Book review: A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré

An upstanding British spy has a past murkier than the North Sea in John le Carré’s cool, poised classic

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Despite being a fan of TV espionage (I will watch anything with handsome spies sitting in smoky rooms, from ludicrous, bonkers Spooks to ludicrous, serious London Spy) my enjoyment of dramatised spy stories has never translated into books. Graham Greene’s murky world of post-war espionage in The Quiet American and his wonderfully comic novel Our Man in Havana are the closest I’ve come to the genre on the page.

And where else should I start investigating spy novels than with the master of the genre, John le Carré whose appeal has been given another boost with the recent super slick, beautifully peopled, totally ridiculous BBC production of The Night Manager. I enjoyed The Night Manager as much as I laughed at it, so I was keen to explore his written word and see how it compared to this campy, tense adaptation.

His 1986 novel A Perfect Spy is a dense doorstopper that follows the charming, mysterious Marcus Pym – a husband, father, respected member of The Firm, and the “greatest con I knew” according to his boss, Jack Brotherhood.

In the past and present, Marcus spins lies, creates personas to such an extent that even he no longer knows who he is. We begin at the end, just after the death of his estranged father an event that has tipped him over into an abyss that he’s been teetering on the edge of his whole life. His dad, Rick Pym (based on le Carré’s own father) was a crook, an old school cockney criminal who will charm your life savings from you and you’ll be glad he did.

The Pym we meet at the beginning is a seemingly upstanding English gent, his sometime landlady of the bed and breakfast retreat in an unnamed British coastal town is charmed by her ‘Mr Canterbury’. But unbeknown to her, Marcus is sitting locked in his attic room, spilling out his secrets and his past on paper, nurturing a burn box that holds information that could blow the USA and the UK apart. The race is on to find him, from his boss at M16 Jack Brotherhood, his wife Mary to his Czech agent Axel. Who will find Pym first?

As we follow the search, we move across time and the continent as we re-visit Marcus’ difficult boyhood to unravel his present. He sees his mother carted off to a mental institution, her stand-in, Libbie’s, twisted body after she jumps to her death. It is, as a great spy book should be, full of intrigue and suspense, but what I found most thrilling was le Carré’s writing. His style took me by surprise. I hadn’t accounted for the spymaster being such a beautiful writer, I always assumed his bestsellers were brash and plot driven, but his words are frequently lovely, even delicate despite his prose being as dense as the air in a room of chain-smoking spies. There is no easy chronological order to A Perfect Spy, his structure is fluid as we move between past and present with little fanfare.

I expected a heavy hand to write this most macho of genres, but the human relationships le Carré weaves are far bigger page turners than discovering which side of the iron curtain the protagonists are on. I didn’t always find A Perfect Spy an easy read, it was at times dense enough to be impenetrable, it’s aloof and unemotional and the female characters are willow-o-wisps, falling into either 1950s cookie cutter wives or sexy PAs who seduce their bosses with their minxy ways.

But while I may not be about to defect to the world of spies in fiction, I’ve definitely been caught in its web of intrigue.

 

Book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This huge literary hit may not be pretty, but it’s one hell of a page turner

Editorial Producer - Suzanne Elliott

The Girl on the Train was the book smash of 2015. A stonking success for former journalist Paula Hawkins and the publishing industry. Dubbed  the “British Gone Girl”(yawn), Hawkins’s debut was the latest amnesia thriller, riding the page-gripping wave of Before I Go To Sleep and Elizabeth is Missing.

Always a bit slow to the hype party, it took me until the end of the year to read it, managing to avoid spoilers and hyperbole until the bitter end of 2015.

The titular girl on the train is actually a thirty-something women called Rachel Watson. Don’t expect to like her. She’s a woman soaked in gin, wine and self pity. She travels on the 8.04 to Euston every day to a job she was sacked from to avoid having to tell her flatmate, her only friend who she doesn’t really like, that she’s unemployed. Her lodgings in a far flung London suburb has been her home since her divorce from her ex husband, Tom, who Rachel pines for with a force that borders on the obsessive.

Rachel clings onto her old life and still hovers on the cusp it. On her fruitless daily train journeys to London, Rachel passes the house she lived in with Tom and where he still lives with his new wife, Anna, and their baby daughter. Rachel has also become a little mentally over invested in the couple who live a few doors down from her former address, cultivating a narrative for them despite never having met them. After a particularly drunken evening, Rachel finds herself on the other side of the train tracks, embroiled in the lives of the people she’s been watching silently for months, in a tale of lies, madness and murder.

