Media roundup: Best mystery/crime/suspense of 2013

December 30, 2013 at 1:56 am (Best of 2013, books, Mystery fiction)

Oline Codgill of the Florida Sun-Sentinel picked her favorites for this year. I’ve only read one title on her list: Crime of Privilege by Walter Walker. This is an excellent legal thriller, which I’d recommend to fans of John Grisham and Scott Turow.  20731105cf64bb5c3f70c02b4ba18ad0

January Magazine had some well known crime fiction aficionados name their favorites. Bill Ott, Booklist’s long time mystery reviewer, has posted his favorites. (This particular list contains three books that I was not able to finish: The Beautiful Mystery, Gone Girl, and The Twenty-Year Death. Ah well – chacun à son goût…)

Library Journal and Publishers Weekly have both posted lists. Of the twelve titles cited by PW, two were also among my favorites for this year: Murder as a Fine Art and How the Light Gets In. Murder-as-a-Fine-Art

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Jessica Mann, a crime fiction author who also critiques crime fiction for the British magazine Literary Review, has chosen her favorite titles for this year. They are as follows: Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton, The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson, Ostland by David Thomas, and The Riot by Laura Wilson. (I recommend A Private Inquiry by Jessica Mann. Her latest novel is Dead Woman Walking.)

inquiry3  Dead woman Walking

I was delighted by NPR’s somewhat idiosyncratic list, not least because Somerset Maugham’s marvelous Ashenden stories share pride of place with other terrific titles, not the least of which is Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, a book I absolutely loved and which I’ve been waiting in vain – until now – to see on one of these lists.  Ashenden5

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I’m similarly pleased with the selections made by Seattle Times Critic Adam Woog. He also picked a book that I thought nobody noticed this year but me: Jo Bannister’s excellent Deadly Virtues. In addition, he includes Play Dead by the wildly original Bill James and The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas, also highly original but in a completely different way. Among the honorable mentions, Woog mentions Hit Me, the latest entry in Lawrence Block’s hugely entertaining series featuring Keller the hit man. (Adam Woog is obviously a person of exceptionally good taste!) 9781250023445_p0_v1_s260x420

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Finally, Carol of Usual Suspects put me on to a nice aggregation at The Rap Sheet.  I was particularly pleased to see Sarah Weinman’s name. Her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind was one of the first crime fiction sites I used to visit regularly. (She’s not blogging there anymore, but she does post from time to time on her Tumblr site, Off on a Tangent.)
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In honor of its sixtieth anniversary, Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association decided to name the all time best crime novel, best series, and best writer of crime fiction. Here are the short lists for each category, with the winner clearly designated:

CWA best ever crime novel

WINNER: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

CWA best ever author

WINNER: Agatha Christie
Raymond Chandler
Arthur Conan Doyle
Reginald Hill
Dashiell Hammett
Dorothy L Sayers
Elmore Leonard
Georges Simenon
PD James
Ruth Rendell

CWA best ever series

WINNER Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle
Adam Dalgleish by PD James
Dalziel & Pascoe by Reginald Hill
Hercule Poirot by Agatha Christie
Morse by Colin Dexter
Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler
Rebus by Ian Rankin
Peter Wimsey by Dorothy L Sayers
Campion by Margery Allingham

The winners represent rather predictable and not particularly adventurous choices. Nevertheless, I was pleased with some of the names and titles that were included on the shortlists. That holds especially true for Reginald Hill, whose On Beulah Height, a bravura piece of work in any genre, will always have pride of place on any “best list” of mine. (And yes, I’m a huge fan of the entire Dalziel and Pascoe series.) On Beulah Height

Reginald Hill

Reginald Hill

Jake Kerridge of the Daily Telegraph makes some interesting observations on the CWA’s selections. He concludes his article with a list of his own devising.

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Best Books of 2013: more lists

December 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm (Best of 2013, books, Magazines and newspapers)

First: a bit of backtracking with regard to the Washington Post. In a previous post, I expressed dismay at the presence of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs on their list of the year’s ten best books. On the other hand, Maureen Corrigan, the Post’s perceptive and eloquent crime fiction specialist, did select Louise Penny’s luminous novel How the Light Gets In for inclusion on that list, thereby, in my humble and extremely biased opinion, partially redeeming it.

And yet, I must again draw attention to another bit of end-of-the-year strangeness on the part of the Post. Their venerable critic Jonathan Yardley named his ten favorites for 2013 and managed not to include a single fiction title! Jonathan, you need to get out more. And what you really need in your reading life is some crime fiction. For years now I’ve been saying that’s where the great writing and terrific storytelling are currently to be found. This year has given me no reason to revise that opinion; if anything, it’s made me more firm in that view. Out of my own list of forty-six favorite titles for 2013, twenty-nine fall under the rubric of mystery/suspense.

At any rate – here are yet more lists:

From the Wall Street Journal: Best nonfiction, Best fiction (Yes I know – There’s The Woman Upstairs again!).

From The New Republic.

NPR tried a somewhat different approach to list making this year.

From The New Yorker. In Part One and Part Two, the editors asked their contributors to name their favorite reading of 2013.

Like The New Yorker, The Guardian asked a variety of writers and critics to name their favorites for 2013.

Library Journal staff named their Top Ten, and More.

Publishers Weekly made their selections, as did Kirkus Reviews. This link will take you to Kirkus’s choices for Best Fiction; in a column on the left, you’ll see links to other categories.

