Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts

06 December 2017

Some Short Story Collections by Great Living Mystery Writers

by Robert Lopresti

Last week I wrote about Bouchercon and said that this time I would provide my favorite quotations from the con.  But here it is holiday shopping season.  So this seemed more appropriate.

I mentioned being on a panel at Bouchercon called "Reader Recommends."  I went there determined to be the champion of short stories.  I even prepared a list of recommendations.  To make the list a book had to be a) a collection (not an anthology), b) by a living author, c) currently in print, and d) contain a story I consider wonderful. 

Apologies to those not included.  I had to stop at two pages.



Some Short Story Collections by Great Living Mystery Writers

The mystery field started with short stories and some of the best work is still being done there.  Here are some single-author collections by current leaders in the field.

Block, Lawrence.  Enough Rope.  The MWA Grand Master can write funny, noir, hardboiled, whatever he sets his mind to.  Try “Hot Eyes, Cold Eyes” and follow the twists.

Dubois, Brendan.  The Hidden.  Award-winner Dubois is one of the most popular authors in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  In this collection, “The Final Ballot” is a brilliant tale about a blue-collar woman seeking justice, or at least vengeance, when her daughter is attacked by the son of a presidential candidate.

Estleman, Loren D.  Detroit is Our Beat.  Estleman is best known for his books about private eye Amos Walker, but try these stories about the Four Horsemen, the only racket squad cops left in Detroit after everyone else has gone off to fight the Nazis.  Try “Death Without Parole,” about a cop killer who walks free on a technicality, but not for long.

Forsyth, Frederick.  No Comebacks.  Known for his thriller novels, Forsyth   explores different worlds in the short form.  “Privilege” is a brilliant legal David-and-Goliath story.

Floyd, John M. Dreamland. Floyd is one of the most-published mystery authors in the short story realm.  Try “Hunters,” which starts out like a standard hitman tale, and takes a surprising direction.

Grafton, Sue.  Kinsey and Me. You know her novels but Grafton is one of the best living authors of PI short stories.  “A Poison That Leaves Not Trace” should convince you.

Hockensmith, Steve. Dear Mr. Holmes.  Hockensmith’s “Holmes on the Range” series is about two cowboy brothers, Old Red who is a brilliant but illiterate detective, and Big Red, his very funny Watson.

Lawton, R.T. 9 Historical Mysteries.  Lawton has five different series running in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  “False Keys” is the first story about a young pickpocket-in-training in the Paris of Louis the Fourteenth.

Lovesey, Peter.  The Sedgemoor Strangler and Other Stories. Master of the historical whodunit, Lovesey has several books of shorts.  This one is highlighted by “The Usual Table,” which keeps its secrets to the very end.

Muller, Marcia. The McCone Files.  Sharon McCone was more or less the first modern female PI character.  But quality, not just primacy, got Muller the Grand Master and Eye Awards.  “The Final Resting Place” won the Shamus Award for best PI story.

Powell, James.  A Dirge for Clowntown. Canadian Powell has an imagination like a machine gun, firing crazy ideas in all directions.  The first three stories, for example, are about Inspector Bozo, protecting the mean streets of Clowntown where residents are killed by being smacked in the face with poisoned pies, and an invasion by mimes is a major threat.

Pronzini, Bill. Small Felonies.  The MWA gave him the Grand Master Award.  The Private Eye Writers gave him the Eye Award for lifetime achievement.  And here he gives you fifty short mysteries.  Try “Incident in a Neighborhood Tavern,” starring his most famous character, the “Nameless” detective.

Rozan, S.J..  A Tale About A Tiger. Rozan has won prizes in both the long and short form.  Enjoy “Hoops,” featuring her NY private eye Bill Smith, which was nominated for an Edgar.
 
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn.  The Early Conundrums.  Rusch writes wonderful  mystery shorts.  Also novels.  Also science fiction.  The stories in this book are about unlikely partners: Spade, an obese software millionaire, and Paladin, a beautiful young private eye.  Together they keep science fiction conferences safe and solvent, while negotiating their own prickly antisocial relationship.

