Books Read in 2021 – 22 The Killing Habit – Mark Billingham.

Genre: Detective, thriller

Narrative Style: Third person from various viewpoints, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2018

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: When Tom Thorne is given a series of cat killings to investigate, he doesn’t take it too seriously at first. Until he realises that it may be the work of serial killer between kills. Nicola Tanner is investigating what seems like a straight forward shooting. All the evidence points at one man. One man who is isn’t acting quite like she would expect for one who is so clearly guilty.

Time on Shelf: Not very long. I read the first one of this series a long time ago. I enjoyed it and I meant to carry on reading them. This did not happen. This one is much more recent but I bought it when it came up on Kindle daily deals with the intention of deciding if it was worth trying to read the series. After all, these books tend to stand well on their own – I read Rankin’s Rebus books in completely random order, starting somewhere in the middle and that seemed fine.

First of all, Tom Thorne is definitely my kind of detective. He does not always follow the rules. He is often in disagreement with those higher up the pay scale. He ploughs his own furrow. These are all the reasons that I like John Rebus quite so much. Added into that are interesting personal relationships with his girlfriend, Helen, and her sister who seems to hate him and his best mate, pathologist, Phil Hendricks who loves to wind everybody up. It might have helped to know a little more about Helen and what had happened in her past – the sort of details that move from book to book in such series – but I don’t think it was really a hindrance.

Both storylines were satisfying. Based on the location of the cat murders, Tom and his team find several unsolved murders of women. They find that they were all registered at the same dating agency and, in fact, had all been on dates the night before their murders. It unfolds nicely with a couple of satisfying red herrings along the way. I didn’t spot the killer although the clues were there if you were sharp enough and that was also good.

The other storyline – which sees Nicola Tanner taking on an extremely powerful drug ring – was also interesting if less intriguing. Andrew Evans comes out of prison hoping to turn his life around but the drugs he took in prison need paying for and soon he is doing jobs in order to pay of his debts. When he is found guilty of a murder he had no part in, he is taken into protective custody and Tanner tries everything she can to try and get at the gang.

This trots along at a nice pace and the prose is largely good. Occasionally, the dialogue feels a bit forced but for the most part Tom Thorne is convincing. I would certainly read more of this series and maybe I will endeavour to do it in the right order.

Books Read in 2021 – 20. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Genre: LGBT, Romance, Literary fiction

Narrative Style: First person, non-chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1956

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: David is about to board a train to Paris but he is paralysed by memories of his relationship with Giovanni who, it transpires, is about to be executed. David thinks back over their relationship and his relationship with his girlfriend, Hella who has now returned to the US, trying to understand how he and Giovanni came to have such a tragic story.

Time on shelf: I’ve wanted to read this since I was at university some thirty years ago but I only purchased a copy in the last six months.

Maybe I waited too long to read this book because I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I spent most of the time feeling irritated by David and wishing he would sort himself out which was hardly fair. I felt a lot of sympathy for Giovanni and his tragic end but ultimately I didn’t connect with this story as much as I thought I would.

It is beautifully written. Baldwin’s prose slowly and surefootedly explores David’s history and his psyche. We learn of his early experiences with a fellow teenager called Joe which shake him up so badly that he is unable to acknowledge such feelings within himself when he meets Giovanni some years later. He starts running away from himself at this point and never really catches up.

The description of David’s difficulties in coming to terms with his sexuality are painful to read. It is so difficult to see him refuse to be drawn into loving Giovanni even though it is clear that he feels something for him. At one point Giovanni says ‘You do, sometimes, remind me of the kind of man who is tempted to put himself in prison in order to avoid being hit by a car’ which accurately sums David’s behaviour up. He hides himself away in preparation for the hurt he feels will come.

Hella comes back from Spain and David abandons Giovanni. He makes himself take the socially acceptable route, still running away from what he feels are the unacceptable aspects of his sexuality. He begins to notice what he calls ‘fairy’ mannerisms in Giovanni when they meet up, a manifestation of his uncomfortableness with his past relationship with him. Hella and David move to the south of France as they are now to be married but it starts to feel inevitable that David will realise that he cannot marry her and that it will be too late for Giovanni.