Finally – and I mention this with all due modesty, lowering my gaze, half closing my eyes, etc. – I’ve been “pinned” on Pinterest. I don’t really understand how that works, but I’m grateful anyway (I believe Yvette of In So Many Words is the responsible party!) and, along with innumerable worthy others, I’ve been aggregated – Thanks, Largehearted Boy!

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Next: best mysteries and crime fiction; stay tuned!

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The New York Times and The Washington Post choose the Best Books of 2013

December 22, 2013 at 3:03 pm (Best of 2013, books)

This past Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects held their end-of -year wrap-up meeting. This was an exhilarating experience – meat and drink for this book lover and, I believe, all the others who had the good fortune to be present for the occasion. I’m working on a blog post that will provide the highlights of  the meeting. It will take some time – I do so want to do it justice! – so in the meanwhile, I’ll present links to various Best Books sites:

The ever reliable New York Times posted a notable books list that could serve as a guide to good reading for next several months – or even years. From this group, the Top Ten Books of 2013 were chosen. (Kudos to the editors for including Kate Atkinson’s stunning Life After Life in this highly select company.) life_after_life_cover_p_2013

Of course there was overlap between the Times list and the Washington Post’s selections. I was not quite as enthused about the Post’s roster – fiction and nonfiction – as I was about the Times selections. And I confess I’m perplexed by the inclusion of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs among the Ten Best Books. True, the novel had its memorable moments, but to me it seemed mainly a book length tirade held together – barely -  by a rather contrived plot. Oh well – so much for my little rant. And I almost forgot: I am certainly grateful to the Post for alerting me to The Transylvania Trilogy by Miklos Banffy. This magisterial work was written in Hungarian and published between 1934 and 1940, but it was not translated into English until 1999. I’m inching my way through it and will almost certainly never finish the whole thing, but from what I’ve read of They Were Counted, the first installment, it’s a real gem. oldbanffyIn a piece in The Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore calls Banffy “the Tolstoy of Transylvania.”

Count Miklós Bánffy de Losoncz

Count Miklós Bánffy de Losoncz

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There’s more of Best of 2013 to come, when time permits….

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Best Books of 2013, a personal view

December 13, 2013 at 4:32 pm (Best of 2013, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I guess I can’t postpone it any longer….

Various critics and media outlets have already rendered their judgments. I’ll provide links to those in a subsequent post. Also a reminder: my Best of the Year selections always reflect the best books I’ve read that year, not just those that were published in that calendar year. The list often includes older titles; this year is no exception.

Some months ago, I composed a post in praise of the books I’d enjoyed from January up through June. Rather than providing individual links to those titles yet again, I’ll simply place an asterisk by the ones that I wrote about in that post, which is entitled “June 2013: So far, it’s been a very good year in books.”

As in year’s past, I’ve divided the books into broad categories; within those categories, they’re not in any particular order.

Contemporary Fiction

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The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis
Out of the Black Land by Kerry Greenwood
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
*The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
*A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks
*Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
*When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuko
*The Round House by Louise Erdrich
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch

Comments: The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson are both books that I probably would not have read had they not been book club selections. I liked them both, particularly the Atkinson title, with its unconventional structure and bursts of brilliant writing. I’ve been listening to it, read superbly by Fenella Woolgar. The Bookman’s Tale, on the other hand, was a dark horse, a title I’d never even heard of. In both of these novels, there’s a great deal of jumping back and forth in time. Although I ordinarily prefer a linear narrative in long fiction, I was not duly put off by this disjointedness in either novel. Both writers made very effective use of the flashback technique, although in the case of the Atkinson novel, the device attained an extraordinary degree of complexity. This was off putting for some readers and might have been for me, had I been reading rather than listening.

Here’s an interview with Kate Atkinson:

This year’s classic was The Aspern Papers. Last year’s was The Turn of the Screw. Both are by Henry James, who continues to fascinate by being so brilliantly elusive. I came up what I consider an especially jolly title for a post on The Aspern Papers: “Henry James, Master of Suspense.” What! You may exclaim, Henry James lumped in with the likes of James Patterson, Scott Turow – even, Heaven help us, Dan Brown??!! Now, now, replies Your Faithful Blogger soothingly, not quite. But the creation of suspense in both of the above mentioned narratives is artful and extreme, and in the case of Turn of the Screw, downright terror inducing.

I’ll have more – much more – to say about The Sacred and Profane Love Machine in a later post. This was  actually a rereading for me, as I read this novel when it first came out in the mid 1970s. I just finished it – again – about an hour ago. Suffice it to say for the moment that I am once again in thrall to the sheer brilliance of Iris Murdoch.

Nonfiction

9780374102418_custom-ee9a42e2ad4808c0d3b65458a4adad25b91fb217-s6-c30 how-to-read-literature

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New York Review Book's reissue of Poets in a Landscape. The painting is by Nicolas Poussin.  

anneboleyn5

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer
How To Read Literature, by Terry Eagleton
I Hate To Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman
*The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir
*Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, by James Lasdun
*The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, by Melanie McGrath
*Poets in a Landscape, by Gilbert Highet

Comments: Somehow I never got around to writing about Howard Norman’s book. I Hate To Leave This Beautiful Place is a riveting, beautifully written memoir with surprising Jewish content (surprising – in a welcome way – to me, at least) and a shocker of a final chapter.

Crime and Suspense

Oh boy…

For a while now I’ve maintained that where fiction is concerned, the best plotting, characterization, and writing are currently to be found in this genre. My reading for this year has done nothing to dissuade me from that position; rather, it has served to reinforce my view on the subject.

