Recently, I embarked on a long overdue updating of my blog roll. And oh, what a perilous undertaking! These blogs are not only wonderful in their own right – beautifully written and in many cases beautiful looking too – but these book lovers are very persuasive as well.
Do I need more ideas on what to read? Well, let’s see. I am currently immersed in the following:
1. Edmund Pearson on Lizzie Borden, written in 1937. What a gem this is – one of the many recommendations I’ve gleaned from Harold Schechter in True Crime: An American Anthology. It’s available full text online. I love Pearson’s writing. (My endlessly resourceful husband placed this document on my Kindle app. I did not even know such a thing was possible!)
2. Sparta by Roxana Robinson. I’m reading this for a book club discussion. I had my doubts about this story of a young Iraqi War veteran’s return to his family and civilian life. But actually I think it’s quite wonderful.
3. I’m continuing to work my way through the Schechter anthology. There’s some terrific material included here, perhaps none more powerful, not to mention shocking, than A Memorable Murder (the Smuttynose Murder) by Celia Thaxter.
4. The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin by Robert J. Begiebing. This is reread, and as sometimes happens, I’m not as enthralled with it as I was the first time around. Still, I’m enjoying the depiction of Puritan life in New England. This novel was inspired by an actual crime, and so it fits in well with the background research I’m doing for the true crime course I’ll be teaching next spring.
5. The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs. I’m not sure by what route this book found its way onto my Kindle app, but I’m very glad it did. It is just the change of pace I need right now. And here’s a funny thing. I was thinking to myself, when I first started reading it, that it did not fit in with my current true crime reading. And my very next thought was, oh, wait – Christopher Marlowe, the great reckoning in a little room…. I’ll be interested to see what this author has to say about the murder of the one contemporary of Shakespeare’s who might some day have rivaled the Bard himself for sheer literary genius.
This isn’t actually all, but it’s enough for now, I’d say. But oh, no, I had to go browsing in wonderful book blogs, like:
Booksplease. How could I have absented myself for so long from Margaret’s delightful site? Have a look for yourself. She has reminded me how much I like W.J. Burley’s Wycliffe mysteries; I’m getting ready to order Wycliffe and the Four Jacks as per her recommendation. And I plan to read Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare biography after I’ve finished the Marlowe book (pant, pant).
Detectives Beyond Borders. What fun! And edifying, too. There’s a thoughtful post about historical fiction, a review of Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad – already on my to-read list, though the sample I downloaded was rather scary. Blogger Peter Rozovsky is getting ready to attend Bouchercon 2014 in California.. Lucky you, Mr. Rozovsky. I went in 2008 when it was just down the road in Baltimore and loved it. And thanks for the recommendation of Kevin Starr’s work. I too am fascinated by the history of California.
Do You Write Under Your Own Name. A long time favorite this one. Martin Edwards writes lively reviews of books, television shows, and films, plus all manner of information about crime fiction scene in the UK. He’s the author of the Lake District series of mysteries, which I highly recommend. One of my favorite features on Martin’s blog is Forgotten Books. This is where I’ve gotten lots of good ideas for reading in the classics.
‘It is as if all the loathing and recrimination bottled up since the defeat of 1870 has found an outlet in a single individual.’ – A discussion of An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris
On Tuesday, I attended a book discussion to which Pauline, my fellow Usual Suspect, had invited me. The novel under consideration was An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris. (This was one of those instances in which I’d already read and very much liked the book. I love it when that happens.)
Our discussion leader had requested that we read “Under Siege,” a chapter from The Greater Journey by David McCullough; in addition, he encouraged us to view “A Leap of Faith,” an episode from Simon Schama’s documentary “The Story of the Jews.” The discussion leader wanted us to have an historical perspective from which to view the events of Robert Harris’s novel. (The ‘siege’ described by McCullough occurred during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. It brought Paris to its knees and is a horrific story.)
An Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus case. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the artillery division of the French army, was accused of passing military secrets to the Germans. Having been subjected to a mortifying defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, France’s armed services still regarded Germany as the enemy and the hated former overlord. This treasonous action would therefore be regarded with the utmost outrage, with the traitor being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Completely understandable – except for one crucial fact: Dreyfus did not do it.
