I’m going to finish off the reviews of my 20 books in one go today. Here goes…
Call For the Dead by John Le Carré
Having read many of Le Carré’s early books over the years, I was slightly surprised to discover I’d never read his first book, the novella Call For the Dead, published in 1961, in which we are introduced to George Smiley. It begins with an absolute cracker of a first sentence:
When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.
The next sentence tells how Lady Ann abandoned George for a Cuban racing driver two years later. The rest of the first page goes on to describe Smiley in no uncertain terms: he is short, fat quiet, a man who doesn’t wear clothes well, a nondescript fellow with no notable heritage, whom many liken to a toad in appearance. It’s obvious that we’re meant to think that she married him for his mind, and that his mind wasn’t enough for her! His mind, however, is what we all love him for – it’s enough for the reader. The rest of the first chapter gives us a ‘Brief History of George Smiley’, outlining his exploits at college and beyond, how he came to work for the Secret Service, his postings abroad and return to London.
From the second chapter onwards, we’re thrown into a mystery. Yes, it’s a spy novel with plenty of tradecraft, but there is a real sense of Poirot in Smiley’s investigations into the death of a Foreign Office civil servant. There are also resonances of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant in The Daughter of Time as Smiley is forced to continue his investigations from his hospital bed, after being knocked out by a German agent. Luckily Peter Guillam and Inspector Mendel, Smiley’s Met Police contact on hand to be his gofers by this stage. This being a mystery involving spies, there’s the official story of the man’s death for the outside world, the official internal story, and in the penultimate chapter, Smiley’s full Poirot-like account of what actually happened.
Le Carré will go on to develop deeper plotting, but his literate style of writing is right there from the start. His power of description and ability to capture the zeitgeist is spot-on and the novel drips with an authenticity that will increase and move with the times with each new novel. Naturally, I couldn’t read this novel without seeing Alec Guinness, Siân Phillips and Michael Jayston as Smiley, Ann and Guillam respectively, and I possibly enjoyed it even more because of that. I’m grateful to Chris at Calmgrove for inspiring me to add this one to my 20 books – his review is here. I think I’ll now go on to re-read all the Smiley books in order!
Source: Own copy. Penguin modern classics paperback, 150 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
Drive by James Sallis
A couple of years ago, I watched the film, Drive, starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan – with notable support from Christina Hendricks, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman and Oscar Isaac – and I reviewed it here. I was shocked by the violence in it, but really enjoyed the storytelling, and wanted to read the book the film was adapted from (first published in 2005).
It’s the story of a man, never named, who is excellent at one thing – driving. He’s a loner for the most part, brought up by foster parents. When he’s old enough, he takes their car and heads for LA, where he learns to be a stunt driver, becoming much in demand. At night he becomes a getaway driver for criminals too – where once again he’s in demand. He lays it on the line for them:
“I drive. That’s all I do. I don’t sit in while you’re planning the score or while you’re running it down. You tell me where, we start, where we’re headed, where we’ll be going afterwards, what time of day. I don’t take part, I don’t know anyone, I don’t carry weapons. I drive.”
You know it all ended up going wrong right from the start, as Sallis begins the novel at the end of Driver’s last job. We then move forward and backwards through the story, building up Driver’s backstory, how he got involved with neighbours Standard Gabriel and his wife Irina, doing jobs with Standard and looking after Irina when he was jailed. Sallis also gives us some fascinating background on stunt driving in the movies.
The writing is superb. If you took out most of the dialogue in an Elmore Leonard novel or Tarantino movie, you’d be left with Drive. Told from Driver’s single-minded PoV, it’s sparse and definitely existential, recalling Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale which I read last year. This novella is our book group read for Sept into October, so having inflicted it on our group, I’ll be interested in seeing what they think.
One thing is sure, I’ll be reading more James Sallis. His style in this novel absolutely clicked with me, and yes, there is a sequel!
Source: Own copy. No Exit Press paperback, 191 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
She’s Leaving Home aka A Song From Dead Lips by William Shaw
I finally got around to reading Shaw’s first ‘Breen and Tozer’ book, a series of four crime novels set in the late 1960s written mostly before his Alexandra Cupidi books which I love so much (see here). Breen and Tozer are DS Cathal Breen, and WPC Helen Tozer.
Note, the US editions have different titles to the UK ones. I read the US edition from Mulholland Books, and much prefer the US title using the Beatles song. This isn’t always the case though – the fourth book is Play With Fire in the US, and Sympathy for the Devil in the UK – guess which I prefer? (RIP Charlie Watts 😢)
The novel begins with a body found in St John’s Wood. In a memorable scene where a uniformed nanny’s young charge is desperate for a wee, she sends the boy into an alley – cue scream!
DS Breen is having a hard time with his CID colleagues, after seemingly abandoning one of them to be stabbed in a robbery. So its Breen that gets saddled with a new sidekick, a young woman no less. It’s 1968, and anyone who’s seen the TV series Life on Mars will know how women with ambition were treated in the police. What’s more, his colleagues all call him ‘Paddy’ after his Irish heritage.
Although Breen is aware that he’s in danger of turning into his parents at his age, being an outsider in CID makes him somewhat similar to Tozer in his colleagues’ eyes. As the pair work together, he soon comes to respect her instincts and given that they’ll be talking to all the girls who camp outside Abbey Road studios in the hope of meeting The Beatles, her youth is a distinct advantage in helping to identify the victim.
The area where the body was found is interesting. Miss Shankley, who lives in one of the flats which back the alley, points him towards the big house across the way where some Africans have moved in recently. Mr Ezeoke is a English surgeon of Nigerian descent, his wife Ezinwa is from Biafra, and together they are raising money to support the Biafran independence cause. Their house is full of African art and sculptures, supplied by Ezinwa’s uncle Eddie Okonkwo. The war between the secessionist state of Biafra, attempting to separate from Nigeria ran from 1967-1970, and bringing this political element into the plot allows for interesting developments.
Shaw, as I’ve come to expect from his other books, handles all the social elements that he always builds into his plots very well. Here, we have politics, the Biafran war, and different aspects of racism from the xenophobia shown against the Africans, to that in the non-PC language and banter of the squad room, and not forgetting the sexism shown to Tozer, who I was delighted to find, gives as much as she gets – she’s tough – but has had to be as readers will find out. Coming after the ‘Summer of Love’ of 1967, London was even more of a melting pot in 1968; Shaw incorporates lots of super cultural detail which brings the period to life, warts and all. Breen and Tozer are an engaging pairing and I must carry on with this series. Loved it.
Source: Own copy. Riverrun paperback, 496 pages. BUY at Amazon via affiliate link (O/S at Blackwell’s)