The ending was tragic but it didn’t upset me as much as I thought it might. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m getting too old to have much patience with the sort of willful stupidity that David displays in his refusal of Giovanni. Nonetheless, it is an important novel putting sexuality, gender, alienation and nationality under the lens and examining them without mercy.

Books Read in 2021 – 19. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic, Dystopia,

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Published: 1955

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: After some sort of nuclear war, the world is living in fear of genetic mutations. When David discovers he has his own mutation – he can communicate telepathically – he has to try and keep it secret so he won’t be rooted out as an abomination.

Time on shelf: This was a loan. When we were putting this list together, we watched Britain’s Favourite Novel on Channel 5. The Day of the Triffids was on the list but I had already read that and all the other John Wyndham we have (Chocky and The Kraken Wakes) so I asked my in-laws to loan me this one.

This was very enjoyable. Wyndham doesn’t give any details about what happened because David is a child at the beginning and so doesn’t really understand what might have happened. He just knows that his community worship the perfect image as being holy and anything that deviates is sinful. There is some talk about the ‘old people’ but no one really knows much about them.

We see what happens to those who are different when it is discovered that his friend, Sophie, has six toes. David has been keeping this secret for while. He doesn’t really understand why it’s such an issue. It seems like such a small thing but when another boy realises and tells the authorities, her family have to leave immediately for fear she will be killed.

David has his own secret to keep. He is able to communicates telepathically with a small group of other children including his half-cousin, Rosalind, who he later falls in love with. They keep their secret well until one of the group decides to get married. She is unable to keep the secret from her husband but before he can do anything, he is murdered.

David’s sister, Petra grows up to be an incredibly strong telepath, so much so that when she is in trouble, she is able to call the others to her. When this raises suspicions, two of the group are captured and tortured and the rest of them go on the run. Petra becomes able to detect other telepaths in country called Zealand which is very far away. She asks the Zealanders to rescue them.

Zealand is a country where telepathy is the norm. They ‘think together’. There the non-telepathic are shunned and the telepaths see themselves as the future. They come and rescue David and his friends, killing a lot of innocent people in the process. Something they don’t seem too concerned about.

As is the way with The Day of the Triffids, although David is safe at the end, there are issues with the Zealanders. They happily kill many while helping David, Petra and the others escape, they think they are the ultimate in evolution and have no sympathy for those they consider to be lesser. They are no different from David’s parents in some ways, so sure they are the only true form.

This was perhaps the strangest of Wyndham’s books that I have read so far. It was further removed from reality than the others have been in its setting and I didn’t find it as gripping as some of the others but the questions it brought up and the things it made me think about made it a worthwhile read.

Books Read in 2021 – 18. How Not To Be Wrong: The Art of Changing Your Mind – James O’Brien.

Genre: cultural comment, autobiography / memoir

Narrative style: first person essay

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2020

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: O’Brien takes the reader through his own process of changing his mind in a deeply personal analysis of the current political situation.

Time on Shelf: About three months.

My relationship with James O’Brien has changed over the years. When I first came across him, he seemed to epitomise the very angry right wing pundits he is so fond of destroying these days. He was clearly a very angry man and angry in a way that was hurtful and mean. I didn’t take a lot of notice of him if truth be told. Then at some point around Brexit, I noticed I was agreeing with him more and more. It didn’t seem that odd. The world had gone insane. James O’Brien becoming the voice of reason was just one more proof of it. I had no idea that he had been through such an intensely personal change of mind. That is what he outlines in this book.

There is no doubt that there are a lot of people in society, in the media, on social media, that are very reluctant to change their minds. You can see it in the people who keep supporting Trump and Johnson even though they have not delivered on their promises and they are clearly prejudiced. It is not just the right either. There are any number of people who still adore Jeremy Corbyn even though he presided over the worst labour loss in the party’s history. The sort of people who when faced with accusations of anti-Semitism in the labour party say but what about islamophobia in the Tory party. As if the one cancelled out the other. You have to examine your own ideas and opinions. It isn’t weakness. It’s the very definition of growth.

