office’, in a fraught and brooding chase of the former cold warrior spy Larry Pettifer. Their long supposed friendship, starting at Winchester College and then Oxford University, is revealed to have produced Cranmer’s eventual recruitment of Larry and sees their lives dangerously and confusingly overlap.

When Larry disappears from Bath University, where he had been consigned to retirement from operations after the fall of the Berlin wall, Cranmer receives a late night visit from detectives digging into his whereabouts.

However it not only Larry who has disappeared. Cranmer’s love, the young and beautiful Emma, has also fled with him. Flash backs reveal an unpleasant love triangle where Larry’s eccentric intellectualism attracts the malleable Emma away from the dull practicality of Cranmer. One of the darkest quotes of the book is when Larry explains this by merely stating “You stole my life, so I stole your girl.”

Throwing the police off the scent by pleading ignorance, Cranmer visits his former secret service ‘Office’ to discover that Larry has also disappeared with £37 million of Russian money, in cahoots with a Russian operator he previously deceived on behalf of the Office. This raises misplaced, but uncomfortable, questions for Cranmer about whether he was part of this theft, forcing him into a race against time and authority to get to the bottom of the disappearance.

One of the most intriguing elements of this novel is the fact that although the book is written from the first person perspective of Cranmer, his interpretation of himself is of multiple men and often slips into the third person. The reader feels that the character’s grasp of himself is slipping. This become more pronounced as Cranmer follows Larry’s dangerous footsteps.

The trail leads Cranmer to Bristol, where he identifies Larry and Emma’s abandoned love nest, re-discovering his idealism for downtrodden national rights in the Caucasus. Larry’s theft to fund a radical group of Ossetians rebels in their cause is identified as a punishment for the weak willed West, who refused to intervene or help in this higher cause, as much as for Russia’s brutal history of persecution in the region.

These memories lead Cranmer through a bloody trail via Macclesfield, Paris, Moscow and eventually to the Caucasian mountains. This journey has consequences which detach Cranmer from any possible return to a free or happy life. In Paris he finally acknowledges Emma no longer cares for him and has returned to her previous life, whilst waiting lovingly for Larry to return. However Larry himself is discovered to have been killed as part of a rebellion which leads to Cranmer lament:

“A dead man is the worst enemy alive, I thought. You can’t alter his power over you. You can’t alter what you love or owe. And it’s too late to ask him for his absolution. He has you beaten all ways up.”

It is at this point when Cranmer, with nothing but a vacuum of a life, completes his journey in becoming the man he has been chasing and taking up arms to join the rebellion he has infiltrated. The perplexing question this ending left me was whether this was a journey, to essentially become Larry, Cranmer wanted to make from the beginning?

Please leave your comments below.

Book review: A Murder of Quality

51DygOSAPmL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The basics: A strange letter, penned under the fear of death, from the wife of a teacher at a prestigious English private school find its way to the editor of a weekly magazine in London. When this woman is then found brutally murdered, rocking the ancient school and town of Carne, the editor enlists her old friend, George Smiley, to investigate.

In-depth: A Murder of Quality is a welcome change to the more famous le Carré spy novels and I read this in a few short sittings. My attraction to it is its focus on the greatest character le Carré has created: George Smiley. It sees Smiley outside of his role in British Intelligence and instead acting as a quasi-detective. This feels slightly like a impersonation of a Sherlock Holmes story, but it does work and as one of le Carré’s earlier novels it is frightfully direct and short. The chapters are short and end with quick, neat cliffhangers. Any fan of Smiley will enjoy and race through it.

Smiley is without doubt one of my favourite fictional characters. He is epitome of the now perhaps outdated British virtue of understatement. Behind Smiley’s less than impressive physical appearance, he is forever described in novels as a short, “plump” man, lies a razor sharp intellectual prowess. One character in this story captures this perfectly by describing him as:

“Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for.”

What then makes Smiley, a man described as the most “forgettable” they have ever come across, so forgettable that they at times do not realise they are in-fact talking to and confiding in him, so interesting?  The answer is perfectly expanded upon in a small section in A Murder of Quality.

“Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country’s enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed.”

This desire to go unnoticed is paired with his remarkable abilities to read human desires and characters. He uses these skills to discover the truth behind the violent murder at the heart of this novel, and it is this unswerving nature which makes him one of the most realistic depictions of a spy.