The Silence of the Wave cover  LOVTOOT01-2

9780802714428_p0_v1_s260x420  “The Ghost Riders of Ordebec” by Fred Vargas (Penguin).

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The Frozen Shroud  foreign

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9781250006943  16115714

hitme2 0547738773

The Silence of the Wave by Ganrico Carofiglio
The Tooth Tattoo by Peter Lovesey
A Murder of Quality by John LeCarre
The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas
Eva’s Eye by Karin Fossum
*The Caller by Karin Fossum
Gift Wrapped by Peter Turnbull
Play Dead by Bill James
Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates
The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards
Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell
Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone
*The Golden Egg by Donna Leon
*The Blackhouse by Peter May
Missing Persons by Stephen White
*Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland
*The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher
*Act of Passion by Georges Simenon
*Hit Me by Lawrence Block
*A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming
*A Private Inquiry by Jessica Mann
*A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake
*Good Bait by John Harvey
*Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers
Boundary Waters by William Kent Krueger
White Heat by M.J McGrath
Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear
How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny
Deadly Virtues by Jo Bannister

Comments: Two of the above were a pleasant surprise: A Murder of Quality by John Le Carre and Murder As a Fine Art by David Morrell. I hadn’t realized that LeCarre’s first two novels feature George Smiley, or that A Murder of Quality is actually a murder mystery in the classic mode rather than a novel of espionage. Furthermore, of LeCarre’s twenty-two works of fiction, George Smiley, one of the world’s most famous fictional spies, is the lead character in only six. (See the entry in Stop! You’re Killing me.)

As for Murder As a Fine Art, I must begin these remarks with an admission. At times, I can be a right snob! (You’re shocked, I’ll bet.) When I learned that Morrell’s novel featured Thomas de Quincey as a main character, I was intrigued. Yet I hesitated. Why? Because among his other literary accomplishments, David Morrell is the creator of Rambo! Was I going to read a novel by the writer who gave us this: SP-3032-bi-RAMBO-STALLONE ?? Obviously the answer is yes. Morrell’s take on De Quincey’s is solidly based on biographical fact. Thomas De Quincey was a strange and fascinating man, and David Morrell has written a terrific literary thriller. (I especially loved Emily, De Quincey’s indefatigable daughter and champion.) murderasafineart

Here’s the entertaining, juiced up video trailer:

Here’s one of my favorite De Quincey quotes:

‘Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.’

At present, there seems to be something of a vogue for Thomas De Quincey.  The above quotation appears at the beginning of The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, a magisterial survey by Judith Flanders that I’m most eager to read. In addition, De Quincey is referenced – in quite a delightful way – in The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards. And The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey by Robert Morrison came out in 2010. I’ve read the first essay in De Quincey’s notorious work On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts, and I can tell you: as outrageous as you think it might be, it’s even more so.

Thomas De Quincey

Thomas De Quincey

This was a good year for historical mysteries. In addition to Murder As a Fine Art, I thoroughly enjoyed The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher and A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. All three of these novels brought England’s past vividly to life.

For sheet entertainment value, I’m indebted as always to Bill James and Lawrence Block. I’m a long time fan of James’s Harpur and Iles series. I’ve  been reading Lawrence Block for years, but with his newest series character, hit man John Keller, Block has achieved  a whole new level of excellence. And that’s saying something for this veteran, a prolific and highly accomplished writer.

In this video, Block provides background to the creation of Keller:

I’m also grateful Charles Cumming, who showed me in A Foreign Country that it’s possible to create n espionage tale with a plot I can actually follow and characters I genuinely care about. Finally, as a crime fiction aficionado who panics periodically about the future of the British police procedural, I deeply appreciate the offerings of Peter Lovesey (Peter Diamond), Peter Turnbull (Hennessey and Yellich), Martin Edwards (Daniel Kind and Hannah Scarlett), and Barry Maitland (Brock and Kolla). Please keep those books coming; I’m depending on you!

I’m barely half way through Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In, but I want to place it on this list anyway. It’s a splendid return to form after its exasperating and sluggish predecessor (The Beautiful Mystery) and I’m loving it.

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There’s plenty of good reading here, but if you pressed me as to which books affected me especially deeply, I would have to say:

The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
The Long Exile
A Murder of Quality
The Tooth Tattoo
Act of Passion

I’d like to single out three titles that stayed with me long after I’d finished them: The Silence of the Wave by Gianrico Carofiglio,  Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape, which itself reads like poetry, and finally The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis, which is not only a great historical novel but a great novel period and one of the profoundest explorations of the mystery of the human heart that I know.

A still from the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre

A still from the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre

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Author Gallery

Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio

George Packer

George Packer

Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey

John Le Carre

John Le Carre

Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates

Janet Lewis

Janet Lewis

petermay

Peter May

Karin Fossum

Karin Fossum

Howard Norman

Howard Norman

Gilbert Highet

Gilbert Highet

Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch

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‘Can I have brought down all this death in life on us, Brookman wondered, through my fondness for a pretty girl?’ – Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone

December 7, 2013 at 2:07 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

17165876  It had been some time since I’d read anything by Robert Stone, but I’ve never forgotten the deep impression that author’s Damascus Gate made on me when I read it in 1998, the year of its publication. Reviews were leading me to believe I should read Stone’s latest, Death of the Black-Haired Girl. I have now done so, and am glad that I did

Let’s stipulate from the outset: Maud Stack, the eponymous black-haired girl, is no angel. In fact, she is not even especially likeable. An undergraduate at an elite small college in New England, young Maud believes that she already knows the answers to life’s great questions. (The fact is, she is not alone in this  conviction: “Sometimes the college could be an incredibly mean place; when the kids reflected it they had the sharp language and the intelligence but no sense and no mercy.”)

