11 March 2020
Like a lot of people, I always looked forward to the new John le Carre. I admit I found The Looking-Glass War unconvincing - for very specific reasons: it was my old operational area, as it was le Carre's, and I thought the premise was faulty. As for The Naive and Sentimental Lover, I've never managed more than the first fifty pages. But in general, what an astonishing run.
Then, after The Little Drummer Girl, we have (dare I say?) a falling-off. I don't buy into A Perfect Spy, despite the amazing portrait of Ronnie, and how clearly the book resonates with le Carre himself. He roars back with The Russia House, but follows up with three more duds. Tailor of Panama is a full-on score, and then four, or even six, passable novels that limp in. I know we're holding him to higher standard, but that's exactly the point.
So, let go of your apprehension. I'm here to tell you that Agent Running in the Field (one of his more clever titles, by the by) hits it out of the park. The old boy definitely isn't hanging up his spikes just yet.
I like the way he's been telling his stories, lately. The impatience with exposition, when he used to be more lapidary. Dutch Leonard once said, skip all that crap the reader is going to skip. It's unnecessary. If you trust you're in honest hands - and who more honest than Dutch or John le Carre? - oh, wait. Either one would cheerfully lead you down the garden path, and you know full well you'd follow along without a moment's hesitation.
Agent Running is in many ways a return to form, although he mercifully leaves out the domestic betrayals this time around, the defections in place, and concentrates on the operation, its collateral, and the product. The scope is necessarily tight. The guy himself isn't some old soldier, turfed out and weary, but mid-career and restless. You might wonder, in the moment, why he so credulously accepts a challenge from a younger self, when the kid so generously telegraphs his own disaffection, but the weakness here is vanity. In fact, when Nat, our hero, takes on the job he's offered, he clearly thinks it's beneath him.
Agent Running is really more Smiley's People than any of the recent books. For all that Karla used Ann to blind Smiley to the serpent Haydon, the narrative spine of Smiley's People is always Eyes On The Prize. Karla is looking for a legend for a girl. This is the single detail that drives the story. Smiley fills in the context. In the new book, context appears in the foreground, but of course misleadingly, because as always, the devil is in the details.
I don't know if you'll find this as interesting as I do. Legacy of Spies was elegiac and regretful, a swan song, the old boys revisiting past triumphs over a snifter, and not liking their history revised - although George Smiley had a bracing cameo, still with all his buttons and most of his teeth. Agent Running revisits not just Smiley's People, but Call for the Dead, le Carre's first book. It's a story about treachery, how not? That's le Carre's stock in trade. What's refreshing, oddly, is the very retrograde approach: sources and methods.
18 October 2017
"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.)
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?
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.
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.
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.