O’Brien takes the reader through his own personal journey of learning how to change his mind. He analyses his old opinions and tries to work out where they have come from. It is important, he suggests, to consider, not only the ideas but where they have come from. What is there emotional resonance of this opinion? Does this have anything to do with why people are holding on so tightly to these opinions?

O’Brien lays himself open here. He shares transcripts of old radio conversations from when earlier in his career which are quite hard to read. He takes them apart as if he is one of his own callers. He is willing for the reader to see his weaknesses but also to understand the importance of the process of his personal growth and how examining our opinions could help to change the current, deeply divided world we live in. An excellent read for anyone concerned about the current cultural situation.

Books Read in 2021-17. The Burning Page – Genevieve Cogman

Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk

Narrative Style: Third person from Irene’s point of view

Published: 2016

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Gates back to the library start to malfunction by bursting into flames. Irene receives a message from Alberich about the future of the library. Vale has started to hit the opium in order to combat the dose of chaos he received in Venice. Irene thinks someone is trying to kill her. When another friend from Venice appears and is need of help, Irene isn’t sure what to do or who to trust.

Time on shelf: About a month.

Part of me isn’t sure why I keep reading this series. They are always okay but never more than that. The premise of the linked giant library and librarians collecting unique books from multiple universes is appealing but the actual books do not quite live up to it. I think I keep hoping the next one will be better.

One of the problems for me is a prime example of the idea of something outweighing its execution. As a librarian, Irene is able to use the language. This enables her to be able to control things by communicating to them in the language. This means that doors unlock for her and walls tumble down, to name but two examples. Great – and very clever – but for me, it quickly led to a lack of tension. Oh Irene’s in trouble but it’s okay she can use the language to get out of it. Okay, so there is some fun to be had in exactly how she uses it or how she will get of trouble if, for one reason or another, she can’t use the language but not enough. And, anyway, that is where Kai comes in.

In the first novel, we discover that Kai is a dragon who can take human form. Among his skills is his ability to control water. He can also manifest in his dragon from. So if Irene can’t save the day, you can bet Kai can. Most of the action in this book was from Irene’s point of view and she was intent on not accepting help from her friends. She runs headlong into a fight with archenemy, Alberich. Of course, Kai and Vale appear just in time to help rescue Irene. An alternate plot line from their point of view would have made this feel a bit less clumsy.

I know that one of the reasons I keep reading is the hope of some romance – either between Kai and Irene or between Vale and Irene. Cogman drops hints and she even allowed Vale and Irene a kiss this time (although it came to nothing) but there is never anything firm. I understand that it keeps readers interested but this is the third book and there is still nothing. I’m not sure I will find it necessary to carry on.

Overall, then, a reasonable adventure. The ideas, as always, are quite clever. But no overall tension. I never for one minute thought that Irene might perish. I would also like to see more of Kai and Vale as they are both as interesting as Irene. At the minute, I am unsure if I will continue. After enough time, I will probably think, well, maybe it will be better this time.

Books Read in 2021 – 16. Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Genre: Adventure, Classics, Madness

Narrative Style: First person but with soliloquies, encyclopedic entries and stage plays.

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1851

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Ishmael is looking to join the crew of a whaling ship. When he agrees to join the crew of the Pequod, he is warned by the strange and slightly scary Elijah that he may be making a mistake. Ishmael ignores this warning and sails away under Captain Ahab who is obsessed with capturing the great white whale, Moby Dick.

Time on Shelf: This is one of the books we seem to have had forever. I’m not sure whether my husband bought it or if I did. Certainly, it has been there every time we’ve moved house suggesting it’s been with us for about twenty years.

This was a strange book. In some ways, it was exactly as you might expect – an adventure where a focused to the point of insanity captain takes his crew on a chase across the oceans hoping to gain revenge on the whale that took his leg. However, if it was only that, it would be a much shorter book. There are also long chapters on the nature of whales, on their biology and psychology, there are chapters written as scenes and soliloquies from a play. This is anything but a straight forward boys own adventure.

