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.

Our Blue Beauty

There are billions of us riding on this blue beauty, the Planet Earth — through no volition of our own. We were simply born. We accrued health, wealth, and/or happiness. But a madness has been monopolizing the airwaves, one called entitlement. Caveat: If you’re here for detective fiction, give this blog a miss.

The sloganeers say we deserve Michelin-star meals, haute couture fashion, etc. Maybe we do. But the earth can’t provide everything we deserve, not for so many of us. Eight billion humans can’t all live like kings or queens.

To bring things closer to home — Canada, that is — I hear pundits saying the country’s population (now about 38 million) should be 100 million. They say it’s a big country, and it is, but the vast majority is north of the 50th parallel. And what if we want nature to flourish? I doubt Canada will experience overpopulation in my lifetime. However, let’s think of the planet as a whole. For its sake, let’s avoid going over nine billion. Which leads to a thorny proposition, yet not a new one: population control.

I realize there are numerous quagmires. For example, who implements said control? I don’t have answers – except fictional ones – but I do see a clear choice. Either we all try to live like gods, or we live like mortals — equal mortals — somewhat constrained yet content, our needs well met.

The Night Fire – California Noir

The Night Fire by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown and Company. 2019.

In his lengthy oeuvre, Michael Connelly has created a contemporary version of California Noir: murder turns on money and fame – not just money, not just fame. In the case of victims, wealth and fame put targets on their backs. As for murderers, they kill for money and notoriety.

The Night Fire opens with detectives Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch and Renée Ballard joining forces. Although two detectives aren’t always better than one, in this novel they are. Bosch, recently retired from the LAPD, and Ballard, a LAPD graveyard-shifter – an outsider and an insider – team up to solve a recent murder. Being L.A., one murder case leads to another. And another. The novel won’t win awards for inventive prose. {If that’s what you’re looking for, take a pass.} However, The Night Fire has garnered numerous kudos. To wit: “Connelly is without peer when it comes to police procedurals …. He’s the modern master of the form.” ~ Publishers Weekly.

Connelly shines a light on the personal side of police work. Unlike many current crime authors, he focuses more on life as a detective than CSI magic. You experience the day-to-day existence of Bosch and Ballard as they pursue perps, sifting through an avalanche of evidence.

The novel delivers a boatload of police procedural details, but they don’t sink the storyline. The Night Fire is sharply plotted. The protagonists are tough yet sympatico. Connelly fans won’t be disappointed.

The King of Scottish Noir

Who’s the King of Scottish Noir? Ian Rankin. Hands down. Some might say Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, but I see him as the father. In any case, Rankin’s noir output far surpasses that of Stevenson.

Take Rankin’s Inspector Rebus opus. John Rebus is a hard-edge, no-nonsense police detective with a philosopher’s head and heart. He doesn’t always play by the rules. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. 

In the Rebus novels, mostly set in or near Edinburgh, Rankin deploys banter to counter the bleak reality of Scottish crime. He portrays tough criminals who are tougher men. The cops who hunt them are just as tough. Aye, but there’s humour too, of the Scottish ilk. Gruff, understated and, given the juxtaposition, doubly funny.  

At times, the plotting and crime MOs seem over-the-top. Some readers find the storylines overly bleak and depressing. They are cut from the cloth of real life. If you read a Rankin novel, you’ll get punched in the gut, you’ll rail at what humans do to humans. However, if you’re like me, you’ll keep reading. Ye can’nae stop. The King of Scottish Noir will hook you.

See Wikipedia for more on Ian Rankin and his twenty-plus Rebus novels.