Warren, James Lincoln.  The 1% Solution. Award-winning author Warren is best known for tales of Alan Treviscoe, an 18th century insurance investigator, but his imagination travels broadly.  Each of the four novellas in this book is inspired by a great writer in our field.  “Shikari,” for example, is the best Sherlock Holmes story you will ever read that does not include Sherlock Holmes.


This list was compiled by award-winning mystery writer Robert Lopresti, who is far too modest to include his own Shanks on Crime.  roblopresti.com

29 November 2017

Bouchercon Babbling

Carolyn Tillery, Janet Randolph, Charles Salzberg, Sarah Byrne, Himself, Aubrey Hamilton
by Robert Lopresti

Counting on my fingers here: I think Toronto last month was my seventh Bouchercon.  (The first was New York, back in 1983, a much smaller affair.)

I want to tell you about the highlights but I am mostly thinking ahead.  If you have not gone in recent years and might go in the future, bookmark this page for future reference.

Melodie Campbell, Some American
Of course, one of the great treats at these events is running into old friends, people you only know from email or social media, or people you have admired but never had the chance to say so.  You will see some pictures  here of me with my fellow SleuthSayers, some of whom I met for the first time.

Naturally it's a joy to be on a panel.  I was on "Readers Recommends," and frankly I didn't think anyone would attend, considering the competition.  But we had close to seventy people in the audience.  The picture on the top of this page shows our little group.  For some reason we all look like our best friend died and didn't leave us a cent, but we were all having a good time.  Moderator Carolyn Tillery did a fine job.

The funniest event I saw was the Liar's Panel. Five authors each tell stories about something that happened in their own lives.  Contestants have to guess which stories are true.  Luckily I was not a contestant because I was wrong on seven out of ten stories.  As you can imagine, some of these were hilarious.  Reese Hirsch's story about vampires was true?  And the only lie in Danny Gardner's story was the murderer getting caught.  Quite an hour.


Another don't-miss event is Speed Dating.  You get a free breakfast, sit down at a table, and every six minutes two authors plop down next to you to tell you why you should buy their books.  It's hectic and fun (and having been on both sides I can tell you, it's more enjoyable to listen than to be one of the authors prattling at full speed).

The highlight of the Speed Dating for me was when Twist Phelan and Zoe Quick arrived together.  They are both FB friends of mine but we had never met in person.  We had a six-minute mutual admiration society, and then they hurried on.

Barb Goffman, What's-His-Name
After my panel I went to the dealer's room to sign books, except I hadn't brought any.  The bother of getting them past the border and then back home (and we were not flying straight home either), combined with the difficulty of finding a vendor willing to take them on consignment just didn't seem worth it.  This decision appeared to be confirmed when I saw Danny Gardner carrying an armful of his own books and complaining that the customs people had inspected each one like they were bricks of cocaine.  Nonetheless I wound up signing books: four different anthologies.

Michael Bracken, Art Taylor, Unidentified
Another favorite event is the Librarian's Tea.  We bookpushers and our loved ones get free tea and cookies, some free books, and a talk from famous authors that tends to lean heavily toward how wonderful libraries are.  (Hey, you have to know your audience.)  Now as it happens, Hank Phillippi Ryan was at our table.  My wife doesn't read a lot of mysteries so I had to explain "You're sitting with royalty."

It turned out Hank was moderating the panel.  That didn't go so well, but it wasn't her fault.  About fifteen minutes after it started a fire alarm went off.  In that fancy hotel the alarm sounded like someone whacking a xylophone every few seconds.  Then a voice on the PA announced that an alarm had been pulled in the parking garage.  Someone was investigating and the fire department was on its way.

