Showing posts with label leCarre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label leCarre. Show all posts

23 October 2019

Reversals


Some of you may know that the Brit writer Mark Billingham started out in comedy, and he once remarked there were a lot of similarities between doing stand-up and writing thrillers. Namely, setting up punchlines. E.g., "The pope, the Dalai Lama, and a stripper walk into a bar." I don't know where it's going, but it catches your attention. Jokes, of course, depend on the reversal of expectations, and setting a trap in writing is much the same. Sometimes the punchline gets left out, all the more effectively. The ending of Pet Sematary. You're not turning around.


The twist ending is a time-honored tradition. I got thinking, on the other hand, about twist openings. I just watched Night Train to Munich again, which is a terrific Carol Reed picture from 1940. The set-up is almost completely self-contained, a story all by itself, and Rex Harrison doesn't even show up until 20 minutes in. Not long after, the movie takes a sharp left-hand turn into the Twilight Zone. It's not what you were expecting.


I realized, watching it this time around, that Night Train to Munich puts me in mind of certain of John LeCarre's novels, The Little Drummer Girl in particular. The beginning, the set-up, "Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name," is itself masterful, and then he seems to wander off the beam, into some other story entirely. You're like, Wait, What, Where Are We? He's actually got absolute control, he's simply gathering the reins. Little Drummer Girl is about a deception operation, and the book is an illustration of method, a metafiction.


Metafictions can be said to call attention to themselves. Sometimes it's sleight of hand, sometimes it's done in plain sight. There's a Dutch Leonard book called The Hunted - some years before La Brava made him a household name - and it starts out with a guy in Witness Protection, who's been relocated to Israel, but the mob tracks him down and puts a hit on him. So far, so good. Then maybe a third of the way in, the story goes off at a right angle and all of a sudden, it's not about that guy at all, it's about this other guy, somebody you thought was a supporting character. Well, okay, it's Elmore Leonard, but hello? 


For my money, The Charm School is still Nelson DeMille's best book, not least because he takes what I think is a false and discredited premise and sells it, utterly. Not just that I suspended my disbelief, but that he had me totally convinced. Whether or not the spell wears off is of no consequence; he owns it, and you sign on. Here's the thing. Nelson pulls the same damn trick Dutch does. He starts off in one direction, and puts the pedal to the floor. We got ignition. Then he takes a curve at speed, and snaps your head around. He's got this guy who's only a walk-on, so you think, and suddenly he's center stage.


I don't think this is all that common a narrative device. At least, I haven't run across it that often. David Copperfield begins, famously, with "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else - " but we don't imagine Dickens is going to give Steerforth the lead. Likewise with Scott, no stranger to conventional theatrics, the hero of Old Mortality is your usual generic ingenue, and Scott quite happily loses control of his story to the two contending heavies, Lord Claverhouse and the Covenanter assassin Burley, who basically walks off with the book, but in the end, convention wins out.

Then there's the thing where you shift gears without even meaning to, or because the story requires it. In the first of the bounty hunter stories, for instance, I started out in one direction and veered off unexpectedly in another. I never intended it to be the beginning of a series, the guy himself seemed accidental, I thought I was channeling The Wild Bunch, and it turned out to be Have Gun, Will Travel. Not that I'm complaining, mind, but it took me by surprise.

I think this is where I'm going with this. That we should anticipate the unexpected. In anybody's narrative, but particularly our own. You follow the scent, you follow the story where it leads you, convention be damned.

Oh, and the punchline? "Mustard, custard, and you, you big shit."

06 September 2017

Tinker, 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.


24 September 2012

Childhood Memories


Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

This week I opened a quart carton of orange sherbet. Yum. I've had orange sherbet through the years yet, somehow, this time my childhood memories flooded back (maybe old age kicking in, who knows?) I suddenly felt as if I were eleven again, visiting my dad for the summer in Fort Worth, Texas. My parents divorced when I was young. Both parents remarried and during the whole school year, I lived with my mother, step-dad and two little sisters, out on the high plains of Texas, forty miles from Lubbock in the small town of Post, TX. Post then had a population of about three thousand folks and this was back in the olden days when ice cream was only available in grocery stores and drug stores. The most flavors I remember were vanilla, chocolate, Neapolitan, and strawberry. In the summer, when I went to visit my dad in the big city of Fort Worth for a couple of weeks, one of the first things we did was to drive over to Baskin Robbins where, at that time, they offered thirty-one flavors of ice cream. I'd look at everything they had and every single time order the same thing...orange sherbet, served in an ice cream cone. I have no idea why. They had banana nut, peppermint, chocolate mint, cherry vanilla, regular vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, peach, Neapolitan, and something with nuts, maybe butter pecan. They also had orange, lime and pineapple sherbet. I don't remember any of the other thirty-one flavors but for some strange reason orange sherbet really seemed like the best of the best to me and that's what I'd buy.

This nostalgic trip got me thinking about my childhood memories of reading. I honestly don't remember not liking to read and really not sure when I began reading. A little before first grade and then from first grade on I read and still read as much as I can now. I lived with my grandmother in Houston for my first grade and then my mother remarried and I moved to Post, TX when school was out. I spent a lot of the summer playing outside, but I also spent a lot of time reading...sometimes reading outside. My parents bought me books. Post didn't have a library then but there was a small library at our church. Most of the books at the church were biographies but written for children. So I learned about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, and George Washington Carver from these bios. At home mother bought, Heidi, Black Beauty, Grimm's Fairy Tales and Bible Story books. I loved the Bobbsey Twins and a series called The Sugar Creek Gang, which was about a boy and his pals but I liked adventures and the boys were always having those.

I probably started reading Nancy Drew when I was nine or ten years old and devoured those. I think I tried the Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belton, but Nancy was my idol. She had a really cool dad, an even cooler convertible and she solved mysteries. But my big love for mysteries really grabbed me totally when I was twelve and my father handed me a stack of his paperback books: Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott and Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason and his Bertha Cool and Donald Lam detectives, and John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. I thought Private Eye books were awesome and Perry Mason was so exciting by the revelation of the murderer in the trial.

Soon I matriculated to high school and devoured as many of their mysteries as I could find...Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christi, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammet, Rex Stout. I could go on and on but you get the idea. I still read spies and thrillers, Ian Flemming, John le Carre, Alistair McClain and I soon discovered John D. MacDonald wrote other books besides the Travis McGee series. In the meantime, Post TX got a public library and my mother became one of the volunteer librarians and when they were able to hire a librarian full time, my mom got the job. She had only gone to the 8th grade in school but she had gotten a GED and she took some college classes by correspondence. She took many of the continuing education classes the library offered. That was her dream job and also helped add to my "have read" growing list of books. Is it any wonder that I wound up writing mysteries and owning a mystery bookstore?

In exploring my childhood memories which I decided to share with each of you I reveal how I managed to fall in love with mysteries and private eyes in particular. What about you?

Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to the kitchen to have a bowl of orange sherbet.