He was, nevertheless, convicted. After enduring the appalling and very public humiliation of la dégradation, he was deported to Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he was imprisoned alone, in ghastly conditions and under extreme duress, for just under five years. In 1899 Dreyfus was returned to France to be tried again. Incredibly, he was once more found guilty. But that verdict was set aside. Ultimately, Dreyfus was exonerated and declared innocent of all the charges brought against him. In 1906, he was reinstated in the army of France as a major.
Why was Alfred Dreyfus made a scapegoat in this matter? He had several factors mitigating against him. He and his family were Alsatian. The Germans had seized Alsace during the Franco-Prussian War, and as a result, most patriotic French men and women refused to go on living there. (The affect of this brusque transition is described in the most poignant way in Alphone Daudet’s story, “The Last Class.“) Dreyfus’s family stayed; they spoke German as well as French. In addition, the family possessed considerable wealth. But the single thing that told most powerfully against Alfred Dreyfus was the fact that he was Jewish.
The summary above is vastly simplified. In his review of Louis Begley’s book Why the Dreyfus Affair Still Matters, Adam Gopnik states:
The unmaking of the Dreyfus case is a very long story—so complex, and taking place at such a snail’s pace and in such wayward directions, that almost no one has ever been able to relate it simply.
Indeed, from beginning to end. L’Affaire Dreyfus is fiendishly complicated. From amidst a welter of information, Robert Harris admits that at first, he was stymied in his efforts to craft a coherent narrative. Only when Colonel Picquart emerged as a compelling figure in his own right did the material begin to assume a form that the author could work with.
As the newly appointed Chief of Staff of Army Intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart is tasked with keeping a close eye on the ramifications of the Dreyfus affair. Beginning in 1896, Picquart sets out to do just that. At first, he is firmly of the belief that Dreyfus was guilty of treason, a belief strongly reinforced by the concurrence of fellow service members and friends. But as he looks more closely into the matter, doubts take root and begin to grow. Ultimately, Picquart risks his career and his freedom as he seeks vindication for Alfred Dreyfus. This, despite the fact that he, Picquart, has no particular liking for the Jews and actively disliked Dreyfus himself, a man who by all reports was not possessed of an appealing personality.
One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion of this novel involved the question of Picquart’s motivation. Why would he risk everything in order to pursue this investigation? Commenting on this point, one person said that he was always intrigued by the question of motive in a situation like this. What causes one individual to act as Picquart does in this case, laying everything on the line for a cause in which he’s not directly involved, while others turn away and seek safety in inaction? In the course of a brief conversation with Dreyfus’s brother Matthieu, Picquart himself provides a direct, if rather cold and oversimplified, response:
I make my way round the dining room shaking the hand of each man in turn. Mathieu covers mine with both of his. “My family and I cannot adequately express our gratitude to you, Colonel.”
There is something proprietorial about his warmth which makes me feel awkward, even chilly. “You have no reason to thank me,” I reply. “I was simply obeying my conscience.”
The writing of this novel came about as a result of Robert Harris’s collaboration with Roman Polanski on the filming of an earlier novel The Ghost. (In the U.S., the film was entitled The Ghost Writer.) Word has it that these two are preparing to film – may already be filming? – An Officer and a Spy. Interestingly, they won’t be the first ones to tackle the Dreyfus case in this medium. French cinema pioneer Georges Méliès made this movie in 1899, before the final resolution of the case had even been decided on:
Inevitably, the subject of anti-Semitism in France was raised. Prejudice against those of the Jewish faith abates from time to time but apparently can never be completely extirpated. This is the message of the Simon Schama program referenced above. This subject is oddly current, what with the recent firebombing of a synagogue in a suburb of Paris.
In fairness to France, similar acts and demonstrations turning violent are occurring in other European countries as well. The ostensible reason at the present time is the Israeli shelling of Gaza. People in our discussion group expressed dismay that anti-Israel sentiment appears to be serving as a cloak for anti-Semitism – a rather transparent cloak. (Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: One wishes the killing to stop; one wishes for hostilities to cease; one wishes for war to stop – STOP NOW.)
This was an extremely stimulating and worthwhile discussion. I would definitely recommend this title to other book groups.
Robert Harris has written nine novels. I’ve read six of them. I think he’s a terrific writer.
Thanks are due to Fellow Usual Suspect Carol for directing my attention to this video. (And really – what would I do without the wonderful Suspects in my life?)
I’m delighted to learn that several of my favorite authors have new books coming out in the next few months. (There’s also a debut novel that looks like a real winner for those of us who love historical fiction.)