Melissa Yi, Robert Me
As near as I could tell everyone stayed.  (Librarians are tough.)  Soldiering on, Hank asked, through the alarms and repeated announcements, how the panelists would incorporate this sort of scene into one of their books?  The clear winner was Linwood Barclay who said the victim would be whoever was ringing that damned bell.

Eventually the PA announced that the fire department had declared everything was okay.  Then they announced it again.  Then they announced they were resetting the alarm.  (Why would we care?)  Then they announced that again.  We still didn't care.

There was a special event honoring Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, with Art Taylor interviewing editor Janet Hutchings, followed by a long line of authors talking about how EQMM had touched their lives and careers.  Quite moving.  There are few American magazines that have survived as long as this one and the stunning thing that in 75 years there have only been three editors.

On the SleuthSayers front, Art Taylor won the Macavity Award for best short story and the late great B.K. Stevens won the Anthony Award for best novella.

The Macavity Award for Best Nonfiction went to Margaret Kinsman for her book Sara Paretsky: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction.  However, the author wasn't present so the award was accepted by Sara Paretsky!  Yes, the subject of the book accepted the award.  When was the last time that happened?

Next time I will include my favorite quotations from Bouchercon.  Here's a sample: 

"In Scotland we have an unarmed police force.  Well, no firearms.  Just batons and sarcasm." - Caro Ramsay






15 November 2017

A Policeman's Lot, A Writer's Plot

by Robert Lopresti

It seems like just two weeks ago I was writing about having a new story published.  And it was.  After an 18-month gap I have two fresh kills in November.  Go figure.

"The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan" is my first appearance in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.  It is an old-fashioned fair-play mystery in which the aforementioned cop, who is happily engaged in running the evidence room, is dragged out of his cozy shelter to solve a murder which may or may not depend on a clue only a Savoyard would understand.

Did I hear someone ask What's a Savoyard?  Perhaps I need to explain a bit.

Gilbert and Sullivan were nineteenth century Englishmen who created comic operas.  G wrote the words, S composed the music.  The third member of the duet, so to speak, was Richard D'Oyly Carte who produced their works.  Think of him as Brian Epstein to the Beatles, trying to keep them from breaking up, or killing each other.

D'Oyly Carte  created the Savoy Theatre, where most of the works premiered, and thus, a fan of their work is called a Savoyard, because Gilbert-and-Sullivan-head takes too long to say.

Here is an example of the sort of out-of-the-box thinking D'Oyly Carte contributed to the operation.  You may remember that Oscar Wilde made a famous lecture tour of the United States.  (Customs Official: Do you have anything to declare?  Wilde: Only my genius.)  The tour was arranged by D'Oyly Carte because the G&S opera Patience was a satire on the Aesthetic Movement and would have fallen flat if Americans didn't know about Wilde.

The operas featured memorable, beautiful music, hilarious, ingenious lyrics, and, let's be honest, abysmal plots.  As my hero notes in the story you can't go too far into the stories of any of the operas without finding a plot hole you could  drive a hansom cab through.

A random example: In The Gondoliers a woman admits to trading her own baby for one of a pair of other boys.  But twenty years later, coming across those now grown men, she expresses no interest in knowing which of them was her flesh and blood.  Huh?

The fact is that Gilbert couldn't plot his way out of a paper bag  But his stuff was hilarious and being tied to Sullivan's tunes makes it immortal.

Fortunately, considering Gilbert's dreadful plotting, he never tried a mystery, but crime does feature in a few of the operas.

The main character of The Mikado, for instance is  Koko, the Lord High Executioner, who promises that he's ready to do his job:

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I've got a little list -- I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed -- who never would be missed!
There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs --
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs --
All children who are up in dates and floor you with 'em flat --
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that --
And all third persons who on spoiling tete-a-tetes insist--
They'd none of 'em be missed -- they'd none of 'em be missed!

The Mikado himself rolls off a gleeful list of appropriate punishments he has ready for evildoers.