For a start, it is a good way in before Ishmael even gets on the ship. First of all, he arrives in New Bedford, needing a room for the night. The inn is overcrowded and he ends up spending the night with Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal who declares the next day that he and Ishmael are no married as they have spent the night together. There are a lot of detailed descriptions of Queequeg and his tattoos, as well as the other men at the inn, that seem full of longing. At first, Ishmael is nervous of Queequeg but he soon decides that it is better to ‘sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian’ and they decide to sail together. Once they have decided to sail on the Pequod, they are followed by Elijah who warns them against sailing with Captain Ahab, a warning they do not heed.

Captain Ahab proves to be focused on one thing only: revenge. Although they catch other whales – and we get in depth descriptions of the process – the real purpose of the voyage is to catch Moby Dick. Along the way, the Pequod meets nine other ships, all of which either add to the tension of trying to find Moby Dick or show some facet of Ahab’s personality. For example, they meet a captain who has lost his arm to the whale as Ahab has lost his leg. Later, they meet a ship whose captain is desperately trying to find his son who was in one of the whaling boats and is now missing. Ahab refuses to stop and help so focused is he on the search for the whale. This was a clever structural device, keeping the reader interested and showing Ahab’s growing mania.

Personally, I could have done without the descriptions of types of whales and the processes of whaling. As when I read 20000 Leagues Under The Sea, I felt they broke up the narrative and slowed down the pace. Not that they weren’t well written, they were and they give rise to questions such as what is a whale and indeed attempt to answer that question from different perspectives such as the whaleman, the philosopher and the scientist but they were still not really what I wanted from a work of fiction.

There is much to like about Moby Dick. It was easy to read and when there was action, it was well paced and exciting. The characters were suitably strange and intriguing and Ahab was completely monstrous. It described a range of different races, generally living in harmony, which was surely unusual in a book of that time. The ending was apt given Ahab’s insanity and determination to get the whale. I’m glad I read it but it will certainly be a while before I even think about whales again.

Books Read in 2021 – 15. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Genre: Chick Lit

Narrative Style: Third person omniscient narrator

Published: 2017

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, arrive in Shaker Heights, a carefully planned, quiet suburb, with the intention of at last settling down. Pearl immediately makes friends with Moody Richardson, the son of their landlord, Elena Richardson and he quickly introduces her to the rest of his family. The Warrens are different from the sort of people who usually live in Shaker Heights. Mia is an artist, a nomad and she doesn’t fit the Shaker norm. Soon the equilibrium of this placid suburb is shaken.

Time on Shelf: About a year. People seemed to love this book and the TV series so I decided to give it a go.

Let’s start with what was good about this book. I’m always a bit of a sucker for a outsider arrives in suburbia and shakes it up a bit sort of story. I know it’s a cliche but it is so enjoyable to watch safe comfortable people suddenly see a different side of life. Mia Warren, it is immediately clear, is the very person to do this. We don’t meet Mia properly straightaway but are given glimpses of her through the eyes of Pearl. Pearl has to explain why Mia doesn’t have a proper job but works part time in a Chinese restaurant in order to have some money but also have time for art. They have never settled anywhere before but Mia has promised that this time they will and Pearl immediately begins to put down roots. Mia is clearly different from women like Elena Richardson with their careful plans which always come to fruition and their seemingly perfect families.

At the start, it seems like this is going to be a story about Moody and Pearl. Moody is a likeable character, lacking the confidence of his older brother, Trip, who falls for Pearl almost immediately. Their friendship was sweet and I was quite taken by it and the ways meeting the Richardsons’ and seeing how the other half live affected Pearl who had never really had any friends before, never mind affluent ones. However, this was not the novel’s focus for long as we start to hear more from the adults.

This was one of the problems with this novel for me. At the beginning, when Mrs Richardson wakes up and realises that her house is on fire, she knows instantly that her daughter Izzy is responsible. I thought that this might be a focus along with Pearl and Moody’s relationship. But it isn’t. Apart from the backstory of why Mrs Richardson found it so hard with Izzy, there really isn’t much about it. This seems a shame as Izzy is the black sheep – like Mia she doesn’t fit the Shaker Heights’ mould. Instead, we get Mia’s backstory, Mr and Mrs Richardson’s backstory even the backstory of the family friends, the McCullochs who have adopted a Chinese baby after years of fertility struggles. A lot of this is in long flashbacks which I felt interrupted the narrative flow.