Perhaps some of these are among your favorites as well:
Some comments on the crime fiction: The only thing better than one new Karin Fossum is two new novels by this fine author. I Can See in the Dark is a non series work, but I forgive her, because The Murder of Harriet Krohn does feature Inspector Sejer (and presumably his newly acquired canine companion, a famously wrinkly Chinese Shar Pei with the improbable name of Frank Robert).
Meanwhile, Lawrence Block introduces yer another new character, defense attorney Martin Ehrengraf. I’ll give it a try, probably, though I was hoping for more of the stellar Keller stories. And speaking of stellar, John Harvey rounds out his Charlie Resnick series with a novel that’s been garnering raves from reviewers.
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett was a pleasant surprise: a novel that used magical realism to very good effect. In addition, it was written by someone whose passion for books and reading was obvious and genuine. And so I look forward to this author’s latest, First Impressions.
In yet another pleasant surprise, I see that Jo Bannister is following up last year’s Deadly Virtues with a sequel that once again features Constable Hazel Best. Best may be new to the job, but she’s got good instincts and lots of tenacity. In the Winter 2014 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, Norma Dancis surveyed Jo Bannister’s work. Dancis lamented the fact that Bannister is so little known and that up until now, her books have been hard to find in the U.S. At the close of her article, Dancis had this to say:
All Bannister’s books have one thing in common: quality. She offers excellent writing, suspense, and variety. Fortunately, her books are now more available (e-book, new and used). If you haven’t read her, you will be pleasantly surprised.
(I’m happy to report that the local library owns nineteen titles by Jo Bannister.)
Finally, two that I’m especially happy about: The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey and The Girl Next Store by Ruth Rendell. Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond novels have just been getting better and better of late; Cop To Corpse and The Tooth Tattoo were both outstanding. And as for Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine), it is hard for me to refrain from heaping praise on this, my favorite author. I’m particularly partial to the Wexford novels, but I’ll take anything I can get. Actually, Baroness Rendell of Babergh could compose a shopping list and I would probably still be enthralled!
For a fairly comprehensive list of upcoming crime and suspense fiction, I’d like to direct you – once again – to Stop! You’re Killing Me.
[The first post in this series is Adventures in True Crime, Part One.]
In the course of reading and doing research in the area of true crime, I’ve become fascinated by the way in which actual crimes have served as the basis for fictional narratives. There are quite a few examples of this phenomenon in the literature of suspense and crime fiction – more than I had originally thought. So I decided to come up with some sort of schematic to help organize this information into a coherent form. Another part of my purpose here is to note instances where true crime narratives also exist.
I wanted to include two of my favorite films as well. And of course there’s plenty of relevant material on YouTube. Even an opera made it into the mix!
With the help of my computer whiz husband, I’ve created this grid. The tables were generated by Microsoft Word, and in the process of importing into the blog, I encountered a number of problems with spacing, some of which I was able to correct, but not all.
The project is not quite finished, but here’s what I’ve got so far:
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of Hannah Willix, New Hampshire, 1648||Drawn from a one-sentence entry in the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop, dated June 4, 1648. Source: http://articles.latimes.com/1991-05-21/news/vw-2453_1_strange-death-of-mistress-coffinFrom a blog entitled My Maine Ancestry – http://mymaineancestry.blogspot.com/2012/03/unsolved-murder.html :My 10th Great Grandmother was murdered in New Hampshire in May or June of 1648. Her name was Hannah (or Annah) Willix. She was traveling from Dover to Exeter when she was attacked, robbed and her body “flung” into the river. I found a document online called “New Hampshire Homicides 1630-1774” that contains this information: Hannah “was founde in the [Piscataqua] River dead; her necke broken, her tounge black and swollen out of her mouth & the bloud settled in her face, the privy partes swolne &c as if she had been muche abused &c.”||The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin, by Robert J. Begiebing – 1991http://youtu.beRHjr7sjFvhA********************|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|Murder by James Yates of his wife and four children in 1781 in Tomhanick, NY||“An Account of a Murder Committed by Mr. J————– Y———– Upon His Family, in December, A.D. 1781” Anonymous article appearing in The New-York Weekly Magazine, July 20, 1796*||Wieland: or The Transformation: An American Tale, By Charles Brockden Brown – 1798 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wieland_%28novel%29|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|Murder of Anethe Christensen and Karen Christensen by Louis Wagner at Smutty Nose, in the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, in 1873||“A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter, for the Atlantic Monthly Magazine* http://seacoastnh.com/smuttynose/memo.html||The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve – 1997