All prosy dull society sinners, 
Who chatter and bleat and bore, 
Are sent to hear sermons 
From mystical Germans 
Who preach from ten to four.
The amateur tenor, whose vocal villainies 
All desire to shirk, 
Shall, during off-hours, 
Exhibit his powers 
To Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

Among the lesser known (but still good) works is Ruddigore, in which a character named Robin  is cursed. He must commit a crime every day or die in agony.  Unfortunately, he is not very good at it.

Robin (melodramatically) How would it be, do you think, were I to lure him here with cunning wile -- bind him with good stout rope to yonder post -- and then, by making hideous faces at him, curdle the heart-blood in his arteries, and freeze the very marrow in his bones?  How say you, Adam, is not the scheme well planned?
Adam.  It would be simply rude -- nothing more.

But the greatest connection between G&S and our  field is The Pirates of Penzance, which features a gallant troupe of constables.  No doubt my sergeant, dragged out of his cozy evidence room to cope with murder would agree with them on this subject.

01 November 2017

Gutter Dwellers and Chair Thieves

by Robert Lopresti

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” - Oscar Wilde

A few months ago I read a story called "Crow Mountain"  by John Floyd in the latest issue of The Strand.  A good story it was, but what amused me was that it included a plot twist that I had used a decade before.


I am not suggesting anything nefarious.  First of all, John needs to steal ideas from me like  Bryan Bowers needs me to give him autoharp lessons.  (Slow down, Bryan!  Make some mistakes!)  But most important - if he had read my story and instantly said I can use that it would have still been all right.  It would be what Lawrence Block calls "creative plagiarism."  You take the original idea in use it in some new and original way.

Here's what I mean by the shared plot twist: If you read John's story and then started mine when you got to a certain point you might say: "Huh.  I bet I know how it ends."  And you'd be right  Same if you read mine first, then John's.

I told John I liked the story and mentioned the coincidence.  I said it reminded me of one of my father's favorite sayings: "Great minds run in the same gutter."

John graciously replied: "I’ll share a gutter with you anytime."

I mention this because I have a story in the new November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  (My 27th appearance there, he said modestly.)   And "The Chair Thief" definitely involved creative plagiarism.

I wish I could tell you who I stole from, but I don't know.  A few decades ago I went through all the mystery shorts I could find in the public library.  I fell in love with a tale by Lawrence Block and when his collected stories came out I looked forward to repeating my acquaintance with that one.  But it wasn't there.  

I emailed him, describing the story.  Larry politely replied that it sounded like a great idea, but it wasn't his.  So I'm stuck.

Here is the plot of that original story; A true paranoiac gets ready for his day, putting fresh tin foil in his hat to keep out the mind controllers, and wrapping his torso in plastic wrap to foil the death rays.  Then he goes out for a stroll.  Things happen.

My story, on the other hand, is about two office-mates who get mad at a co-worker.  

You might say "those two plots have nothing in common."  Well, maybe not.  But it comes down to what I said before: If you read them one after another you would probably guess how the second one ends.

But since the first one is lost, we don't have to worry about that.  

I hope you enjoy "The Chair Thief." And if anyone remembers the author and title of the other story, I wish you would let me know.

18 October 2017

The Motive Motif

by Robert Lopresti

"I didn't go immediately, of course, as I hadn't made up enough reasons." - Don Berry, TO BUILD A SHIP

I recently read The Book That Changed America, by Randall Fuller.  It's about the United States' response to Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, which arrived in the months before the Civil War started, and was naturally used as a weapon by both pro- and anti-slavery forces.  It's a fascinating read although I thought at the end it got bogged down with the residents of Concord, Massachusetts.  (Granted those townies included Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, etc.)

But the reason I am writing this piece is a line Fuller wrote about another Concord-dweller (Concordian?  Grape?), Louisa May Alcott.  Fuller wrote that once the fighting started Alcott could not sell to the big magazines, because they wanted war stories.  Fuller explains:

In order to write about the war, she needed experience.  In the winter of 1862 she volunteered to work as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington.

