A Pudgy Little Spy

With the recent release of A Legacy of Spies I’ve decided to read through all nine of John LeCarré’s George Smiley books. The first seven will be re-reads for me, but last time I read them a bit out of order and spread out over several years so I’ll get a more coherent story this time. George Smiley is a stodgy, wistful little academic who is happier studying obscure German poets than moving (and sacrificing) human chess pieces during the Cold War. Unfortunately, his brilliant mind and sense of loyalty continually pull him back into the world of “The Circus” (basically, MI6). Here are mini-reviews of the first three books:

Title: Call for the Dead
John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 172 (including 15-page intro)
Rating: 4 of 5

A member of the Foreign Office commits suicide after a seemingly positive interview with George Smiley following an anonymous denunciation. Details just don’t add up, and the more Smiley examines the matter the less sense it makes. Smiley has a more actively-in-the-field investigative role in this book than he does in many of the others, but it is a good introduction to his character (as well as his protege Peter Guillam  and a major character from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). The style and themes are fairly typical of the other Smiley novels with plenty of twists and turns, not a lot of high action, and a clear depiction of the ugly human cost of the Cold War spy game.

Title: A Murder of Quality
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Murder Mystery
Pages: 173 (including 15 page intro)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is the odd one out of the George Smiley books in that it has nothing to do with international espionage. We find Smiley, during one of his not-employed-by-the-Circus phases, pulled into the investigation of a murder at a prestigious boarding school. Despite being purely a murder mystery, LeCarré preserves the same world-weary tone as his other books. I must say that from the writings of Charles Dickens, C. S. Lewis, and John LeCarré I have a pretty dim view of English boarding schools since they are consistently portrayed as havens of snobbery, brutality, and other perversity. Overall, this is a decent mystery that indulges in some cutting social commentary and does some character development of George Smiley, but it is probably completely skippable if you’re in this purely for the spy stuff.

Title: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 240
Rating: 5 of 5!

This is THE Cold War spy novel! It features an intricate chess game between the Circus and the Abteilung (LeCarré’s version of East German Intelligence) centering around a plot to eliminate the head of the Abteilung. George Smiley is very much in the background of this book, doing things behind the scenes as others take center stage. In addition to a masterful plot where nothing is as it seems, the book delves into concerns about the brutal pragmatism and wastefulness of human life by both sides. The spy business is ugly and LeCarré is perfectly willing to point it out without offering nice pat answers that make us feel good about the moral superiority of “our side.” If you only ever read one Cold War espionage novel, this is the one to read! It can definitely be read by itself, but, if you have the time, the relatively short Call for the Dead provides helpful backstory that makes for a richer reading experience.

Poirot’s First

Title: The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 178
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Hercule Poirot is already in fine form in this, his first novel. The small, dandyish Belgian with a penchant for spouting off French phrases sails through this case of poisoning at the manor house with aplomb. At times, I find Poirot’s smugness and withholding of relevant information until right before “the big reveal” to be a bit annoying, but fans of the little detective should enjoy this.

The case itself is entertaining enough. There are plenty of believable suspects with good motives and a few red herrings to keep you guessing (the narrator falls for all of them, of course). What actually happened is fairly convoluted, but not to the point of being completely unbelievable. Overall: an enjoyable “cozy mystery.”

A Condescending Whodunnit

Title: I Am Providence
Nick Mamatas
Genre: Mystery (with a touch of Cosmic Horror)
Pages: 256
Rating: 2.5 of 5

A Lovecraftian, nihilistic worldview underlies much of the narration, in this book, but this is no Lovecraft pastiche. It is primarily a murder mystery set at a Comic Con style gathering of Lovecraftian writers and fans. The book as a whole lampoons fandom in general and Lovecraftians in particular. I recognized characters who were clearly S. T. Joshi and Robert M. Price and if I were more into this particular fandom I’m sure I would have gotten other in-jokes. While the satirical portrayal of rabid fandom was fairly amusing at times, it felt just plain mean spirited and condescending for the most part. With very few exceptions, the convention-goers (and Lovecraft fans in general) are portrayed as creepy white male social outcasts who spout racism, sexism, and/or some other form of prejudice…apparently if you like Lovecraft’s fiction you’re likely to be as horrible of a person as he was.

