Holiday Reading

January 3, 2012

I did a spot of reading over the Christmas and New Year holidays. In fact, reading was more or less all I did. Apart from walking the dog, spending time with Rita and eating myself silly. I read enough to write a lot of book review posts, but I’ll restrain myself to three or so… First off, spy stories.

I’d never read anything by John Le Carré, having once picked up Smiley’s People, read the first page, not liked the tone of the narrative and so put it right down. For some reason though, Amazon insisted on recommending Le Carré’s books to me, and I was tempted to give them a go. I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy then The Honourable Schoolboy, which follows right on from Tinker Tailor. I still find the narrative voice uncomfortable. The off-handedness of some of the comments, the descriptions of characters, all make me think of some establishment patrician type pronouncing from his favourite chair in his Mayfair club. On reflection though, the voice makes perfect sense. Much of the action is set in Whitehall, many of the characters really are those old school tie types, and from that point of view, the voice works.

And anyway, maybe it’s supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. The atmosphere of Le Carré’s books is one of claustrophobia and bleakness, where no-one can truly be trusted, where betrayal and treason are the bread-and-butter of the business. Not a recipe for comfort.

I can’t really say that I like Le Carré. I understand why many do, and I see a lot of value in his depiction of the Cold War and the unlikely warriors who fought a large part of it. But still. The way that the death of Jerry Westerby at the end of The Honourable Schoolboy was reported gave the impression that the narrator really didn’t give a toss. Par for the course in the intelligence services? Maybe? Le Carré ought to know, having worked for both MI5 and MI6.

Apparently, Le Carré himself listed Tinker Tailor as being one of his four best novels. Maybe I should read the other three on his list (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Tailor Of Panama and The Constant Gardener).

In a similar, although different, vein is Anthony Price’s Other Paths To Glory, which I read on the recommendation of Charlie Stross, who quoted it as an inspiration for some of the style of The Fuller Memorandum. I didn’t really know what to expect. I was wondering if the title was a reference to Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory, because of the First World War connection, so wasn’t quite in the mindset for a 1970s spy thriller. However, it’s a good read, and grabs hold very quickly, with an entirely unexpected bit of violence and the protagonist’s reaction to it, perhaps borne more of shock than anything else (having just been the victim of a quite professional murder attempt, he’s more worried what his mother will think of him coming in dripping wet from being in the river…). The historical detail of the battlefields of the Somme feels nicely authentic, not that I know anywhere near enough to comment on that, and the connection to the present afforded by the visit of a tour group of veterans works well. The “mystery” at the heart of the plot isn’t all that mysterious, and it’s a little surprising that none of the experts were quite aware of it before the denouement of the action.

My last spy novel of the holiday was a more modern one, The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer. Of the four books described here, this one does the best job of getting across the bleakness and moral ambiguity of the whole spy game. Milo Weaver is a “tourist” for the CIA, travelling the world on the orders of a voice on the phone and performing at best morally ambiguous tasks at the behest of his masters in New York. Burnt out and worn out, he’s back at an office job for the middle of the book, but is never quite able to leave his Tourism behind him. By the end of the novel, it’s no longer very clear who the good guys are. Or if there ever were any. The bad bad guys are picked out fairly clearly (psychopathic paedophile Russian oligarchs, anyone?), but apart from that, no-one has entirely clean hands. Weaver’s (to be honest, rather unlikely) family history eventually gets him out of a little pickle with home office, but he ends up annoying enough people that he’s demoted back to Tourist status.

Not a cheerful book. None of these four are. They’re all bleak and amoral (The Tourist perhaps even more than the others), and it’s never quite clear which side we should cheering for. In The Honourable Schoolboy, one character explicitly, if briefly, mentions this, commenting more or less that “Well, we are better than them, aren’t we? Our system is better, isn’t it?”. “Them” refers to global communism, in the shape of the USSR and China. The question of who are we and who are they is even more obliquely treated in Other Paths To Glory where it’s never clear who the “heroes” end up protecting from the “baddies”.

I’d like to know just how accurate, in particular, is Le Carré’s depiction of the spying life. I guess I’ll need to wait some years before records are declassified (if they ever are) so that someone can write a definitive history of the Cold War…