Maud also believes that she can engage in an adulterous relationship with one of her professors without endangering her claim to be living an upright life.

Steven Brookman, the professor in the case, is married and the father of a daughter, Sophia. His family life is precious to him – so precious that he decides he must end the affair with Maud. The risk of exposure is simply too great. This is especially true where Sophia is concerned: “Their bantering, fond relationship was a treasure of his life and he dreaded the loss of it.”

(As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of Breaking Bad, specifically of Walter White and his son, Walt Junior. Junior is a good-hearted child who would make any parent proud. Walt is fiercely committed to keeping his depraved criminal activities a secret from this son whom he adores, and who in turn idolizes him. It is a beautiful and inevitably doomed relationship. I’m also thinking of Blaise Gavender and his son David in Iris Murdoch’s riveting novel The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. Heaven save us from these people who assume that life’s blessings are  theirs by right, even – especially? – when they transgress against those blessings in the most blatant and unforgivable way.)

400000000000000503374_s4  From Damascus Gate, I recall Robert Stone’s prose style as blunt, unadorned, and at times devastating. Wielding this skill with its full force, he can startle and sadden in equal measure:

The wise guys always pointed out how you had to have at least two people to have a murder. A famous person had said, “Character is fate.” This was the wise-guy version: A person had made a mistake, they liked to say, and somebody had to pay. They didn’t give a damn about justice, only about restoring their version of the natural order. The victim was always at a disadvantage, being dead and so often unsightly.

At times, God comes into the picture, though He is not always welcome. In her review of this novel in The New York Times, Claire Messud says of Robert Stone that “Graham Greene is in some ways his natural antecedent,” and I think I know what she means.

As for Steven Brookman’s idle query, quoted in the title of this post, one must of course respond in the affirmative, although he is perhaps giving himself too much credit as a master manipulator of fate – his own, and that of the people around him. Yet another form of professorial arrogance, one is tempted to opine.

Robert Stone

Robert Stone

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“A feeling of beauty, of totality, of being one with everything else.” – The Silence of the Wave by Gianrico Carofiglio

November 26, 2013 at 8:11 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

The Silence of the Wave cover  This is the third novel I’ve read by Gianrico Carofiglio. The experience has strengthened my conviction that he is a truly exceptional writer.

In The Silence of the Wave, which is primarily set in Rome, we meet Roberto Marias, formerly of the Carabinieri, Italy’s national military police. I say ‘formerly’ because when this story commences, he is on extended leave and does not know if he will ever return to the force.

In the course of doing undercover work, Roberto has sustained a deeply traumatic psychic injury. As the novel opens, he is under the care of a psychiatrist. The bulk of the narrative consists of transcriptions of their therapeutic sessions. The result is that while the plot is rather inert, especially at the outset, the psychology is deep, and getting deeper all the time. There is a great deal of pain that must be suffered, anger that must be expressed,  and self-disclosure that has to happen if the healing process is to be real and effective.

Meanwhile, the good doctor – I don’t recall whether his name is ever given – is a man of exceptional eloquence and wisdom. In this passage, he’s trying to explain to Roberto the erratic course one often travels while on the way to recovery:

“The backward steps derive from a fear of change. If we live with suffering for a long time, it ends up becoming somehow part of us. when we start to feel better, when we start to detach ourselves from the suffering, we experience contradictory states off mind. On the one hand we’re pleased, on the other we feel uneasy, because we’re missing something that was part of our identity and guaranteed us a kind of balance. That’s the reason for this fluctuation between euphoria and sadness.”

I am intrigued by this admixture of psychology and philosophy. It puts me in mind of the final lines of Byron’s poem “The Prisoner of Chillon:”

‘My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:—even I
Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.’

It takes a while to find out just what the precipitating events were that so incapacitated Roberto in heart and mind. As the novel progressed, I began to feel more and more invested in Roberto’s treatment, and to wish, with increasing fervor, for his recovery.

The Wave in the title refers to surfing. Roberto had grown up in California and had embraced the sport with enthusiasm. Even though he hasn’t done it in years, he can still recall what it felt like to ride the waves:

“You have a feeling of truth, I don’t know how to put this, the sense that everything is…brought into focus. A feeling of beauty, of totality, of being one with everything else. When the wave carries you, you feel you’re part of it, if you understand what I mean, you feel  that everything finally has a meaning….And there’s a perfect harmony, in those seconds when you’re there, a balance between the sea and the sky, almost still, while you slide very fast between the water and the air, and the roar. You pass through the middle of the wave, exactly equidistant from those opposites.”

I love the way Giancarlo Carofiglio writes. Praise is also due to Howard Curtis, who translated this novel from the Italian.

As I’ve been sitting here working on this post, with The Silence of the Wave reposing beside the keyboard, it has occurred to me that as well as loving the contents of this book, I take delight in its physical presence as well. It measures eight and a half inches by five, and is about an inch thick. It seems downright elegant in its compactness. It’s a library book, and the mylar jacket cover enhances this effect. Finally the cover image seems appropriately muted and indistinct. I love handing this small volume and will be sorry to bid it farewell.