There is nothing pretty about The Girl on the Train. Hawkins’s prose is as lumpy as Rachel’s badly fitting polyester suits (I don’t know that she wears badly fitting polyester suits, but you can almost hear the scratching from the pages). The characters are messy, the narrative repetitive (the constant to-ing and fro-ing on the train gets tedious) and it’s written in an odd journal-style from the point of view of Rachel, Anna and the missing Megan that is half-heartedly confessional but, so as to give nothing away too soon, unconvincingly opaque.

But the novel’s power lies in its ability to suck you in. I read it in two days and, while not terribly invested in it, admired how Hawkins’s plot weaves itself to its conclusion convincingly and unhysterically. There are, of course, niggles in the story – no thriller is without its plot tripwires – largely the over reliance on Rachel’s mangled booze memory. Much of the plot relies on her not remembering this one particular evening on which the whole book spins rather too conveniently (there’s a small thread where Hawkins attempts to cover her tracks using Google and Science).

There were interesting elements in among the hectic plot, I thought Hawkins highlighted the precariousness of our lives well – the novel is in many ways a story about how easily our lives can crumble –  the hard slog of being a single woman in her 30s and the difficulty of every really knowing anyone (I would like to have had at least a tidbit on how Rachel and Tom met). Hawkins also captured the quiet mundanity of commuting with few words. In those moments when she evoked the stale sweat, the simmering frustration and sighs, I was the girl (woman) on the train.   

Read it, enjoy it, don’t expect it to change your life (unless you’re Paula Hawkins or her editor).

Book Review: The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

Writing as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shook off Inspector Wexford to produce suffocating psychological thrillers that probed the darkest reaches of the human mind in all too realistic settings.

Rendell, both as herself and as her alter ego, has always been adept at creating an atmosphere of seedy glamour that’s as alluring as it is terrifying, building the suspense by drip feeding clues, throwing in symbolic suggestions and hinting at trouble to come until the pages are bulging with all that tension.

The House of Stairs is thick with intrigue, with a languid plot that doesn’t reach a climax until the final few pages. Despite the genre, Vine’s thrillers aren’t disposable page turners, but novels that dig deep and reveal themselves slowly. Reading the House of Stairs was, for me, like climbing the 106 stairs in the Notting Hill house of the title on a hot and humid day on crutches. I was eventually hooked, but Vine unpicks the plot slowly rather than letting it unravel chaotically, building the tension at the expense of driving the plot. I admit that inbetween admiring her skilful writing I wondered when we’d get somewhere, anywhere with the story.

The protagonist, Elizabeth, is a seemingly reliable narrator who is keen to record every detail of her story accurately with the reader. The story begins at the end of one part of Elizabeth’s life and the start of another path that we will follow for a while. An only child, Elizabeth’s mother died when she was young and her father remained a distant and uninterested parent. Elizabeth’s loneliness is compounded when she discovers that she may have inherited the family secret, the defective gene that causes Huntington’s disease. Living under this shadow, the motherless Elizabeth finds comfort and sympathy with her cousin’s wife, Cosette, a warm, benign woman who I imagined smelled of talcum powder and hairspray.

(As an aside, the Huntington’s disease thread was an odd one, Elizabeth’s diagnosis at first seemed to be loaded with symbolism, but in the end appeared to be constructed purely to explain the lack of children as it sort of hovered around at the beginning seemingly With Significance, before being overshadowed by Plot.)

Anyway, one fateful Christmas Elizabeth goes to stay with a friend’s family who live in a big house in the country (of sorts, they get the Central Line there – this is a very London novel). There she meets the mysterious and beautiful Bell who lives in the cottage in the grounds. On Boxing Day when the family in the big house are settling down to a quiz, Bell walks into the draughty hall and announces that her husband, Silas, has killed himself. Despite the circumstances, Elizabeth is enchanted by Bell – she’s cool and frank and intriguing and dresses in black. But right from the beginning of the novel, we know Bell has been to prison, so the blast of cold air she brings in with her when she steps into the big house is metaphorical as well as literal.

Not long after this eventful Christmas, Cosette’s (rich) husband dies suddenly on his way to work one morning and left alone but wealthy, Cosette sells her home in the suburbs and moves to a four-storey townhouse in Notting Hill (the slightly charred W11 of the 1970s rather than today’s swanky postcode). And then the story really cranks up… ha, not really.

We are introduced to many waifs and strays who move in (including Elizabeth) and the House of Stairs becomes a sort of commune with fancy wine and meals in Chinese restaurants that Cosette pays for. The House of Stairs features a large cast of characters, many of them drifting in and out of the house of the title and the page. Few of them mean anything to the bigger story, their presence is simply a way of filling up the House of Stairs (the building) and the House of Stairs (the book) as well as helping us understand Cosette’s drive to banish her loneliness by filling her home with people. One day Bell comes to stay and we all know that this is the beginning of the end, but for who? And how? It’ll take us a while to find out, but the suspense could kill you.