That struck me as unfair, since it seemed to be saying that Alcott's only motive in volunteering for this nasty and dangerous work (it nearly killed her) was commercial gain.  No patriotism?  No desire to help the suffering soldiers?

That may not be what Fuller meant to say, but it's how I read it.  And it got me thinking about our tendency to assume that any piece of human behavior stems from a single motive.  Several people have asked me why I wrote my latest book.  Depending on the questioner and my mood I have given four different and contradictory explanations.  And they are all true.  Because people are complicated.

You may remember that in September both of my blog pieces  here featured John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and I am going back to that well one more time.  In researching those other pieces I found a blog by someone going by the name of Malnatured Snay who attempts to clarify the plot of the movie.  The piece is titled, optimistically, I CAN EXPLAIN IT TO YOU.

Snay does her/his best, but there are still plenty of puzzled questions in the comments.  (And let me salute Raheel Guillia, whose comment points out the huge plot hole in the movie, which does not appear in the novel.)

Here's the key example.  A number of commenters were baffled  as to why the character  Jim Prideaux did a certain thing near the end of the flick.  Anyone who had read the novel could have told them, but the movie didn't make the point clear enough,  for some viewers, anyway.

And so the commenters offered multiple contradictory motives for Prideaux, some of them wildly missing the point.  All of which got me thinking about the fact that people can have more than one motive for their actions, which is why I wrote this piece.

Wait.  Didn't I say I wrote it because  of the sentence about Louisa May Alcott?  Turns out people can have more than one motive.

Years ago I wrote a tale that appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  "Why" was a very short story with an even shorter title.  It consisted mostly of police officers speculating on the motive of a man who had killed several strangers.  By the end you know nothing about the killer, but a lot about the cops.

But I have been trying to think of any mystery novels or stories that play on the point that a single person could have more than one motive for what they do.  It seems like a natural thing for a mystery to discuss. After all, we're always being told that detectives look for a suspect with motive, method, and opportunity.  Doesn't motive deserve a little more attention?

The closest example I can think of is Rex Stout's Death of a Doxy, in which the murderer leaves a confession which includes an entirely false motive.  And that's not really the same thing.  Can you think of better examples?  Put them in the comments.  No spoilers, please.  And I hereby promise I am done mentioning John le Carre for a while.

04 October 2017

The Librarian Murder Mysteries

by Robert Lopresti

Thanks for all the additions, comments, and corrections! All those received by October 6th have been added in red.  Keep them coming!

Crime-writing attracts people from many different fields, including crime-fighters and, of course, criminals.  I am working on a list of mystery writers, past and present, who happen to be librarians.  (I am limiting it to this to fiction writers with M.L.S. degrees.)

I went to the geniuses who dwell at Dorothy-L, the listgroup for fanatical mystery fans, and asked for their collective wisdom.  And boy, was I impressed with the list they came up with.  If you know of any we missed, please pass them along.

James R. Benn.   Benn served as the head of school libraries for West Hartford, CT, and then managed a private history library before going full-time into mysteries.  The history stuff might have helped him with his books about Billy Boyle, a Boston police detective who spends World War II as confidential investigator for his "Uncle Ike," Dwight D. Eisenhower.  

Jon L. Breen.  Jon is a retired reference librarian who is best known for his nonfiction, which has won him both Edgar and Anthony Awards.  His What About Murder? is a definitive (and continuing) guide to reference books in our field (it now appears in each issue of Mystery Scene Magazine).  He has written around ten novels and several collections of short stories. My favorite is Kill the Umpire!, a collection of fair-play mysteries starring Ed Gorgon, major league ump.

Barbara Cantwell.  With her husband Brian, she forms B.B. Cantwell, who writes the Portland Bookmobile mysteries.  She did work on a bookmobile in th 1980s, and now stays more in one place  at the University of Washington.