Smiley’s investigation takes him to the ancient town of Carne with its famous private school. This is a very traditional place, much in the mould of a number of real English public schools which quickly spring to mind, with an overbearing and pervading emphasis on the need to preserve it’s ways and customs. The school’s inhabitants are viciously judgemental of one another and le Carré’s account of them at times verges on satire. Even charitable initiatives, such as the local church providing clothing for refugees from Hungary, is almost comically depicted as a jealous, life and death game of power politics.

My favourite passage sees Smiley taking an evening stroll to take a look at the house where Mrs Rode was murdered. The events are brilliantly depicted as a terrified Smiley stumbles upon a dark figure milling around in the house who then approaches him. The simplicity of the terror of the passage is its strength and it turns out to be a local homeless women with severe mental health issues who is widely suspected of the murder.

Knowing better than to jump to this easy assumption Smiley’s investigation continues unabated into the murky personal relationships between the senior teachers of the school. Events in Carne see another brutal murder, this time of one of the schoolboys, which leads Smiley to the unexpected killer who I will not ruin the identify of for readers.

Overall this is a pleasantly brief novel of le Carré’s  to read. I’ve also just discovered there was a TV adaption made in 1991 with an early role for the excellent Christian Bale which sounds like it is worth a look.

Please leave your comments below.

Book review: Moriarty

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Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

My rating: ★★★☆☆

(Warning this post contains plot spoilers)

The Basics: A private detective from an American agency, Frederick Chase, arrives in London to investigate the brutal murder of his former coworker in a quiet London suburb. Chase’s investigation, taking place in the immediate aftermath of the death of Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, brings him into contact with the Scotland Yard Inspector, Athelney Jones, a keen student of Holmes’ famous detecting skills. Their pairing leads them into a dangerous investigation into the shady underworld of a new wave of American crime sweeping London.

In depth: Firstly I must admit this book was an impulse buy. Firstly for its title: Moriarty is a character who greatly interests me and this is mainly down to the marvellous depiction by Andrew Scott in the BBC hit series Sherlock. Secondly, the simple but alluring cover art of a Victorian London with St. Pauls Cathedral towering over a smoke filled London skyline.

I was also not aware of the prequel to this novel also by Anthony Horowitz, interestingly the only author to have ever been granted permission by the family of Conan Arthur Doyle to add to the Holmes canon. However, although a novel with a almighty plot twist, which I genuinely did not see coming, I found this book underwhelming and at best rather average.

The narrator, Frederick Chase, arrives in Switzerland at the body of the criminal mastermind Moriarty who had supposedly fell to his death alongside his arch nemesis Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls. Here Chase meets the other main character, Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, a keen student knowledgeable of the many wondrous ways of the great detective. The pair quickly spark up an investigative relationship which is obviously meant to mirror that of Holmes and Watson.

However the pair’s investigations centre not on the mystery of Moriarty’s and Holmes’ deaths, but on finding an unseen American criminal mastermind, known as Clarence Devereux, who they suspect is attempting to replace Moriarty and make London his own. Although central to the later plot twist, most of the plot actually fills like a second rate version of a Holmes/Watson tale with characters with little backstory and, frankly, of little interest. Even the murder teased at on the back cover of the novel, of a former coworker of Chase’s from the American private investigatory firm, receives scant attention.

The new supervillian Clarence Devereux turns out to be an American disguised as a diplomat hiding behind the jurisdictional protection of the American Embassy in London. His is a character not revealed to late, and of no major interest, and his lesser American criminal allies who make up most of the novel are of even less interest.

To the authors credit there are a number of things this book does well. Horowitz’s Victorian London is a wonderful setting, particularly its dark and dangerous docks in the East End the perfect scene for a number of pursuits by Chase and Jones. There are also one or two familiar characters from the Holmes canon such as Lestrade from Scotland Yard and the choice of Anthenly Jones as a central character is a neat one as he actually appears as a minor character, depicted as a useless policeman, in an original Sherlock story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.”