The House of Stairs is a clever, grown-up thriller that definitely isn’t one for people that like their crime novels pacey and immediate.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: Fatherland by Robert Harris

Fatherland by Robert Harris

Fatherland by Robert Harris

As Marty McFly found out, tampering with history is a dangerous game; tweak one little bit of the past and you risk unravelling the present. But fiddling with the “What Ifs” is a rich subject for storytellers and re-imagining the past, and in doing so re-telling the present, has become a popular branch of sci-fi and is now  almost a genre in its right.

Robert Harris’ 1992 best seller Fatherland is an alternative history novel that imagines a past where the Allies lost World War II and Hitler’s dream of the Third Reich has become a terrifying reality. Starved into surrendering, Britain is now a German outpost along with most of Western Europe. Meanwhile, Poland and her eastern neighbours have been eaten up and consumed by a Nazi-run Germany. Switzerland, and its mountains (of gold), stands alone as a German-free zone.

Harris’ post-WWII world is mostly entirely believable. It’s a terrifying place – suffocating, frightening, devoid of good art, decent books and humour. Although while The Reich is a dark, dangerous world, the Germans haven’t been entirely de-humanised into frog-marching cardboard cut-outs. There are signs of rebellion as the heady 1960s creep in; even The Beatles have a little cameo (although would they have existed in a Nazi-run Britain? And would the 60s have swung quite so exuberantly – if at all – with a bunch of uniformed killjoys in power? Such are the perils of the alternative history novel).

Fatherland is as much about the small within this monolith to fascism, the story of one man’s fight for justice in a world that’s run by criminals. Xavier March is a detective in the Reich’s equivalent of CID. He’s a great detective, but not a good citizen, in fact he’s far too good a detective to let corruption win even if it means risking his own life.

The Empire is gearing up for the celebration of Hitler’s 75th birthday, an event that marks a national holiday and a great deal of marching and chest puffing. Five days before the official day, March is called to investigate dead body in a river just outside Berlin. As March delves deeper into a seemingly straightforward murder case, he learns that this apparently routine investigation has far deeper ramifications, his enquires taking him right to the very top of the government, revealing horrors that could pull the thread that will unravel the whole world.

Like all good cops in risky situations, March finds himself a sidekick, Claire Maguire – a pretty, young American journalist notchaknow – who is plucky and curious and offers much needed comfort in March’s difficult time. Their romance was an irritating, screamingly obvious and cliched addition (and why she had to be 25-years-old to March’s 42 is best left with Harris). But at least Maguire and her American brashness livened up a novel full of men in uniform (the only other women in the novel was a gargoyled receptionist and March’s ex-wife, who we never heard directly from).

The off-colour romance and the lack of female voices aside, Fatherland is a good read. Thrillers are usually so far removed from the kind of book I like as to render them invisible, despite the ubiquity of those embossed covers in grating serif fonts. I like books where nothing happens; I’ll usually take pages of someone buttering a piece of toast over chapters of breathless action. But having your foot in plaster for weeks means a great of (temporary) life changes. The proximity of a novel suddenly becomes the only criteria to read it and Fatherland, loaned to me a few months earlier, lay within an arm’s reach of my bed. Fatherland may not have converted me entirely to a new genre, but I will be more open to a thriller’s captivating arms.

A former journalist, Harris has a reporter’s skill of writing sharp, unfussy prose with enough colour to illuminate the world – in this instance, one we fortunately only ever to imagine. As all good thrillers should be, Fatherland gallops along, but, as all bad thrillers do, it doesn’t outrun itself. The plot doesn’t end up on a tangled web of confusion and dead ends; the conclusion is neat without being contrived.The even pace and realism is helped along by the quiet, considered March whose actions always seem believable even when he’s clearly doing something very stupid, his conviction in his task successfully putting pay to doubts of plausibility.

Fatherland is perfect sickbed, beach or airport read, which sounds like an insult, but isn’t meant to be. It’s pacey and gripping enough to block out the world and its annoyances. Even your fellow passengers, or your fractured foot, won’t quite seem so bad after taking a trip to a world where Germany won the war.

by Suzanne Elliot

 

Book Review: Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

William Boyd is a writer than elicits great love from many a bookworm. His 2010 novel Any Human Heart, the story of Logan Mountstuart’s ordinary yet extraordinary life, tops many a favourite book list.