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|Eight unsolved murders, primarily of African American servant girls, in Austin, Texas, in late 1884 and 1885||“Capital Murder” by Skip Hollandsworth, in Texas Monthly, July 2000: http://www.texasmonthly.com/content/capital-murder||A Twist at the End, by Steven Saylor – 2000
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of New York City resident Mary Rogers in 1841||The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the invention of murder, by Daniel Stashower – 2006||“The Mystery of Marie Roget,” short story by Edgar Allan Poe – 1842 http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/rogetb.htm|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of John Hossack in Iowa, in 1900||“The Hossack Murder,” by Susan Glaspell, in the Des Moines Daily News, 1901*Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland, by Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf – 2005||“A Jury of Her Peers,” short story by Susan Glaspell – 1917http://www.learner.org/interactives/literature/story/fulltext.html|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette, in Herkimer, New York (Adirondacks) -1906||Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited, by Craig Brandon – 1986||An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser – 1925 A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly – 2003*********Film: A Place in the Sun – 1951 http://youtu.be/wEuFNnJSIw8
An American Tragedy: opera by Tobias Picker – 2005 http://youtu.be/2Um_jfEpjD0
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of Albert Snyder by Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, in New York City – 1927||“The Eternal Blonde,” by Damon Runyan, from Trials and Other Tribulations – 1927*Included in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum – 2010||Double Indemnity by James M Cain – 1938****Film: Double Indemnity, from Cain’s novel, with Raymond Chandler writing the screenplay – 1944 http://youtu.be/yKrrAa2o9Eg
*Included in True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and published by Library of America in 2008
I admit that the main reason I was eager to get my hands on this book was to see if the author revealed anything of significance about her personal life, past and present. I’ve known for some time that Donna Leon has led an unconventional life, having lived in a variety of countries all over the world before at last settling in Venice. I’ve always been curious about what prompted her to lead this peripatetic existence, so alien to and remote from her native land.
So, what did I learn from this collection about this gifted, mercurial person?
1. Living in Venice is hard work, especially as you get older. There are no cars to convey you and your parcels from place to place.
2. Italians can be irreverent slobs:
….no building, regardless of its beauty, age, or condition, is safe from spray paint and mindless graffiti; the rocks of the Alberoni, the only swimmable beach here, are awash with plastic bottles and bags; rivers teem with the same detritus; and both sides of state highways would provide a fortune in bottle deposits, had Italy a policy of placing deposits on glass bottles.
(Never mind all this: she’s had a “thirty-year love affair” with the Italians and has no wish to live anywhere else.)
3. The bureaucracy will drive you crazy.
4. Italians can be very strange on the subject of food. For instance, all foodstuffs seem to be either pesante (heavy) or leggero (light). The determination as to which is which may depend on whether your mother cooked it for you.
5. Tourists are the scourge of the Earth in general and of Venice in particular:
They have, these countless millions, effectively destroyed the fabric of life known to the inhabitants of the city for a thousand years, have made life intolerable for residents for vast periods of the year, have led to the proliferation of shops that sell masks, plastic gondolas, tinted paper, sliced pizza, vulgar jester’s hats, and ice cream, all but the last of which the residents do not want and no one on the planet needs. They consume enormous amounts of drinking water and produce an endless supply of waste.
6. Visits to America only serve to reinforce her sense that it is, for her, an alien place. She returns mainly for family reasons. There’s a short, poignant piece on her mother’s funeral in New Jersey; Leon’s talons, mercifully, are retracted. In another essay, she profiles several of the more eccentric members of her clan. They all seem to have gotten along with one another reasonably well.
7. Lately, on these infrequent sojourns to her native land, she’s been astounded at the size and slovenliness of the people she sees. From a chapter entitled “Fatties:”
Americans are fat, but in a way that is peculiar to them,as though a race of hermaphrodites had been squeezed out of pastry bag and badly smoothed into shape with a giant spatula, then stuffed into low-crotched jeans and tent-sized T-shirts before being given bad haircuts and sent on their way.
Talons back out, and how!
8. She taught in China for a year. She lived in Iran for four years and liked the country very much. She lived and taught in Saudi Arabia for a year and loathed the place, loathes it still. Why was she doing this? She needed the money, she says. But surely there are less stressful ways to get it….
