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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Citizen Clem: A biography of Attlee

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The Basics: John Bew’s epic biography of Clement Attlee looks at what drove a shy man from London’s suburbs to transform the Labour Party and post-war Britain.

In-depth: Bew’s brilliant book focusses on Clement Attlee the man and not just the famous, radical 1945-51 Governments he led, which have dominated other historical accounts due to their monumental achievements, including the creation of the NHS and the modern welfare state.

Despite achievements such as these, Attlee was always very reluctant to speak of his personal ideology or belief systems and was a remarkably shy, awkward man with limited public speaking skills. The author therefore notes there is no real legacy of an ‘Attlee-ism,’ stating:

“It is hard to think of another politician who reached such prominence and gave so little away.”

The author takes aim to discover the central ethos which drove Attlee through his long, illustrious and successful life. Bew’s identification of this is, like Attlee himself, rather simple at face value: a strong attachment to patriotism, a desire to improve the health and goodwill of all of the population and an emphasis on citizenship and civic duty in maintaining this.

The methodology behind this book focusses on analysing Attlee’s reading habits at any given time to gain an insight into his thoughts, ideas and actions. This takes us through the patriotism of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, the socialist utopianism of William Morris and H. G. Wells and most intriguingly, during his overseeing of the ending of British imperial rule in India, Attlee’s immersion in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Initially some of the insights into Attlee’s private readings seem a little tenuous, but it is a methodology which Bew persists with due to the innate privacy of Attlee.

These readings take us through his upbringing in a comfortable, middle class home in Putney, through his service in the horrors of the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War, to his induction in Labour Party politics on the streets of Limehouse campaigning against communist agitators and Oswald Mosley’s fascist brownshirts. Attlee’s stint as a junior minister in Ramsey MacDonald’s minority Labour government is also shown as being vital to his eventual success. Although Labour was nearly wiped out in the 1931 election, Attlee survived in his Limehouse seat and took on great responsibility in the parliamentary rump which remained before becoming the party’s leader, undoubtedly due to his rivals underestimating him, in 1935.

Naturally the chapters on the Second World War, and Labour and Attlee’s contribution to the coalition government which led Britain through it, dominate much of this book. It is here where one of the chief criticisms of Attlee identified by Bew feels most tangible: that he was merely a  lucky man caught up in massive historic events which he benefited from being around but did not necessarily influence. Bew convincingly challenges this interpretation head on.

This decision to take Labour into a national government with Churchill at Britain’s hour of need was Attlee’s proudest achievement in his life as a “volunteer, soldier and politician” and one that he saw primarily as a patriotic responsibility, rather than through the narrow gaze of party politics which quickly disappeared in the life and death circumstances of 1940. It was this honest patriotism, as well as the excellent personal and working relationships between Attlee and Churchill during the war, which helped to secure Attlee’s popularity and trustworthiness which became so appealing to the country in 1945.

The chapters of the 1945 election, where Attlee unexpectedly swept away Churchill and the Conservative party, are a real treat. Bew identifies the infamous party election broadcast when Churchill suggested that a Labour government and “state socialism could not be established without some form of Gestapo to enforce it,” and Attlee’s typically calm and measured dismissal of it, as a key deciding factor for the war weary electorate. Bew even cites, “A young conservative supporter called Margaret Thatcher, a student at Somerville College in Oxford, later recalled listening to the nation’s hero and thinking, ‘he’s [Churchill] gone too far’.

The themes which Bew focuses on during Attlee’s radically reforming Governments are the constant infighting within the Labour Party which he expertly managed and nullified, as well as the dire economic circumstances of post-war Britain, memorably described by J. M. Keynes as a ‘financial Dunkirk, through which he still was able to lead genuinely sweeping changes. A key trait of Attlee’s, married to his patriotism and arguably un-socialist like prioritisation of Britain’s national self interest, was his firm attachment to the importance of Anglo-American relations. Interestingly this worked both ways as he was able to secure Britain’s place as a world power, with his incessant lobbying of America to share its nuclear weapons secrets with Britain, as well as constructing a welfare state as a new social contract for Britain’s citizens broadly along the lines of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ for the USA in the 1930s. This moved his Labour Government away from European models of state socialism and communism.