IMG_0514-M  IMG_0516-M

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In this space I have also posted a brief review of Temporary Perfections. This was the first book I read by  Carofiglio and the fourth in the Guido Guerrrieri series. (On Stop! You’re Killing Me, this character is described as “a jaded defense lawyer.” Don’t let that deter you; for the most part he’s a delight to spend time with.) I’ve also read Involuntary Witness, the first novel in this series. I found this one rather slow going at  the outset, but I ended by liking it quite a bit. Guido Guerrrieri lives and practices in Bari, a regional capital in the south of Italy. Bari is also Gianrico Carofiglio’s birthplace.

Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio

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Josephine Tey – a postscript

November 10, 2013 at 11:10 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

[This post constitutes an addendum to the one I just completed on Josephine Tey.]

Carol, my fellow Usual Suspect, has reminded me that there is currently a crime fiction series being written in which Josephine Tey figures as a continuing character. The author, Nicola Upson, has done extensive research on Tey and turned up some interesting material.

There are currently five novels in Upson’s series, beginning in 2008 with An Expert in Murder. This year’s entry is The Death of Lucy Kyte. Carol has kindly provided me with several links, which I will pass along here. First, this is an essay posted on Upson’s website on the life and work of Josephine Tey. Second, here’s an interview with Nicola Upson conducted by a blogger who’s an historical fiction enthusiast. Have a look at Question 4, an inquiry into Upson’s research. First, she reveals the source of many of the names Tey gave to the characters in her novels. Even more intriguing is what follows her observation that “There’s no greater excitement than discovering something new about Josephine Tey’s life.” Steven Saylor, author of the Roma sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder, calls this “information ecstasy.” Anyone who’s ever had a momentous research breakthrough will know the feeling.

Finally, in this interview with Amanda Vale, Upson reveals that she and her partner have had considerable success gleaning information about Tey’s life from the letters and diaries of those who knew her. There may, in fact, be enough to constitute a biography – finally! That’s truly cause for rejoicing.

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The Enduring Mystery of Josephine Tey

November 10, 2013 at 9:04 pm (Anglophilia, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

bfarrarcover  While preparing background material for a discussion of Brat Farrar with AAUW Readers, I found myself falling once again under the spell of the author. For Josephine Tey, possessor of not one but two pseudonyms, an almost phantom presence on the literary scene, author of eight superbly crafted crime novels, was herself something of an enigma.

In her book Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists, Martha Hailey DuBose observes:

Of all the Women of Mystery, Elizabeth MacKintosh is the most deserving of the title. She never published under her own name, hiding her identity behind first the male pseudonym Gordon Daviot and then the pen name by which she is recognized today, Josephine Tey. She never submitted to press interviews, shunned all forms of personal publicity, and was guarded even with close colleagues. No one has yet collected her letters or edited her papers, if there are any around, and she never, so far as we know, chronicled her life beyond the most basic details. She left behind only the bare outline of a mystery whose clues must be extracted from her fiction.

(DuBose’s book came out in 2000; as far as I know, this assessment remains accurate.)

Elizabeth MacKintosh/Josephine Tey was born in Inverness, Scotland. The year of her birth has been disputed in the past, but it’s now generally accepted as being 1896. The eldest of three girls, she appears to have had a happy childhood. She attended Inverness Royal Academy and later, during the years of the First World War, traveled south to matriculate in the Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham. She enjoyed athletics and was able to put this academic background to use as a teacher in secondary level schools. But all this time, ever since her girlhood, she had been writing, mainly short stories and poetry. Some of her early work was published in Scottish newspapers and in the English Review.

(At this point I’d like to interpose some intriguing information concerning the future so-called “Grande Dames’ of British crime fiction’s first Golden Age. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Josephine Tey were all four born between 1890 and 1897. Talk about an auspicious decade! Margery Allingham lagged behind somewhat, the year of her birth  being 1904.)

Using the pseudonym Gordon Daviot,  Josephine Tey published her first crime novel in 1929. Written as a contest entry, it was called The Man in the Queue and featured Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard.

Tey also wrote plays, also under the name Gordon Daviot. The first and most memorable of these efforts was entitled Richard of Bordeaux. Premiering on stage in 1932, this drama about King Richard II provided John Gielgud with his first starring stage role. The play was a hit, thus launching Gielgud on what eventually became one of the most illustrious acting careers of  the twentieth century.

John Gielgud as Richard II in Richard of Bordeaux

John Gielgud as Richard II in Richard of Bordeaux

Meanwhile, under the name Josephine Tey, seven more novels of crime appeared, starting with A Shilling for Candles in 1937. Tey published nothing during the war years; then came more plays and the remaining six crime novels, starting with Miss Pym Disposes in 1946 and ending with The Singing Sands in 1952. Alan Grant appears in six of the eight novels, being entirely absent only in Brat Farrar and Miss Pym Disposes.

At some point in late 1950 or early 1951, Tey learned that she was seriously ill. She kept her condition a secret from all but those closest to her. When she died in February of 1952, probably of cancer, many who knew her were shocked. Her memorial service was attended by Sir John Gielgud and Dame Edith Evans. At the time, the papers were full of news of the passing of King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II. He had died just days earlier.

In his memoir, Sir John Gielgud hints that the playwright whom he esteemed and admired might have suffered a bereavement as a result of World War One. If so, then Tey was one of many women who suffered a similar loss.