9. A section “On Men” got my antennae waving, especially in one essay where she confesses to perusing the “Personals” in the New York Review of Books. But alas, she is not doing this for herself, but on behalf of a widowed friend.
10. In a section on music, Leon pours out her love of baroque opera in general and the works of George Frideric Handel in particular. In an essay on Maria Callas, she refers to Tosca as “a vulgar potboiler I wouldn’t today cross the street to hear.” I admit I laughed out loud when I read this. Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini, is my absolute favorite opera. It’s got passion, jealousy, lust, the highest of high drama, and music that is almost too gorgeous to believe. It invariably reduces me to tears. Ah well – chacun à son goût, as I’m sure Donna Leon would agree – or perhaps not. She is, after all, nothing if not a woman of strong opinions.
When all is said and done, I encountered no startling revelations of a romantic or familial nature. Donna Leon remains something of a mystery to me. She’s keeping her secrets, as she has every right to do. I’m deeply grateful to her for the Guido Brunetti novels; they’re among the most thoughtful, well written, wryly humorous, and ultimately humane works of crime fiction that I know of.
The penultimate essay in My Venice is called “Suggestions on Writing a Crime Novel.” It is, for my money, the best piece in the book, full of useful insights, clearly articulated, concerning the craft of writing crime fiction. (The term ‘craft’ neatly sums up all that I think is not quite right about much contemporary fiction. I refer to the lack of structure, indifferent writing, inconsistent characterization, and a host of other problems.) Here’s Donna Leon on the subject of narrative point of view; specifically, the issues raised by an author’s choice to write in the first person.
The practical danger resulting from the decision to use the first person should be immediately obvious: the acquisition of information. There are only o many ways a character can obtain information: he can hear it or see it or read it. (Okay, smell and taste, but let’s be serious here.) Does he hear or does he overhear?If he’s going to hear it, then he has to be a character who is sufficiently sympathetic to be trusted by many different people and thus trusted with their confidences. If he’s going to overhear, then he’s got to be lucky to be in the right place at the right time. when the wrong things are said.
I recommend this essay not only to writers, but also to readers in search of criteria to use when evaluating their reading matter. After I read it, I thought to myself, so that’s why Leon’s Guido Brunetti novels are so excellent.
“Obscurity was his nature as well as his profession” – The Usual Suspects discuss John LeCarre’s A Murder of Quality
Some twenty years ago, Graham Lord, a would-be biographer of John LeCarre, was making the rounds of publishers with a book proposal. The confidential document promised some truly salacious revelations. Lord thought he might be sitting on a gold mine!
Then came the threatening letters. Then Lord was served with a writ for libel. It became obvious that the subject of this potential blockbuster was determined that it should never see the light of day. Lord, who currently resides somewhere in the Caribbean, hastily backed off the project. When asked for further details by a Telegraph reporter, he demurred, saying, “I just don’t dare go through it again.” Apologizing for not being more helpful, he added, “Unfortunately most of the people he was close to are dead now, although I am sure there is no significance in that.” (One cannot help wondering – how sure is he?)
The basic facts of LeCarre’s early life are these: he was born David John Moore Cornwell in Poole, Dorset, in 1931. His parents were Ronnie and Olive Cornwell. He had an older brother and a younger sister. when he was five, Olive deserted the family, leaving the three children to Ronnie’s tender mercies.
Turns out that Ronnie Cornwell was a con man of epic proportions who purportedly made and lost several fortunes, was alleged to have been at one time an associate of the notorious Kray bothers, and spent four years in prison. Here’s LeCarre’s recollection of life with Father:
‘I don’t know how many times the bailiffs called…. “You have no idea how humiliating it was, as a boy, to suddenly have all your clothes, your toys, snatched by the bailiff. It made me ashamed, I felt dirty.”
Eventually David/John was sent to board at a school called Sherborne, where he experiences torments of a different sort:
Sherborne in my day had been rustic, colonialist, chauvinist, militarist, religious , patriotic and repressive. Boys beat other boys, housemasters beat boys, and even the headmaster turned his hand to beating boys when the crime was held to be sufficiently heinous or school discipline was thought to be slipping. I don’t know whether masters beat masters but, in any case, I loathed them, and I loathed their grotesque allegiances most of all. To this day, I can find no forgiveness for their terrible abuse of the charges entrusted to them.