Donis Casey.  Casey has been an academic librarian in Oklahoma and Arizona.  Now she writes full-time.  Her first book was The Old Buzzard Had It Coming.

Jo Dereske.  My friend reference librarian Jo Dereske wrote a series of comic mysteries about Miss Wilhelmina Zukas, who works at the public library in a small northwestern city not unlike the one where I live.  Helma is in some ways a stereotypical librarian but she has enough quirks and spine to make her a pleasure to spend time with.  In one book the police want to know who borrowed a particular book and to protect her patron's privacy, Helma destroys the records.  Making this more interesting is  that her would-be lover is the police chief.

Amanda Flower is a librarian in Ohio.  So is her character India Hayes who works and sleuths at a college there.

Charles Goodrum.  Goodrum may have been the first librarian to write crime novels about a librarian.  Dewey Decimated (1977) and its equally pun-titled sequels centered on an institution reminiscent of the Library of Congress, where Goodrum worked for many years.


Dean James used to be a medical librarian in Houston.  Under the name Miranda James he writes the Cat in the Stacks books about a small-town Mississippi librarian.

Jayne Ann Krentz. Krentz was a school librarian in the Virgin Islands (which she considered a "disaster" of a career move), and then worked at Duke University.  She is a hugely successful author or romantic suspense and donates generously to libraries, setting up a foundation to provide money for UCSC's humanities collection, among other gifts.

Eleanor Kuhns is the assistant director at the Goshen Public Library in Orange County, New York,  She writes about Will Rees, a weaver in Colonial America.

Robert Lopresti.  Yeah, that guy.  I wrote three stories about a public librarian buit couldn't sell them.  I got some satisfaction by slipping the character into one of my stories about eccentric mob detective Uncle Victor.

Mary Jane Maffini.  How many people can boast of once being the librarian of the Brewer's Association of Canada?  Maffini can.  She authors three series with female amateur sleuths.  The most popular may be the books about professional organizer Charlotte Adams, as in The Busy Woman's Guide to Murder.

Annette Mahon.  Mahon has worked in public and academic libraries.  Now she writes novels about the St. Rose Quilting Bee. The quilters, like their author, live in Arizona.

Jenn McKinlay.  She was a librarian in Connecticut, then tried writing.  McKinlay switched from romance to mystery because "I'm just better at killing people than I am at making them fall in love."  Among her series are the Library Lovers' Mysteries.

Shari Randall.  Randall has had two short stories published.  Her first novel, Curses, Broiled Again,comes out in early 2018.

Robert F. Skinner.  Skinner was the head librarian at Xaver University in New Orleans.  He wrote a series of novels about Wesley Farrell, a nightclub owner "passing for white" during the 1930s.

Triss Stein.  Stein describes herself as a small town girl who became a children's librarian in Brooklyn.  Later she ran the library for DC Comics!  How cool is that?   She says that part of the inspiration for her books set in Brooklyn neighborhoods came from the places she worked in libraries there.

Marcia Talley.  Most of these authors worked in public, academic, or school libraries.  Talley represents another major category: special libraries.  She worked for corporations, a non-profit, and the government.  She writes about Hannah Ives, a cancer survivor now living in Annapolis.

Will Thomas.  Thomas is a librarian in Oklahoma.  His characters Barker and Llewelyn are private inquiry agents in Victorian England.

Ashley Weaver.  Weaver runs the technical services side of things at a library system in Louisiana.  Her books are set far, far away, involving an Englishwoman named Amory Ames who solves crimes with her playboy husband in stylish spots in the 1930s.


Of course, one reason there are so many librarians in mystery fiction - including ones not written by people in the field  - is that a lot of librarians are fans, and therefore potential customers.  How many?  Enough to make it worthwhile to have a Librarian's Tea every year at Bouchercon.  Next week in Toronto a lot of people in my field will gather for tea and cookies and the chance to hear some famous writers tell us how much they love libraries.  And no one will tell them to shush.