At the time of her death, Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, aka Josephine Tey, was 55 years of age. She willed her entire estate to England’s National Trust.

Since 1926, Josephine Tey had been keeping house for her father in Inverness, her mother having died a few years previous. Colin Mackintosh died in 1950 at the age of 86, predeceasing his gifted and intensely private daughter by a mere two years.

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Thursday’s discussion of Brat Farrar was both edifying and stimulating. I’ve now read this novel four times, and yet points were brought forth and questions raised that I’d not heretofore considered. How could the young Brat have traveled so freely during the war years? When exactly are the events of the novel supposed to have occurred? It was published in 1949, so one supposes the time frame to be postwar. Yet there is barely  any mention of the seismic, six year long agony that had ended so recently. One reads of the bleak impoverishment of British life during this period, yet Latchetts (the country seat of the Ashby family) and its surroundings seem bathed in fruitful prosperity. (One thinks of the novels of Jane Austen, with their sense of the wider world kept almost completely at bay while their author examines the niceties of provincial country life.) Emma observed that Tey seemed to have deliberately evoked a timeless setting in which her characters could work out their respective fates.

Rita was the most seriously critical of the novel, especially of the ending. Too much happened too quickly, she averred. Many of us agreed with her. We found ourselves having to thrash out some of the plot points, such as how Simon knew that Brat was going to try to descend that fatal cliff face where Patrick Ashby had met his end. We also tried to clarify the issue of the consanguinity of Brat and Eleanor. First cousins? Second? After all, the assumption is that they intend to marry; Eleanor declares her intention in no uncertain terms.

Finally, someone commented on the loveliness of the scene, earlier in the novel, in which Brat takes Timber out for a run. I think it’s worth quoting at some length:

Timber seemed as well acquainted with gates and their uses as a cow pony was with a rope, but never before had Brat had so delicate and so well-oiled a mechanism under him. Timber obeyed the slightest indication of hand or heel with a lack of questioning and a confidence that was new in Brat’s experience. Surprised and delighted Brat experimented with this new adaptability. And Timber, even with  the turf in front of him, with the turf practically under his feet, moved sweetly and obediently under his hands.
“You wonder!” said Brat softly.
The ears flicked at him.
“You perishing marvel,” he said, and closed his knees as he turned to face the down. Timber broke into a slow canter, headed for the clumps of gorse and juniper bushes that marked the skyline.
So this was what riding a good English horse was like, he thought. This communion, this being one half of a whole. This effortlessness. This magic.
The close, fine turf slipped by under them, and it was odd to see no little spurt of dust coming up as the shoes struck. England, England, England, said the shoes as they struck. A soft drum on the English turf.
I don’t care, he thought, I don’t care. I’m a criminal, and a heel, but I’ve got what I wanted, and it’s worth it. By God, it’s worth it. If I died tomorrow, it’s worth it.

Brat is soon to find out that Timber’s docility is a sometime thing. But how beautifully Tey conveys this moment of ecstatic communion between man and horse!

I think that among those who were present at Thursday’s discussion, the general feeling was that although Brat Farrar has its flaws, these are far outweighed by the many qualities that make it shine. In his introduction to the Scribner paperback edition of 1997, Robert Barnard extolls “…Josephine Tey’s brilliant storytelling: her varied, loving characterisation; above all, her control of reader sympathies.” This last is especially evident in Brat Farrar, as the reader comes to share in Brat’s life and death struggle with his conscience, his obligations, his very soul.

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Somehow I’ve managed to do a fair amount of writing about Josephine Tey without mentioning the novel for which she is most famous. the-daughter-of-time In The Daughter of Time, Alan Grant finds himself laid up in hospital with a broken leg. In desperate need of mental stimulus, he takes it upon himself to investigate the case against King Richard III, a man who’d been reviled for centuries as the murderer of the Princes in the Tower. They were the true heirs to the throne, and he is supposed to have done away with them so that he might be the sole unopposed ruler of England.

I read The Daughter of Time many years ago. In fact, for a long time, it was the only work of detective fiction I’d ever read. (Hard to believe, I know! You can see, I’ve had lots of catching up to do.) In some quarters it’s considered to be Tey’s masterpiece. I really do need to reread it, but for now, in my view, that designation belongs either to Brat Farrar or The Franchise Affair – or to both, jointly.

(Colin Dexter paid homage to The Daughter of Time in his novel The Wench Is Dead. Like Alan Grant before him, Inspector Morse finds himself immobilized in a hospital and in need of diversion of an intellectual nature. He finds it by investigating the real life murder  of one Christina Collins in 1839. The Wench Is Dead, long one of my favorites among Dexter’s oeuvre, won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 1989.)

The only other crime novel I’ve read by Tey is the last one, The Singing Sands. Again, it’s not fresh in my mind, although I do recall enjoying the vividness of the Scottish setting. As it has finally occurred to me that some of the best exemplars of the British police procedural, my favorite genre, have been right under my nose for quite some time, I’ve just begun reading A Shilling for Candles and am already enjoying the lucid prose and engaging characters.

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The manuscript for The Singing Sands was found among Tey’s papers after her death, and was published posthumously.