Keen to join this army of devotees, I read Any Human Heart a couple of years ago and waited – and waited – to be transported into that zen like other worldliness that a good book takes you too. But I never clicked with it. Was it pompous Logan? Boyd’s sturdy prose? The inescapable maleness of it? I don’t know, but whatever it was the book didn’t seduce me.

But Boyd is clearly a robust and imaginative storyteller and I wasn’t about to give up after one novel. I picked Ordinary Thunderstorms as a friend – a Boyd fan – said it reminded her of Ian McEwan, in my mind a Very Good Thing.

Ordinary Thunderstorms  – a rather grandiose title for such an unpoetic book – is the story of Adam Kindred, a climatologist, who on his return to his native England after years in the States, finds himself homeless, friendless and wanted for murder within a matter of hours.

His problems start when he stops for lunch in Chelsea. Most people’s do. But his problems are far worse than merely encountering a particularly rah-rah Sloane; his road to oblivion begins with some unnoteworthy chit-chat with another lone diner, Philip Wang. Wang is an eminent immunonogist who accidentally (on purpose?) leaves some rather important documents at the restaurant. When Adam attempts to return them to Wang at his flat, he becomes embroiled in some pretty dark business that shatters his life as he knows it forever.

Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller stuck in the Thames’ mud, its thrills bogged down by obscure details and unnecessary fluff (and I’m quite a big fan of unnecessary fluff). The book  tantaslingly hints at being a bigger, better, more multi-layered novel than it is. The themes Boyd touches on – the corruption of the pharmaceutical industry, what it is to be a citizen in a 21st century city, identity and white collar crime – are rich for exploration, but are only given a cursory nod here.

The plot and the cast of characters are all in place; there’s an ugly bady with a soft-spot for dogs, a prostitute who still retains a tiny speck of humanity despite life’s best attempt to erase any compassion, a tough but kind police officer woman and some evil Suits. The Thames, in all its murky glory is the novel’s main artery, although Boyd doesn’t allow it to beat much life into the novel, the story’s pulse rarely rises above semi-consciousness.

Each of these main characters had their own – third person – chapter that are fairly indistinguishable. Rita, the police officer, who I think was meant to be a twenty-or-early-thirty something woman, sounded exactly like 59-year-old  Ingram Fryzer, the head of the drug company Calenture-Deutz who employed unfortunate Philip Wang and whose dealings are decidedly dodgy. Cockney bad ‘un Jonjo Case, who is also on Adam’s trail, sounds like a privately-educated middle manager doing a bad impression of a barrow boy.

London, specifically the Thames, is perhaps the book’s starring role, although Boyd never really captured its magic. I’m reading Marcel Theroux’s fantastic Strange Bodies at the moment, a book that shares a lot of themes and motifs with Ordinary Thunderstorms, but the London Theroux conjures up is a far more 3D city than the one that lies rather flat in Boyd’s book.

Ordinary Thunderstorms is a readable if unexciting novel that doesn’t deliver that thunderbolt that a really great book should. Maybe it will be third time lucky for Boyd and me…

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl

Gone Girl was 2012’s literary sensation and its drug-like grip on the reading public didn’t let up in 2013. The tube looked like a Gone Girl reading hour at times; stacks of the orange and black cover filled bookshop tables and people of Twitter muttered about THAT twist.

I had been reluctant to read it, in part, because of its ubiquity, but also the arguments of the people who didn’t enjoy it. The bad reviews made Gone Girl sound like pulp fiction littered with despicable people.

And it is – littered with despicable people that is. You can’t, for the most part, fault Gillian Flynn’s taunt, business like writing. And there’s no doubting Gone Girl’s page-turning credentials; I barely saw my family over Christmas, so engrossed was I in the lives of a spoilt rich-girl sociopath and a man-child liar.

For the handful of people that don’t know, Gone Girl is written as a dual narrative, the story of the disappearance of Amy Elliott Dunne told from her perspective and her husband’s, Nick.

Gone Girl’s very addictiveness makes it one of those uncomfortable reads where you’re more interested in what’s going to happen next then what’s happening now. For the most part Flynn kept me in the present, but when the plot hit a speedbump (and it did that a few times) I would peak a few pages ahead to reassure myself that this was going to be worth the investment.

The pace is relentless; Flynn mostly manages to hold the plot reins tight, although she lets the pace slacken at times, especially during Nick’s narrative.