The story is an interesting one which touches on many issues around the idea of motherhood – surrogacy, transracial adoption, abortion, the idea of what it means to be a mother. It may be that this moral overload was just too much for the story to handle. Especially given that it clearly sets out what the reader is supposed to think.

Transracial adoption is a difficult issue and the writer does show both sides of the argument. Battle lines are drawn and the reader is clearly meant to side with Mia who thinks the baby should be returned to its mother. And, of course, when the people on the other side say they don’t see race and think that giving the child Chinese food is all they need to do to teach the child about its culture then it is easy to make that decision. It’s very easy to make moral decisions when the writer makes everything black and white. The only thing the McCullochs really have going for them is the fact they have money and, of course, that is what wins that day.

This is another problem. The writer knows what she wants the reader to think and she makes sure that is what they think. She doesn’t allow the reader to make up their own minds about the characters. I found this irritating. I’m capable of making my own moral decisions. I must admit that by the end of this, I didn’t really like any of the characters. Really no one comes out of this covered in glory. Mia and Pearl are on the run again. Mia, for all the writer seems to want to place her in the role of perfect mother, has made some frankly disturbing decisions and is far from being morally perfect. Of course, as is the way of these stories, after the damage has been done the outsider needs to go but I would have found it more satisfying if she had stayed and faced the music for once.

The worst thing for me though, and the main reason it didn’t get a higher rating was the way the narrative voice shifted viewpoints. It was incredibly annoying. A paragraph might start from one point of view and then, because there was something the reader needed to know, it would shift viewpoint so we could get that knowledge. Then it might shift back to the first viewpoint or it might shift again. I know that with third person narration, you get shifting viewpoints but the number of times this might happen in a short space of time was disorientating and, again, interrupted the narrative flow.

Overall, this wasn’t a bad read. All of the characters were changed by their interaction which was pleasing. It’s not a new story and it’s not a subtle one but it did hold my interest.

Books Read in 2021 – All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

Genre: War

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1929

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Paul and his classmates are goaded by their teacher to join up and they are quickly shipped off to the front. Paul is able to stay with some of his classmates and he also meets Kat, an older soldier who becomes a mentor like figure to him. The battles are brutal and affect the soldiers mentally as well as physically. They are still young and the only life they have experienced is that of the front.

Time on Shelf: This has been on my list of things to read for a long time but I only recently acquired a copy.

This is a book I’ve been wanting to read for a while. I’ve read a lot of World War One literature (the Regeneration Trilogy, Strange Meeting by Susan Hill and The Absolutist by John Boyne being some of the best) and Wilfred Owen is one of my favourite poets, It was high up on the list of books I needed to acquire. Just before Christmas, it came up on my Kindle Daily Deal and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I read it.

As soon as I started to read it, I knew I was going to enjoy it. Paul’s narrative voice was compelling. He describes the battles and his thoughts and feelings with the same careful detail. It is impossible not to feel for him. He is only nineteen. He has known no life apart from the front. Unlike Kat, and the older soldiers, the boys have no knowledge of the outside world apart from their time at school. They have no wives or girlfriends waiting for them. One of Paul’s friends tries to cling to the idea of education, even going so far as to still be muttering formula when they are under fire. He can imagine an after the war which Paul cannot. It does him no good. He dies from a wound from a flare gun. Later on, on the death of another classmates, Paul says, “What use is it to him now that he was such a good mathematician in school?”

They were thrown into an intolerable situation. They had no knowledge of strategy (if indeed there was any) and none of the battles are named. Paul comments that they aren’t fighting the enemy but both sides are fighting death. They kill the enemy merely because if they don’t, they themselves will be killed, not because of any nationalistic fervour. I was often reminded of Owen’s poetry and particularly Dulce et Decorum Est. It is nowhere near fine and fitting to die for one’s country. It is painful, brutal and unnecessary. Towards the end, Paul says ‘Our hands are earth, our bodies mud and our eyes puddles of rain. We no longer know whether we are still alive or not.’ The soldiers are no longer completely human. They are weapons. They are the war itself.