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As far as I can determine, the best online source of information on Josephine Tey resides on a site called Josephine Tey – A Very Private Person. Not only is the biographical article quite enlightening, but if you work your way down the buttons on the left, you’ll find video of Brat Farrar, The Franchise Affair – two versions, no less – and some delightful photos like this one taken at the Anstey Physical Training College, Elizabeth MacKintosh’s alma mater.  Josephine_tey_anstey_physical_training_college_1

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I’d forgotten that the urbane Vincent Price hosted Mystery! in the 1980s. Click here to see him introduce a Josephine Tey segment to the television audience. I love the way he casually mentions the fact that he actually saw the original 1933 production of Richard of Bordeaux, starring John Gielgud!

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Finally, my heartfelt thanks go out to the seventeen or eighteen Readers – a great turnout!  – for one of the most exhilarating book discussions I’ve ever been lucky enough to be part of.

Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, aka Josephine Tey  1896 - 1952

Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, aka Josephine Tey: 1896 – 1952

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Please click here for additional information on Josephine Tey.

 

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On the subject of the string quartet: a stellar performance by Peter Lovesey

October 27, 2013 at 1:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

When I finished Cop To Corpse by Peter Lovesey, I thought to myself, It doesn’t get any better than this. I was wrong; it does.

LOVTOOT01-2

The Tooth Tattoo is the story of a highly regarded quartet of stringed instrument players. The sudden loss of their violist has for a time taken them out of the game. Now they want back in and are actively seeking a new violist. They’ve heard Mel Farran play, and they like what they’ve heard. They’re more and more certain that he’ll be a  good fit for their small elite ensemble.

They call themselves The Staccati, and Peter Lovesey lays bare the inner workings of this  foursome in a way both fascinating and completely believable.

Mel is deeply grateful to be part of the quartet, and he feels challenged to get his playing up to their high standard while at the same time achieving a perfect blend with the group:

He’d need to fit in more practice. In spite of the praise from the others, he knew Ivan was right. His intonation – accuracy of pitch – could be improved. With such latitude possible in their creation of sound, string players had a huge advantage over anyone else in an orchestra, yet there were phases, say in a long legato line with open strings, when the pitch should be suppressed. He’d noted a couple of passages in the Beethoven when he needed to adapt better to  the violins.

The pitch should be suppressed? I admit, I don’t entirely understand what’s being said here, but I do get the point about  the unique capabilities of stringed instruments.

You wouldn’t think that the lives of these intense and dedicated artists could intersect with a criminal investigation, but  that’s exactly what happens. For a limited period, the Staccati take up residence at Bath Spa University. It’s an arrangement that benefits them, the university community, and local music lovers. This last is not a cohort with which Peter Diamond, head of the Bath CID, would ordinarily be associated. But he comes to a cautious appreciation of the music itself and of those who bring it so exquisitely to life.

Although Peter would be the first to admit that he’s no ‘culture vulture,’ he can nevertheless shoot the breeze with the best of them:

“Beethoven, wasn’t it?” Diamond ventured.
Anthony was supposed to get the idea that Diamond was a fellow lover of music. He didn’t show a glimmer of appreciation.
“I couldn’t place the piece,” Diamond added, which was true. He was about as capable of placing a piece of Beethoven as he was of riding a Derby winner. “Do you mind telling me what it was?”
Opus 59, Number 3,” Anthony said.
“Silly me. I’m a duffer with numbers.”
“In C major.”
“C major.” Diamond raised his thumb as if all had been made clear. “Any particular part?”
“The fugue.”
“And to me it sounded just as a fugue should.”
“It was too fast.”
“A shade quick, I’ll give you.”

Here is that piece, played by the Alban Berg Quartet:

Peter does in fact he does have a passion for certain works of art. In fact, the only way his lady friend Paloma could get him to take a vacation in one of the capitals of continental Europe was by choosing Vienna, the setting of Peter’s favorite film, The Third Man.

The Third Man is terrific. It’s hard to see how it could be anything but, with stars like Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Trevor Howard, and a screenplay by Graham Greene.

The 'Wiener Riesenrad' (Viennese Giant Wheel in the Prater amusement park, where Harry Lime/Orson Welles makes his famous Cuckoo Clock speech

The ‘Wiener Riesenrad’ (Viennese Giant Wheel) in the Prater amusement park, where Harry Lime/Orson Welles makes his famous Cuckoo Clock speech

Inevitably in a Peter Diamond novel, we’re treated to a disquisition on some notable feature of the City of Bath. This time it’s Sydney Gardens, “a haven of quiet in a busy city” and, during her sojourns in Bath, one of Jane Austen’s favorite haunts: sydney-gardens

Literate, entertaining, and wide-ranging, The Tooth Tattoo is a triumph, one of the best novels by one of the greatest procedural writers currently at work.

Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey

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The Staccati also perform one of my favorite pieces: String Quartet No.14 in D minor, known as Death And the Maiden, by Franz Schubert. Her it is, performed by the Alban Berg Quartet:

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‘Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession.’ A Murder of Quality, being the second George Smiley novel by John LeCarre

October 19, 2013 at 1:23 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

9780802714428_p0_v1_s260x420  A couple of weeks ago, a friend and former co-worker at the library made what I thought at the time a rather peculiar recommendation. Like me, Nancy is a crime fiction buff, and she knows my taste pretty well. She assured me that unlike the espionage novels for which John LeCarre is justly famous, A Murder of Quality, published in 1962, is actually a mystery, and a fairly traditional one at that. The events of the novel take place at Carne, an exclusive boys’ school on England’s South Coast.

Now I just love crime fiction set in academia, so I decided to take Nancy up on her suggestion. And I’m very glad  that I did.