The books ends with a historiographic look at Attlee’s legacy within the Labour Party. The author observes that many in the Party no longer attempt to understand Attlee and his popularity due to a left wing bias or “sneer” against his rather simplistic, but popular, patriotism. Another common gripe, visibly demonstrated in the Party throughout this book, was that he was ‘not left wing enough’ and missed the historic opportunity for a full socialist revolution in England in 1945. Such purists had little time for Attlee’s moderate social democracy. This eerily brings Bew’s account up to the current internal conflicts, regarding a sense of socialist purity or the importance of compromise, within the Labour Party.

What are your favourite books on 20th century British history? 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: The Rent Trap

41IAfQCUzlL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_The Rent Trap: How We Fell Into It And How We Get Out Of It by Rose Walker and Samir Jeraj

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The current London Mayoral election campaigns have unsurprisingly centred around the Capital’s dire housing crisis. This book is a welcome intervention into the debate and focusses on the private rented sector, which has boomed in recent decades to now include some 11 million private renters across the UK.

It explains the reasons and interests driving the sky high rents experienced by so many tenants today and how the interests of landlords are fiercely protected by lobby groups in Parliament. If you’re interested in the intricacies of All Party Parliamentary Groups or Private Members’ Bills, as I strangely am, then these parts are certainly for you.

The picture painted of the private rented sector is a dark one. The simple inability of many to save for a deposit, the upheaval of no fault evictions, the scandal of manufactured letting agents fees as well as the often criminal actions of landlords who do not think many areas of the law apply to them or that their tenants deserve privacy, are all covered in detail. More widely with buy to let mortgages further overheating the property market and therefore pricing out many of every buying their own home, it is now common for tenants to be paying, via their high rents, either the mortgage(s) of their landlords or into their pension, which has the obvious long term affects of denying these assets to younger generations of tenants.

One of this books chief merits, drawn out by its many varying case studies, is the moral case against this current market situation and its social and generational injustices. When interviewed and pushed by the authors over whether they feel the rental arrangements they have are moral or defendable, it is clear the vast majority of landlords are aware of the ridiculous levels of unfairness they are contributing to but quickly choose to ignore it or defend it as merely the way of the market.

This now default viewpoint is dug into with a concise history of post war UK housing policy, which accurately pinpoints the source of many of the market’s problems today as originating from the policies of the Thatcher Governments. These set the market loose from any rent controls, drained councils resources and housing stocks and has led to housing now being seen much like other commodities, as a vehicle to solely make profit, and not to provide safe, fair and secure shelter for human beings. It is clear the authors are uncomfortable with this designation and after reading this book it is difficult not to share these sentiments.

The one drawback of this book is that it doesn’t really seem to offer conclusive answers to the vast problem(s) it outlines. Considering the book’s full title, The Rent Gap: How we fell into it and How we get out it, this is disappointing and the only real alternatives offered are piecemeal initiatives such as cooperative housing, community land trusts and the increasing number of Londoners who choose to live on canal boats on the capital’s many now defunct waterways. However these options provide merely a tiny fraction of housing in the UK compared to full property ownership, the private rented sector or even social housing. They do not seem feasible options for a new fourth sector.

However the lack of answers is not really a criticism of the authors, or the book, but merely a indication of the depth of the problems. Also to be fair the regulation of private rented sectors in Europe, particularly in cities such as Paris and Berlin, is carefully considered and seems to offer the most obvious potential answer. Here tenants are allowed much more time, compared to the remarkably short 6 to 12 months afforded in the UK, to stay in their properties if they have done nothing wrong. However this would appear to require a wider transition from the short term desire for steep profits, which dominates many areas of British society, towards a private rented sector offering a more stable, cheaper and longer term option for tenants.