We’re all met a Nick; good-looking, lazy, thinks life should be about what he wants to do, not what he should do. He’s what everyone would describe as ‘a good guy’, which behind closed doors means average and child-like. He whines constantly that the evil internets stole his job as an entertainment journalist and, when the big media guns come out, confuses his former job of film reviewer with crime reporting. The part where he confesses to holding himself up in a garage to read his old magazine as he ‘misses it’ was pitiful. He’s a bully and a narcissist who wants nothing more than his own way at all times. I couldn’t stand him.

But I liked Amy. She’s an absolute nutter, sure, and not ideal friend material – in fact I wouldn’t want her within a mile of me. But as a character in a thriller she’s great company; ballsy, hugely intelligent, self-aware, knows people better than they know themselves and doesn’t suffer fools. She’s ambitious and wants people to be better than they are. Even if I can’t relate to her actions, I could relate to some of her frustrations.

The key to enjoying Gone Girl is to suspend all belief. The novel’s setting may read like real life – all recession hit suburban America, soccer ‘moms’ and out-of-their-depth Missouri police officers – but Gone Girl is as fantastical as Harry Potter. It’s melodramatic and implausible. Go along with it or continually smack your head into its pages at the ludicrousness of it all.

But in amongst all the bonkers stuff, Flynn sneaks in many a truism. Amy makes several astute demolitions of gender constructs and her observations of the ‘Cool Girl’ phenomenon (women who contow to a male ideal) hits many a disappointing post-feminist nail on the head. The novel also says more about love and marriage than any romantic novel. In short, get comfortable at your peril.

Flynn is guilty of some modern writer’s bad habits including the leaking of her own opinions into the mouths of their characters; little (bracketed) asides that chime oddly. The whole ‘the internet (or the Internet as Americans call it) killed journalism theme was embarrassing and rang untrue in the mouth of a 34-year-old man who lived in Brooklyn. At nearly 500 pages long, this is not a novel that needs any extra padding. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Flynn was made redundant from Entertainment Weekly in 2009. Clearly, despite the huge success of her novels, it stills stings.

Gone Girl’s popularity is easy to understand, it’s everything a good thriller should be, a gripping page-turner with a cast of goodies and badies, enough clues to think you know what’s coming and enough twists to keep you guessing. It’s a smart, easy read. If you haven’t already, it’s worth jumping into Flynn’s crazy world and discovering for yourself what all the fuss is about.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

Before I go to sleep

Proper grown up psychological thrillers set in worlds we recognise but hope never to inhabit are all the fictional rage right now. 

These latest page turners deal with the human as well as the pulse-racing. They aren’t hyperactive, gun-toting tales; no one is dashing around trying to uncover a love letter to Mary Magdalene or rifling through a family’s very dirty laundry with the help of an unhinged hacker. Nor do these new breed of thrillers favour plot over grammar, they don’t rely on hackneyed phrases or an over reliance on a thesaurus. The are, to use a hackneyed phrase, un-put-a-down-able, (yuck) without tripping over themselves with adjectives and unravelling plots.

Before I Go To Sleep, published in 2011, is the debut novel from S.J. Watson and one of the first of these wave of thrillers. It’s set to be made into a film starring Nicole Kidman as the lead. It’s a taut, tight, claustrophobic read about what it is to lose your memory and, with it, your life, or at least the one you know – or, rather – don’t know.

Following a traumatic accident forty-seven-year-old Christine wakes up every day believing she’s still 20 and that the man lying next to her is her latest one night stand. But he’s not. He reassures her every morning that he is her husband, Ben. There are photos of the two of them lining the bathroom mirror in an attempt to reconstruct those lost years. He writes notes on a blackboard in the kitchen to prompt her to do things she will have forgotten to do.

Christine’s world is small when we first meet her, shrunk to just her and her husband, but it’s about to grow bigger. She is called ‘out of the blue’ (although he had – or had he? – contacted her before) by a Dr Nash, a neuro-specialist who wants to help – and study – Christine’s strange case. He encourages her to keep a diary, and it’s this diary that forms the novel. The journal enables Christine to piece together the missing years of her life and uncover lies that she’s been erasing with every sleep.

Christine lost in a fug of nothing instinctively trusts no one and the diary at first confuses her, her instinct is all out of wack. And as our only guide, we as the reader, are equally as mistrustful of those around her.

There aren’t so much twists as slight meanders and it’s all the better for it. This doesn’t feel like a novel where the ending was written first and the rest of the plot had to be force down a narrow road of plausibility. The ending is the right one, that ties everything up more or less tightly (there are a few stray threads that I won’t mention for fear of setting off the spoiler alarm).

If you’re looking for a sharp, smart beach read then you could do worse than bung Before I Go To Sleep into your suitcase.

by Suzanne Elliott