For this reader, one of the primary attraction of this novel lay in the opportunity it provided to know George Smiley in his early years. LeCarre indicates, however, that his famous creation’s character was formed very early on:

Smiley himself was one of those solitaries who seem to have come into the world fully educated at the age of eighteen. Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country’s enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed. Assimilation is his highest aim, he learns to love the crowds who pass him in the street without a glance; he clings to them for his anonymity and his safety. His fear makes him servile – he could embrace the shoppers who jostle him in their impatience and force him from the pavement. He could adore the officials, the police, the bus conductors, for the terse indifference of their attitudes.

(My intention was to quote only  the first part of this paragraph, but I was so struck by this vivid passage that I couldn’t stop typing.)

Then there’s this rather more succinct assessment:

A stringent critic of his own motives, he had discovered after long observation that he tended to be less a creature of intellect than his tastes and habits might suggest; once in the war he had been described by his superiors as possessing the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin, which seemed to him not wholly unjust.

A Murder of Quality is the second novel to feature George Smiley. (The first is Call for the Dead;  these are also LeCarre’s first published works of fiction, respectively.) There are a number of passages in this second outing where LeCarre strives to illuminate the character and personality of Smiley. Here, he is seen through the eyes of an old friend. Miss Brimley, editor of a journal called the Christian Voice. She is anxious about Stella Rode, one of the journal’s contributors and the wife of  teacher at Carne. Miss Brimley asks Smiley to have a look at a letter recently sent to her by Mrs. Rode. Its purport seems ominous.

As Smiley studies the document, Miss Brimley studies Smiley:

Watching him, Miss Brimley wondered what impression he made on those who did not know him well. She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation.

Call for the Dead opens with a description of Smiley that’s if anything, even less complimentary than Miss Brimley’s: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” That’s pretty blunt, I’d say – even to the point of being brutal.

One of the strangest aspects of George Smiley’s back story concerns his virtually inexplicable marriage to Lady Ann Sercomb, a lofty, high born beauty who stayed with him for two years before running away with a Cuban racing car driver. I’m getting ready to read Call for  the Dead, and I confess I’m curious as to whether I’ll be further enlightened as to how this odd and patently doomed pairing came about.

Quite apart from Smiley himself, A Murder of Quality contains some memorable description:

The village of Pylle lies to the south of the North Fields, upon a high spur which rises steeply from the damp pastures of the Carne valley. It consists of a handful of stone cottages and a small inn where you may drink beer in the landlord’s parlour. Seen from Carne playing fields, the village could easily be mistaken for an outcrop of rock upon a tor, for the hill on which it stands appears conical from the northern side. Local historians claim that Pylle is the oldest settlement in Dorset, that its name is Anglo-Saxon for harbour, and that it served the Romans as a port when all the lowlands around were covered by the sea. They will tell you, too, that King Arthur rested there after seven months at sea, and paid homage to Saint Andrew, the patron saint of sailors, on the site of Pylle Church, where he burned a candle for each month he had spent afloat; and that in the church, built to commemorate his visit and standing to this day lonely and untended on the hillside, there is a bronzee coin as witness to his visit – the very one King Arthur gave to the verger before he set sail again for the Isle of Avalon.

I love  the way LeCarre takes you back to ancient times, and even further  back, to myth and legend. This is something that British writers are skilled at doing. In On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan mentions in an almost casual aside “the pretty village of Ewelme, where Chaucer’s granddaughter was interred.” A single phrase catapults you from the mid-twentieth century back to the Middle Ages!

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I am not well read in John LeCarre’s oeuvre, nor do I make any claim for myself as a scholar of his work. But I found someone who is: Prof. Myron J. Aronoff of Rutgers University. He’s written a book, in fact, entitled The Spy Novels of John LeCarre: Balancing Ethics and Politics. Here is how the introduction to the first chapter begins:

Le Carré relates how he came to create George Smiley, by “putting him together from various components–either real or imagined–of my own situation, and adding the solvent of my own filial affection and admiration” (JHM, 1986:14). He suggests that he and Smiley were alike in more ways than the differences in their age and appearance might suggest. Among the qualities that he shares with Smiley are shyness, a desire for anonymity, and the fact that they were both intelligence officers and German scholars. Although le Carré had a turbulent childhood, Smiley had none. “You do not have to be a genius to guess that Smiley as a father-figure in my imagination was the very antithesis of everything that my own erratic father had been in reality” (JHM:14).2

(Click here to read further.)

John LeCarre in Cornwall, where he now resides: "I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities."

John LeCarre in Cornwall, where he now resides: “I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities.”

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I was fascinated by the insight into George Smiley’s character, but even aside from that factor, I found A Murder of Quality to be an absorbing read and a well plotted mystery. The seeds of the later LeCarre – the cynicism about people’s true motives, the characters’ bitterness at how their lives have turned out, the incisive and startlingly lyrical writing -  are present in this novel.

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George Smiley is the main protagonist in four novels besides Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality; in addition, he makes cameo appearances in several others. A complete list of LeCarre’s works can be found – where else? – on Stop! You’re Killing Me.

A Murder of Quality was filmed for  television in 1991, with Denholm Elliott in the role of George Smiley. I’ve not yet had the chance to view this production. Neither have I seen the 2011 film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in which Gary Oldman plays Smiley. But I think that for those of us who came of age during the Cold War, there can be only one actor who was very embodiment of LeCarre’s singular creation:

Alec Guinness as George Smiley

Alec Guinness as George Smiley

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