09 September 2017

A Balloon for Ben

by Robert Lopresti

Hey good friends...  What with one thing and another (including the odd hurricane thrown in) we lost track of this date.  Blame it on me. 

Here is a video we thought you might like.  It's got a nice sentiment.

And wherever you are, stay safe.



06 September 2017

Timker, Tailor, Soldier, Empath

by Robert Lopresti

I scribbled down notes for this piece years ago when I saw an ad in Mystery Scene Magazine  for The Complete George Smiley Radio Dramas.  The BBC had created radio dramas based on the eight John le CarrĂ© novels featuring super spy George Smiley.  He is the protagonist of only four or five of the eight (depending on whether you think The Honourable Schoolboy is about him or about, uh, the honourable schoolboy).  

I have not heard the recordings but my first reaction was: Not possible.  Not possible turn my favorite of the books, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, into a radio drama and make it work.

I know people who read that book cover to cover and couldn't follow the plot.  I know people who have watched the whole six hour TV mini-series with Alec Guinness and were baffled by it.

For an earlier blog I wrote up the endings of twenty great mysteries (not identifying which books they came from, fiend that I am).  I spend twice as much space explaining TTSS as any of the others and still received a complaint that I had it wrong.



The novel's story is so twisty, so reverse-logic, that the idea of trying making it clear in a radio performance strikes me as insane.  If anyone has listened to the recording, please let me know what you think.

Here is one of the reasons the plot is hard to grasp.  Characters A and B are in effect asking: "Given that the situation is X why are Characters C and D doing what they do?"  The answer is: Characters C and D think the situation is Y.

(And by the way, the pretty-good movie version starring Gary Oldman, blew this part of the plot entirely, apparently just to put in one shocking scene.) 

My point is that to follow this part of the plot  requires  a leap of empathy, which no one in the book but Smiley is able to make, and a lot of readers have trouble with it, too.

I don’t mean sympathy, the ability to feel what someone else is feeling.   I mean the scientific sense of empathy: the ability to see things from the other person's point of view.

Decades ago a scientist named Daniel Povinelli taught chimpanzees to do a task for a reward.  Then the chimps saw a human doing a second related task.  Finally the chimps had to copy what the humans did.  In other words, the beasties' thinking process had to go something like this: "The human did a certain thing at the table and we both got fig bars.  Now the tables are turned (literally) and I have to do that same thing to earn us bars."

Which turned out to be no problem for most of the chimps to figure out.  But when the same experiment was tried with monkeys, well, it was like trying to teach them differential calculus on a roller coaster.  In spite of the old adage "monkey see, monkey do," those primates could not make the empathic leap.

It is easy to assume empathy is a good thing, but that's an oversimplification.  For example, it is an essential tool for con artists.  They have to see what the mark is seeing and know what the mark wants.  Science fiction writer Harry Turtledove wrote a story called "Bluff" in which an alien world's civilization is overturned when one character learns poker and discovers the concept of lying.

Other fields rely on empathy as well. I just read a terrific book by Nicholas Rankin called A Genius For Deception, about British trickery during the two World Wars.  One example is camouflage which, of course, depends in knowing how the object you are trying to disguise will look to an enemy soldier, sailor, or pilot.

But it is just as true in intelligence battles.  One of the frustrations of the British spies during WWII was that the Japanese intelligence units were so incompetent they would miss the false information that had been cunningly prepared for them.  In other words, you can't get someone into your trap if they don't notice the bait.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to the cunning of George Smiley.  If you haven't encountered Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I recommend it.  There are plenty of versions to choose from.

Addendum: After I wrote this I received an advance reader copy of John le CarrĂ©'s new novel, officially published yesterday.  A Legacy of Spies is being plugged as a new Smiley novel, but it appears that once again the cunning old fox manages to stay on the side lines. The main character is Peter Guillam, Smiley's protege, who is called out of retirement to explain some of the master's cases to a post-Cold War generation of spies. I'm reading it now, and so far, it's good.