It seems incredible now that such practices persisted well into the twentieth century. Fortunately, with regard to Sherborne and other schools like it, things have changed. Many are now co-educational and accept many more day students than was formerly the practice. Judging from its site, Sherborne itself, while still a boys only establishment, looks quite civilized.
LeCarre eventually went to Lincoln College, Oxford, graduating in 1956 with a first class Honors Degree degree in modern languages. He also studied abroad for a time in Switzerland. During all of this, he became involved in intelligence work, variously with the military, with MI5 and eventually MI6.
Of his childhood and its influence on his later life, LeCarre has this to say:
‘I was by nature a defector, a bolter. I come from bolting stock. My mother bolted in order to marry my father, bolted again when I was five, and stayed bolted for the rest of my childhood. My father bolted from his orthodox but repressive upbringing and kept bolting of necessity for most of his life – often from the arm of the law, and sometimes unsuccessfully…I myself bolted from an English public school at 16; from the burdens of bachelorhood at 23; from the twilight world of British intelligence at 33; and from a first marriage at 36.’
(That first marriage, to Alison Ann Veronica Sharp, ended in 1971. They’d had three sons together. The following year he married Valerie Jane Eustace, a book editor; that marriage, which produced another son, still endures.)
In 1986, LeCarre gave an in depth interview to Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times. This was timed to coincide with the publication of A Perfect Spy. In that novel, whose main character is Magnus Pym, LeCarre drew heavily on his recollections of Ronnie Cornwell in creating the character of Rick Pym, Magnus’s father. (Thanks to Pauline for pointing me to this article.)
As for his life at present, LeCarre claims it’s not all that interesting. His succinct summing up: “I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities. I write and walk and swim and drink.” Even so, there is a biography in the works, authorized this time, written by Adam Sisman and due out early next year:
John LeCarre has written twenty-two novels, six of which feature George Smiley as the protagonist. (Smiley has a supporting role in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The main character in that book is Alec Leamas, memorably portrayed in the 1965 film by Richard Burton.) A Murder of Quality (1962) comes second in LeCarre’s oeuvre. It is preceded by Call for the Dead (1961). For the complete list of LeCarre’s works, and awards and nominations, see the entry on Stop!You’re Killing Me.
I read A Murder of Quality because it was recommended to me by a library friend whose judgment I trust. When I at first demurred, saying that I always found LeCarre’s plots difficult to untangle, she reassured me that this was in fact a straight up murder mystery rather than a novel of espionage and was therefore easier to follow. (She was partly right.) Moreover, the chief investigator is none other than the redoubtable George Smiley himself.
Up until this time, I had read only two LeCarre novels: Smiley’s People, when it came out in 1980, and The Constant Gardner (2000). But like many thriller fans, I’m intrigued by George Smiley: his origins, his characteristics, and above all, his strangely incongruous marriage to the beautiful and inconstant aristocrat, Lady Ann Sercomb.
LeCarre himself has named two individuals as inspiraton for his creation. One is John Bingham, a fellow novelist and his mentor at MI5, and the Reverend Vivian Green, sub-Rector of Lincoln College Oxford, while LeCarre was a student there.
In his 1992 introduction to a re-issue of Call for the Dead, LeCarre has warm praise for Bingham:
John Bingham started me off, there is no doubt of it. John looked a bit like Smiley and wrote his thrillers in the lunch hour. Later he became, through no fault of his own , an Earl, a transition I can never quite forgive in anybody with a sense of humour . He was one of the good ones, all the same, Earl or spy: a kindly, gracious, astute man, ex-journalist, ex– Control Commission, intelligence professional to his fingertips.
Bingham, however, was more reserved in his assessment of his former protege. In a letter that has come to light as part of a trove of recently released documents, he expressed the belief that in portraying intelligence officers as fools and bumblers in his fiction, LeCarre was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. In a letter to the Telegraph dated last March 5, LeCarre fired back this riposte:
Where Bingham believed that uncritical love of the Secret Services was synonymous with love of country, I came to believe that such love should be examined. And that, without such vigilance, our Secret Services could in certain circumstances become as much of a peril to our democracy as their supposed enemies.
John Bingham may indeed have detested this notion. I equally detest the notion that our spies are uniformly immaculate, omniscient and beyond the vulgar criticism of those who not only pay for their existence, but on occasion are taken to war on the strength of concocted intelligence.
