John le Carré, King of the Spy Thriller

In memory of John le Carré (the penname of David Cornwell), who died in December 2020, I’ve been revisiting his novels. Many spy thriller heroes are almost superhuman. Le Carré’s heroes are flawed humans who rely on endurance and ingenuity.

My favourite le Carré novels are The Tailor of Panama (1996), The Constant Gardener (2001), and Our Kind of Traitor (2010). PS: All three were made into movies.

The Tailor of Panama. The protagonist, Harry Pendel, a transplanted Londoner, is a wonderfully humane creation. Once a convict in England, he is now a tailor in Panama City – and bumbling spy. As Panama crumbles around him, he learns the values of family and integrity.

The Constant Gardener. The novel opens in Kenya: “The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at 9:30 on a Monday morning. Sandy Woodrow took it like a bullet, jaw rigid, chest out, smack through his divided English heart.” From there, the story spans the globe. Le Carré exposes not only the divided heart of England, but of the West as a whole.

Our Kind of Traitor. The plot turns on the open-heartedness of a young British academic, Perry Makepiece. However, the true star of the novel is Dima Krasnov, a Russian money launderer who wants to defect to England. Dima is brilliantly rendered. Part-bully, part-romantic, part-egalitarian, he drives the story to its inevitable end.

Gifting Books: The 2020 Holidays

Not so long ago, nouns didn’t double as verbs. You didn’t gift a book. You gave one. 😉 But grammar evolves. It’s 2020. It’s the Holidays too. To give a book is to give a window into another world.

Here are three titles I recommend:

NON-FICTION

Feel Free by Zadie Smith, 2018. Thirty-one engaging essays, ranging from pieces about Smith’s homeland (England) to literature, dance, art, and popular culture. Smith is a rare writer: although she’s erudite and lofty, her prose is warm and inviting. I’d love to have a conversation with her – on any topic.

FICTION

Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson, 2020. A 2020 Giller Prize finalist; sequel to The Outlander, a Giller Prize finalist in 2012.

In Ridgerunner, Adamson entwines two genres – mystery and western – to create a captivating morality tale. The characters inhabit a Wild West that’s both lost and still with us.

Last but not least, my crime pick:

Exit Music by Ian Rankin, 2007. As I did last year, I’m suggesting a novel by Rankin, the King of Scottish Noir. Although Rankin has written many recent novels, I rate Exit Music above them. It’s the seventeenth Inspector Rebus novel. Rebus is three days from retirement but he’s not going out with a whimper. Ach, nae, not John Rebus. He revels in righting wrongs.

Imperium, Then and Now

A few weeks ago, I started reading Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – it’s been collecting dust for years. The six-volume opus brought to mind the decline of a current empire. I’m not gloating. I love the USA. I spent many happy years there. It’s a chaotic yet vibrant democracy, born of lofty ideals but beset by schisms.

I read Gibbon’s opus hoping to learn things from the Roman decline. I didn’t find many. Gibbon is a past master, but, if you’re looking for modern parallels, give him a miss.

Here’s a gross oversimplification of his opus: military power is power. Every volume highlights martial prowess. The Romans limited their domain to a relatively defensible area, roughly modern-day Western Europe minus Scandinavia, believing their military reach should not exceed their grasp. America is as much a cultural and commercial power as a military power, yet it has bases all over the world. If the British Empire is an example, America will soon relinquish many of them.

The American Empire is declining faster than the British, Roman, Aztec, Incan, or Persian Empires, not to mention many others. Reading Gibbon doesn’t provide much insight into why, other than to suggest that entropy always follows cohesion. The centre does not hold for long. Can’t argue with that.

Final thought. America’s not going anywhere. The end of an empire doesn’t mean the end of a nation.

Turning to the Light – Round II

As noted in ‘Turning to the Light,’ in dark times I turn away from crime/mystery fiction. I read “brighter” fiction. Here are a few more suggestions. Caveat: Although the titles below aren’t murder stories, as with most fiction, there is death.

Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan, 2001. A sweeping fictionalized account of the convict William Gould’s life in 1820s Tasmania. The central theme is man’s inhumanity to man. One of the finest Australian novels.

Dirt Music by Tim Winton, 2002. To continue the Down Under theme, Dirt Music is another modern Australian classic. It sings the raw underbelly of Western Australia in the late 20th century: the money, the greed, and, above all, the power of the land.

Turning to the Light

I don’t know about you, but in dark times I turn away from crime/mystery fiction. I want brighter stories. ‘Bright, AMP? Aren’t you supposed to be a noir guy?’ Hey, bright doesn’t mean soppy. 😉 Here are a few novels that fit the bill for me, and maybe you.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, 2006. At first glance, a simple story. However, it radiates deep emotion. One of my favourite works of literary fiction from the last 15 years.

The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 1952. A timeless tale, told with the direct prose of a fable. The story is mythic, yet it feels absolutely real.

The Colour by Rose Tremain, 2003. A British couple migrate to New Zealand (South Island) during an 1860s gold rush. As with many tales of migration/colonization, the migrants and natives clash (in this case, the British and the Maoris). There is pain and conflict, yet the tone is uplifting.

For more suggestions, check out Turning to the Light – Round II.