Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Le Carré Marathon

Four books of Le Carré back-to-back bring in the new year for me. My education in the spy genre has been sadly lacking so far. This was meant to be my start.

A Murder of Quality was my first book. There is a spy in it; a famous one at that – George Smiley. But he plays a provincial detective more than a spy in it, much like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. In fact the book took me back to Agatha Christie mysteries, in the classic whodunit mould. Smiley is asked to go to a venerable British institution, a public school by the name of Carne, by an old friend as a favour. The friend edits a genteel Christian paper and she has just received a letter from an old reader, now a faculty wife at Carne. The letter writer Stella Rode warns of a threat to her life by her husband. And when Smiley reaches Carne, she is already dead. It takes Smiley, obviously a public-school type (the class distinctions are as alive as ever) a few days, some glasses of sherry, long conversations and a lot of thinking to get at the murderer (obviously nothing as obvious as the husband!). It is a very English detective tale, with characters in the typical stiff upper lip mould. A nice Sunday evening, hot cup of tea-in-hand kind of book.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is the real McCoy, the book that made Le Carré famous. 1950’s cold war Berlin is the milieu and the British spy network in East Berlin has mostly collapsed. Mundt, the East German head of intelligence is the ruthless opponent responsible. Alex Leamas, the head of the Berlin bureau, is assigned his last job before he can come in from the cold – to infiltrate the East German intelligence and get Mundt. As a cover, he is fired from the circus (the Le Carré name for the British secret service), takes to drink and is accused of theft. His reputation in tatters, he is approached by the East Germans. His move East and the quite spine-chilling events that follow are what make this the classic it is. It made me quite eager to read the next in my list Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

TTSS is where George Smiley gets to be the spy the world knows. It is the first of the series featuring Karla, the Russian intelligence director. George Smiley is asked to come out of a reluctant retirement to smoke out a high-ranking mole in the Circus. It is a re-creation of the famous Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five case, with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy being code names for the suspects. It is an intricate tale, with the final story being pieced together by Smiley by looking through stolen files, conversations with older Circus personnel and his own personal memories.

Le Carré’s spy world is gritty and tense and hard nosed in a way James Bond never is. Treachery is a way of life. His spies are not good looking, there are no blonde bombshells and there definitely are no cool gadgets. Smiley is pot-bellied, Leamas is short and stocky. The enemy is never ever very clear – we know they are East German or Russian, yet there is ambiguity in what is true evil. Somehow, there is more honour in Fiedlar, the loyal Russian than Mundt, the British agent. It is a murky world, where family and friends have only dangerous roles, if they have any at all. There is a tone of skepticism and moral ambiguity that a traditional spy-thriller would lack. This is I guess is really what makes Le Carré’s spy series so unique in its space. I am left with a desire to explore more.

And so I move onto the next one – The Naïve and Sentimental Lover. It takes me a long time to finish it. I dislike it intensely. It is not a spy-thriller for one. It reads like a cross between Maugham’s Razor’s Edge and his The Moon and Sixpence. It is in my mind bad Maugham – with the fascination for that Bohemian lifestyle and philosophy so favoured by him, yet without his flair for making that life so positive and uplifting. Shamus is no Larry Darrel or Strickland and draws little sympathy from me. Aldo Cassidy is a fool and I cannot understand his obsession with Shamus and Helen. I am terribly disappointed with Le Carré for not sticking to what he seems to do well – write a good thriller. I cannot wait to get to the last page.

It has been a marathon read. It leaves me hungry for more in the Karla series. And strangely enough, hungry for a Somerset Maugham re-read.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the guy's so last-century..very quaint..and very underwhelming..