However the characters of Holmes and Moriarty (both said to be dead) or even Dr. Watson are hardly mentioned until a late plot twist. Although no doubt a surprise and logically astute, the book’s narrator Chase is revealed to be Professor Moriarty, who has used Scotland Yard and Jones to find his elusive rival Devereux. The books most interesting passages are when the narrator briefly retells the plot through this new scope, a murder investigated in the book was actually carried out by the narrator. The author then actually candidly challenges the reader as to why this makes sense as the name which adorns the book is of course Moriarty and it should be no surprise that it is his story contained within.

Although undoubtedly clever, this plot twist, as well as the conclusion of the story, which sees Moriarty murder Jones, kidnap Devereux and concludes by deciding to travel back to the USA to take over his criminal network there, are ultimately underwhelming. It may seem harsh but they do not feel worth the slog that is the preceding investigations of second rate American villains by Chase/Jones.

The book is then strangely concluded by a separate short story which does actually in fact centre on Holmes and Watson. This is, I think, unrelated to the preceding story and probably the best part of Horowitz’s strange and underwhelming book. Maybe another sequel with the return of Holmes and Watson in the same universe as Moriarty is in order.

Have you read this book? Do you agree with my review or did you have a different take on it? Do you think that modern authors can productively add to famous old stories? Please your comments below.

Book review: Our Kind of Traitor

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Our Kind of Traitor – John le Carré

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The Basics: Whilst on holiday, a young British couple meet a charismatic Russian and quickly befriend him and his family. However his intention to reach out to British intelligence leads them into a dark world of industrial scale money laundering involving the Russian mob, Swiss banks and prominent members of the British establishment.

In-depth: Another month passes and another big screen production of a work of the prolific author John le Carré has come. Upon the recent cinematic release of Our Kind Of Traitor, and being another post Cold War book of his I hadn’t come across, I was keen to see how this story from le Carré set in current times holds up. (I have recently read and reviewed his excellent The Night Manager).

This book is set in 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the recent great financial crash, a topic which not only indirectly influences the plot but also springs up in conversations throughout the novel.

The story is made up of four acts. First a young British couple; Perry, a restless 30 year old professor at the University of Oxford; and Gail, a high flying and beautiful lawyer at a prestigious London law Inn; are on a luxury holiday in Antigua. Through an impromptu game of tennis they meet the wealthy, charming and outspoken Russian called Dima. Dima quickly builds a bond with the young couple, particularly by introducing them to his slightly bizarre family, which includes his religious mute of a wife, Tamara, and among others, his sad, but beautiful young daughter, Natasha, who is constantly hiding in her books.

Dima’s intentions in befriending Perry and Gail have clear intentions from the start however. He wrongly assumes the young couple as British spies and asks them to contact their masters to help him move to safety in London. Describing himself as”the world’s number one money launderer,” Dima believes his secrets will secure him the safety of the protection of the British intelligence services.

Here begin the second act. Shocked, but equally intrigued, by Dima’s assumption of him as a British spy, Perry returns to Oxford and meticulously draws up a document of all Dima has told him. He then seeks out an talent spotting Oxford colleague for a doorway to British intelligence. Suddenly Perry, and Gail, are in the basement of a Bloomsbury town house explaining Dima’s words to two agents.

Their minder and interrogator, Luke, is a young agent with a not so distinguished past. Married with a young son, he feels he is rapidly growing apart from this young family due to past infidelities and the emotional distancing his career has brought. Keen to repair and rebuild his life, and field record, Luke takes Dima’s story to his superior, Hector. With Hector’s arrival an operation to meet and fully hear out what Dima has to offer is hastily arranged through Perry and, at Hector’s insistence, Gail.

This operation is the book’s third act, and takes place at the 2009 Roland Garros tennis final in France. Meeting at the final, which Roger Federer runs away with, Perry and Gail rekindle their friendship with Dima. A tennis rematch between Perry and Dima is arranged for the next day, with Dima being secretly introduced to Hector in the massage rooms. Hidden within the steam, Hector learns of Dima’s reasons to flee and what exactly he has to offer.

This is that Dima has fallen from the favour of a man called the Prince, the head of his Russian mob (the vory). Fearing for his life, after his close friend was murdered in proxy by the Prince, Dima is being strong armed into signing over his substantial banking assets to the Prince and his likely murder. These assets reveal information on money laundering on an industrial scale, involving the vory, Swiss banks and members of the British establishment including the fast rising Audley Longgrigg MP.