The story is narrated from two points of view: the first-person lingering/disintegrating  consciousness of the murder victim (probably the creepiest/cleverest part of the book), and a third person account which follows a first time convention-goer who is a female author (one of only three at the convention) and proud vegan (which has next to nothing to do with the plot but is mentioned repeatedly and self-righteously). Both characters reminded me unpleasantly of Holden Caulfield in the foul-mouthed, derogatory way that they talked/thought about practically everyone else; an impression heightened by the dead guy having written a mashup called Catcher in R’lyeh. The mystery itself was okay with the resolution striking exactly the right note for a Lovecraftian book. Overall, everyone in the book was so unpleasant that this just wasn’t a very enjoyable read.

Holmes + Wooster = Wimsey

Related imageTitle: Lord Peter Views the Body
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 281
Rating: 4 of 5

Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey could be described as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster. This creation of Dorothy L. Sayers (friend of C. S. Lewis and his fellow Inklings) is a somewhat dandyish bibliophile with a keen analytical mind that he uses to solve crime as sort of a hobby (assisted by his talented butler, Bunter).

Unlike most of the Peter Wimsey books, this one is a collection of short stories. In some of them the “whodunit” is fairly obvious, but the light, breezy style and frequent literary references make them worth reading anyway. There was, perhaps, a bit more humor in this collection than in the novel-length stories, but I think it was a nice tradeoff for the complexity that is lost in the short story format. Overall: well worth reading for fans of “cozy mysteries” or the Inklings.

Murder in Chicago

The Fabulous Clipjoint: A Mystery/Detective, Post-1930, Pulp Classic By Fredric Brown! AAA+++Title: The Fabulous Clipjoint
Author: Fredric Brown
Genre: Mystery/Noir
Pages : 168
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I needed a break from philosophical C. S. Lewis reading so I grabbed something from my go-to escapist genre: mystery/crime from the 1920’s-50’s.

There was nothing fancy about this book; no snappy dialogue like Hammett or Chandler and no steadily building dread like Goodis or Woolrich. However, it had a decent plot with some good twists and turns. The story follows 18-year-old Ed Hunter as he and his Uncle Ambrose (a carnie) try to track down his father’s killer in Chicago. The tale features the usual noir fiction assortment of drunks, gangsters, crooked cops, and a femme fatale or two. I guessed whodunnit pretty early on, but there were enough red herrings and obscure motives that I didn’t get bored with it. There is also the added interest of this being something of a “coming of age tale” for Ed. I was a little disappointed that the carnie angle didn’t play into the story as much as I’d hoped, but I guess you can only fit so much into 168 pages. Overall: exactly the kind of escapist read I was hoping for.

Faux-Gothic Disappointment

Cadbury's Coffin by [Swarthout, Glendon, Swarthout, Kathryn]Title: Cadbury’s Coffin
Authors: Glendon & Kathryn Swarthout
Genre: Mystery / Gothic
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

I picked this up at a used bookstore because it sounded like it might be amusing, but it ended up being a bit of a disappointment. The story revolves around the death (maybe) of rich old Lycurgus Cadbury who died (or did he?) shortly after expressing a fear of premature burial.

A slightly tongue-in-cheek faux Gothic story of scheming relatives and faithful servants ensues. Some of it was entertaining and clever, but the overall plot was boringly predictable for the first 3/4 of the book. The predictability is partly because of the writing and partly because most chapters begin with a captioned illustration many of which are spoilers for the major action that will happen in that chapter.

There is a nice twist toward the end (not in a clever “everything you think you know is wrong” way; just fate intervening), and the book suddenly turns into a sort of coming-of-age tale that kind of works but also feels a bit disjointed. Overall: there was some cleverness here, but so much of it was boringly predictable (and not in the funny “we all know I’m mocking Gothic tropes” kind of way that I think the author was going for).

Philip Marlowe in Fantasyland

Introducing Garrett, P. I.
(Omnibus containing Sweet Silver Blues, Bitter Gold Hearts, Cold Copper Tears)
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Hardboiled Detective / Fantasy
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Glen Cook’s wisecracking private investigator fits right in with Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and the rest of the hardboiled detective crowd from the Dime Detective and Black Mask era. The only difference is that he lives in a world inhabited by elves, trolls, sorcerers, vampires, and such. Before I got this book for my birthday I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but thought that it might be something in the satirical farce family (something along the lines of Discworld).

It turns out that Cook plays the story pretty straight. The humor comes mostly from Garrett’s smart mouth and quirky associates as it does in most decent detective fiction. The world is well-constructed with its own politics, religions, etc. that (mostly) do not ape the real world in a ham-fisted satire kind of way. The plots are fairly messy with the occasional loose end, but mostly in the way that characterizes pulp detective stories rather than being due to poor writing.

Garrett’s womanizing and cynicism toward faith made me cringe occasionally, but overall I greatly enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more in the series.