There are lighter moments. Much is made of the camaraderie of Paul, Kat and the school friends. Kat is described as having a sixth sense when it comes to finding the things that they need. When they need straw for their mattresses, he finds some, also bringing horsemeat, fat and a pan to cook it in. Another time, Paul and Kat find and kill two geese, taking the meat to other of their party who were being punished for insubordination. One day, they are swimming in the river when they see some girls and they arrange to meet later. As the soldiers were not allowed on the girls’ side of the river, they have to take their uniforms off and swim naked to them, carrying their gifts of food above their heads.

All this just makes it more tragic when, one by one, Paul’s friends are killed off – each in a slightly different way. There is an infinite variety of ways to die on the front. Baum is blinded. He is thought to be dead but the next day he is seen wandering around no man’s land. He is shot before he can be rescued. Mueller is shot in the stomach. Westhaus is shot in the back and Paul can see his lungs as he breathes. Even soldiers that seem out of the war are not safe from death. Detering deserts but is picked up by the military police and is never seen again. Kropp is injured and he and Paul spend time in hospital together. Kropp ends up having his leg amputated. He vows to kill himself but when Paul leaves the hospital he hasn’t because of the camaraderie and the lack of a gun. However, it is strongly implied that he will.

It might sound like hyperbole but this is one of the few times that I’ve thought that this is one of those books that everyone should read. It is deeply affecting and shows the true horrors of warfare, the sacrifice of mere boys for a country’s political ambitions and the emptiness of blind nationalism. A must read.

Books Read in 2021 – 12. The Problem with Men: When is International Men’s Day? (And Why It Matters)

Genre: Comedy, Cultural comment

Narrative Style: Essay interspersed with personal anecdotes

Rating: 4/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2021

Synopsis: On International Women’s Day, for the last few years, Richard Herring has taken it upon himself to deal with all the men on Twitter who want to know why there is no International Men’s Day. This book is the result of those interactions. He discusses why International Men’s Day is important, why men choose to ask about it on March 8th and what the wider political ramifications might be. In a humorous way, of course.

Time on Shelf: Not very long. I bought this earlier this year when it was on sale on Kindle for 0.99.

I like Richard Herring. He’s funny. I went to see his show, Talking Cock, in 2003 and it is one of the best comedy shows I’ve seen. I’ve always appreciated his efforts on International Women’s Day with all the annoying men who are only concerned with making the day about them. This book takes that one step further – looking at the reasons why these men insist on inserting themselves into International Women’s Day and what the wider ramifications are.

This is a simple book. It has one line of argument and it sounds very much like Richard Herring’s comedy style. And that is fine. It analyses the reasons why some men only want to know about International Men’s Day on International Women’s Day something which has always irritated me.

There are a number of levels at which this behaviour is problematic. First of all, there is the sheer arrogance of it. I don’t need to Google it, I know I’m right. Then there is the fact that these men are not interested enough in the answer to actually take on board when it is. The google statistics show that searches of this question peak on March 8th. It is some perceived injustice that drives them, a need to insert themselves into the narrative. Herring shares a story of himself as a young child having meltdown at another child’s birthday basically because it was not his birthday which sums these men up pretty well, I think.

Of course, as Herring points out, there is a more serious point to be made. These men are representative of a larger political movement that has gained ground over the last few years. When Herring first started advising the men who can’t use Google as to when International Men’s Day was we were yet to witness All Lives Matter and Straight Pride to name but two idiotic and dangerous responses to genuine abuse and injustice. It’s a symptom of the idea that if it’s not about me, it’s not important mindset. Cleverly, the right wing press has pointed white male anger towards oppressed groups rather than towards the oppressors who look so much like them. Herring has one chapter which asks is female equality the same as male equality and the answer is a single word. Yes. This is what these men need to learn.

This was worth reading, definitely as it’s very funny. It’s not very deep but it is successful in getting it’s message across.