Convinced of Dima’s worth as a asset, Hector returns to his masters in London to win the support to move Dima and, as promised by Perry, his entire family to the UK. In the meantime Hector authorises the lifting of Dima, and his family, to a safehouse in the Swiss mountains until his passage to London can be secured. Perry and Gail’s skills in managing Dima and his family become crucial here as tensions rise as London stalls.

Finally Hector succeeds, although not after upsetting a number of interests in politics and high finance. London wants Dima, but at first only him. To tease out his information and story, before granting the leverage of his family safe haven. Struggling to convince Dima, and himself, that this is how British Intelligence services work, Perry escorts Dima to the airport, and leaves him with Luke, boarding an empty, chartered plane.

Here the book dark conclusion arrives. The plane explodes in the sky, killing Luke, Dima and the pilots. Who instigated this remains unexplained, as does the fate of the rest of the stories characters, which is a troubling but effective end to the story.

Overall Our Kind of Traitor is a harsh tale full of growing tension with the feel of an impending and dark conclusion. However I was not expecting such an abrupt one. Le Carré’s earlier masterpieces of course depict the Cold War, but it is refreshing to read a story such as this which doesn’t require this setting. Dipping his toes into the recesses of modern financial crime, the Russian mob and of course, Roger Federer’s backhand, this is a welcome departure from what you’d expect from le Carré.

Have you seen the new film of this novel? Or what is your favourite John le Carré novel? Please leave your comments below.

Review: To Kill A Mockingbird

514Qdz6chmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My rating: ★★★★★

(Warning this post contains plot spoilers)

The Basics: A tale of childhood in a small town in 1930s Deep South of the United States. Driven by curiosity, particularly of their reclusive neighbours, two children, Jem and Scout, begin to learn more about the world and its workings through a controversial local court case which their father is the defence lawyer in.

In-depth: I was given this book last summer fully aware of its great legacy. Immediately a classic upon publication and now secure as a central part of American literature. However guiltily I do admit that I did not get round to reading it until prompted by the recent sad news of Harper Lee’s passing.

It is safe to say it’s legacy is completely justified. To Kill A Mockingbird is a wonderful tale based around the warmth of childhood innocence and curiosity whilst simultaneously revealing so much more about American society.

Based in the fictional Southern town of Maycomb, as seen through the eyes of Scout Finch, the early chapters are a journey through the wonders of long summer holidays from school. Allied with her older brother Jem and their visiting friend Dill, the children take an intrusive interest in their strange, reclusive neighbours, the Radleys, who never appear outside of their home.

However their naturally curious actions are fairly schooled at each stage by their father, Atticus Finch, who is now my favourite character in popular literature. Atticus is a pleasantly reasonable lawyer tasked with the socially difficult task in the 1930s of defending a local black man accused of raping a white woman. Conveying fair and enlightened values of justice and anti racism, which he gently bestows and explains to his children, it is a task which dominates the book.

Perhaps what the book is most famous for is it’s remarkable ability to convey such a depth of events and the ideas behind them through it’s wonderfully readable style. The real beauty of this book is that Lee manages to gently but clearly explain horribly adult concepts such as racism, social class and rape. Managing to do this in what is essentially a children’s book, still regularly taught to school children, is quite something.

Unfortunately I did not read the book when I was at school but it also challenges older readers to consider how crazy everyday concepts or issues which control adult life must appear to children. The tragically predictable verdict, at least to an adult aware of the social context of deep racial divisions, of Tom Robinson’s court case is the biggest shock to Jem and the other young characters. Perhaps these reactions aren’t so child like at all.

In all, one of the easiest and warmest books, exceptional given some of its themes, I’ve read in a long time. Now to watch the film from 1962.

Have you ever read To Kill A Mockingbird? What did you think of it? Please leave your comments below.

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Review: The Night Manager

By John le Carré. My rating: ★★★★★

*Warning this post contains storyline spoilers*

night managerThe Basics: Jonathan Pine, a night manger of luxurious hotels, becomes involved in the dangerous underworld of the illegal arms trade and it’s shadowy links to Western intelligence services. After losing the woman he loves, Jonathan is driven into the arms of the British intelligence operative Leonard Burr who designates him the mission of bringing down his obsession of “the worst man in the world,” the fabulously wealthy arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper.

In-depth: I was vaguely aware a couple of weeks ago of a new upcoming BBC adaption of a John le Carré novel. Whilst browsing in a book store in Trafalgar Square it was the front cover of the edition depicted to the left which grabbed my attention. It will surely soon be republished to reflect the upcoming BBC series with its delicious cast of Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Elizabeth Debicki. However only after being informed by a member of staff that she was “really glad you are buying that book” and beginning to read it did I realise it was the novel soon to air. Strangely it is only the books of John le Carré which I tend to have read before watching the TV/big screen adaptions of them and this was a happy accident to continue that trend.

The Night Manager was le Carré’s first post Cold War novel published in 1993. It follows the former British soldier Jonathan Pine from his hotel night shifts and his first encounter with Roper, a charismatic but shady British businessman, his beautiful girlfriend Jed and the rest of Roper’s entourage, back through his heartbreak in Cairo after a brief love affair with a Middle-Eastern gun runner’s mistress is cut short by a savage beating and murder. This forces Pine to ‘volunteer’ for recruitment by the British Intelligence services, as much torn apart by intrigue and mistrust as Pine himself, represented by the delightful, Whitehall moulded animals of Leonard Burr and Rex Goodhew. Interestingly in the Beeb’s adaption Burr’s character is to become a woman played by the excellent Olivia Colman.

Informed of his mission to trace Roper down and infiltrate his inner circle, Pine is driven by his natural tendency to fight the good fight but also now by a growing inner rage and need for revenge for the earlier loss of his love Sophie.

The story follows Pine’s development of a ‘shadow’, le Carré/spy talk for a believable cover or back story. This takes him to the quaint but apparently murderous villages of Cornwall, to another brief fling in Quebec whilst deploying his hotelier skills and to working on luxury yachts in the Caribbean where he is crowbarred back into the life of Roper and his crew.

The scene, and the intrigue behind it, which achieves this crowbarring is a wonder. I can only imagine the fun and credit to be done to it by the BBC and Hiddlestone. A staged robbery and kidnapping of Roper’s young son leads to the chance for Pine, now working quietly under board in the kitchen with his shadowed alias, to spring to action and save the day. The inner rage built up from a lifetime of trying to do the ‘right’ thing but often having the opposite effect bursts with Pine giving an overly convincing but violent performance which saves the day, the boy and most importantly Roper’s trust.

The book then turns to the Bahamas, Roper’s glorious island home and the world of selling “toys” or advanced grade weaponry to the highest bidder. Pine’s mission leads him around the dangers of Roper’s wonderfully suspicious lieutenant Corcoran and his seemingly blissfully ignorant girlfriend Jed. This ignorance is not all that it first appears.

Aided by an American planted lawyer called Apostoll who manages to convince Roper that his chief lieutenant, Corcoran, may not be as trustworthy as he seems, Pine is instead recruited into helping pull off the biggest arms and drug exchange Roper has ever attempted with a powerful Columbian drug cartel. Reporting back to Burr the details of the deal and Roper’s world, not including his stealing of Jed’s love, Pine’s operation appears briefly to be going as smoothly as Roper’s luxurious daily life seems to.

However corrupt elements within the political and intelligence classes in America and the UK, who profit off illegal arms sales threaten the operation against Roper. After the Cartel lawyer Apostoll ends up with a Columbian neck tie, Pine’s real intentions and loyalties are betrayed to Roper.

A period of imprisonment and torture within Roper’s superyacht for Pine runs parallel to battles of survival, operative and personal, fought by Burr and Goodhew in the equally dangerous world of Whitehall.

This novel revolves around the fight by people who are presented as genuinely good, Pine, Jed, Burr and Goodhew etc, struggling in a world turn asunder from the apparent moral certainties of the Cold War and the opportunities this new world was affording to individuals with more flexible morals.

Pine’s determination not to betray his mission and Jed, driven by his endless love for Sophie who did not betray him in Cairo even when faced with violence, is eventually rewarded. He and Jed retire to a quiet life in England. However the ending is more ambiguous for the other players. Roper’s Columbian deal appears to succeed thereby rendering Burr’s operation and reputation seemingly in tatters.

Now all there is to do is wait for the first episode to air on BBC 2 on 21st Feb. If past BBC adaptions of le Carré’s works and the cast are anything to go by it is going to be a belter. You can watch the trailer here.