Books Read in 2021 11. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John Le Carre (Contains spoilers)

Genre: Spy Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple viewpoints. Non-chronological.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1974

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: There is a mole in the upper levels of the British intelligence service. It is clear that it is one of a small group of men, currently in charge of the Circus (MI6). But which one. George Smiley, recently retired and so outside of the service, is given the job of investigating.

Time on shelf: Not long. I bought this not long after Le Carre died. I haven’t read much spy fiction and what I had read I didn’t love. (The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming and The Swimmer by Joakim Zander, for example.) They seemed to turn on acts of immense stupidity or the opposite – the narrator having so much knowledge that it is almost superhuman. Neither option is much fun. However, Le Carre is described as a master of the art so I thought if I was ever going to like this genre, this was a good place to start.

From the start of this novel, Le Carre’s skill as a writer is apparent. The opening line (The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.) throws you straight into the story. You are in the middle of something that is already in full flow and you have no idea what is going on. The narrative continues at pace and for quite a while, I was completely at sea, trying to make links, pull together events.

George Smiley has recently been retired when the novel starts. Control, the old head of The Circus has died and quite a few of George’s contemporaries have also been purged as the Circus is taken over by a close knit group of spies who are running an intelligence operation called Witchcraft. This is an intensely secretive operation which is producing suspiciously good information. One day, Smiley comes home to find Peter Guillam waiting in his living room and he is whisked off to permanent secretary, Lacon’s house to meet Rikki Tarr, a field agent with important information. So begin Smiley’s investigations and the reader’s confusion and excitement at the events that follow.

Tarr tells his tale in an extended flashback. Smiley takes quiet note asking astute questions. Afterwards, he is set up in a hotel with Control’s information and begins to work through it methodically, interviewing people as he goes. Smiley is a methodical, careful man. Loyal too, even to the wife who has cheated on him many times, even with close friend and fellow spy, Bill Haydon. Le Carre gives hints and clues to who the mole is and what is actually happening. He does it in just the right amounts and at just the right speed to keep the reader interested. The pacing is perfect.

Le Carre uses a lot of jargon – lamplighters, the Circus, pavement artists, to name but three – which gives the novel an authentic feel. Le Carre worked as a spy and it is evident that he knows what he is talking about. The events, the characters, the style of the narrative voice all have a legitimacy. I thought that this jargon was from his days as a spy but it transpires that Le Carre invented a lot of it and it has then been taken up by actual intelligence agencies. Some, such as mole, have fallen into common usage. It is unclear how widely used this word was in intelligence work before this novel.

There are somethings that made me uncomfortable. It starts to become clear that Bill Haydon is the least trustworthy of the four suspects. This is established in a number of ways. He has a lot of liaisons including with George’s wife. He is described as ‘dashing’ and being like Lawrence of Arabia. It is also suggested that he and Jim Prideaux were more than friends. Jim was ‘always so thick with Bill’. Bill is very keen to have Jim repatriated and threatens to resign when The Circus won’t pay the price. When Bill recruits Jim, Smiley remembers the description of Jim’s physicality that Bill sends and it is intensely homo-erotic. In the logic of the novel, all this adds to Bill’s untrustworthiness and is equal to the way that he is playing on both teams in his professional life as well. At one point someone says ‘they said he went both ways’ and while it is clear they mean sexually, when it transpires he is the mole, the full meaning of it becomes clear.

This is obviously a tired, not to mention offensive, trope. I don’t want to be too hard on Le Carre. He didn’t invent the link between being gay and being untrustworthy. Gay spies were considered to be at a bigger risk of being blackmailed especially when homosexuality was illegal. The novel was written in 1974 and is set in 1973, only six years after the Sexual Offences Act. Not only that but Le Carre would have been working in intelligence in the fifties when Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess suddenly fled to the Soviet Union after sharing secrets throughout the war. Burgess was gay and Maclean was bisexual. It probably seemed logical to Le Carre to frame Bill Haydon in this way but for me it spoiled the reading of what otherwise was a very enjoyable book.

Overall, I think I would read Le Carre again. I enjoyed his style and I enjoyed piecing the puzzle together. I’m still not entirely sure about the genre as a whole though. Now that I’ve read a master at the game, I’m not sure what else could live up to it.