(Yet another person has been identified as possibly providing source material for LeCarre’s depiction of George Smiley. He is Sir Maurice Oldfield, former chief of MI6, Sir Maurice died in 1981 at age 65.)
Call for the Dead opens with a chapter entitled “A Brief History of George Smiley.” Portions of it seem almost gleefully nasty, at least to this reader (The Sawley here referred to is Viscount Sawley, a relation of Lady Ann’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. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that “Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou’wester.” And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.
“Waddled?” Really? At any rate, two years after these highly unusual nuptials, the bride runs off with a Cuban racing car driver, leaving poor Smiley bereft. Never fear, Smiley; you have not seen the last of Lady Ann! (Click here to read the full text of this chapter.)
“Black Candles,” the first chapter of A Murder of Quality, serves as an introduction to Carne School. We then meet two students, Caley and Perkins. Perkins plays a key role in the story; Caley disappears without a trace. We next find ourselves at a dinner party hosted by one Terence Fielding, a senior house master at the school. His guests are Charles Hecht and his wife Shane. All is amicable on the surface – but only on the surface. Fielding obviously hasn’t much use for Charles Hecht, and he positively loathes his wife: “Shane was so hideous. Massive and enveloping, like a faded Valkyrie. All that black hair.” Fielding also can’t help feeling revulsion as he thinks “…of Hecht pasturing in that thick body.” (I have to comment: there’s something about the use of the word ‘pasturing’ in this context that positively made my stomach churn.)
In Chapter Two, entitled “The Thursday Feeling,” we find ourselves in London, in the company of Miss Ailsa Brimley, editor of a small but persistent journal called Christian Voice. She has just completed preparations for the forthcoming issue and is feeling quite satisfied with life in general and her work in particular.
Miss Brimley, alone in the Voice office, is getting ready to shut up shop for the day when a letter comes inadvertently to her attention. It is from Stella Rode, a long time subscriber and supporter of Christian Voice. She is now the wife of a faculty member at Carne School. The purport of this letter is startling and deeply disturbing: Stella fears that her husband intends to kill her. She does not want to involve the police in this matter, at least not yet. Can Miss Brimley help her?
Miss Brimley can. She knows just who to call. She and George Smiley had worked together in the intelligence service during the war. And in fact, they had both worked with Adrian Fielding, brother of Terence Fielding, currently at Carne School. Within minutes, Miss Brimley is in George Smiley’s flat. Smiley puts through a call to Terence Fielding at Carne and receives some shocking news. He, Smiley, must proceed to Carne without delay. The game is already afoot.
Several further points about this chapter, which sets the scene so dramatically for all that is to come. There’s a striking descriptive passage that occurs as Miss Brimley struggles to come to grips with Stella Rode’s desperate plea:
Abruptly she stood up, the letter still in her hand, and walked to the uncurtained window. Just in front of her was a contemporary window-box of woven white metal. It was odd, she reflected, how she could never get anything to grow in that window-box. She looked down into the street, a slight, sensible figure leaning forward a little and framed by the incandescent fog outside; fog made yellow from the stolen light of London’s streets. She could just distinguish the street lamps far below, pale and sullen. She suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and on an impulse quite alien to her usual calm, she opened the window wide . The quick cold and the angry surge of noise burst in on her, and the insidious fog followed. The sound of traffic was constant, so that for a moment she thought it was the turning of some great machine . Then above its steady growl she heard the newsboys. Their cries were like the cries of gulls against a gathering storm. She could see them now, sentinels among the hastening shadows.
Ailsa Brimley is of a type: the brisk, no-nonsense, competent, dutiful spinster upon whom others know they can rely. It is a trope that appears not infrequently in British fiction. In Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison, another such is Miss Climpson, who is given useful employment by Lord Peter Wimsey. Without her cunning and resourcefulness, he might not have been able to save his innamorata, Harriet Vane, from the gallows. (We of the Suspects agreed that Miss Brimley was a wonderful character and quite possibly the only likeable female in the novel.)
Upon arriving at Carne, Smiley finds himself in an enclosed, almost claustrophobic atmosphere, rife with cynicism, suspicion and dislike. LeCarre has denied that his own alma mater Sherborne, served as the model for Carne, but that seems rather disingenuous on his part. Our group had the benefit of Pauline’s familiarity with British educational practices during this time. She herself briefly attended a girls’ boarding school – she even had a pen pal at Sherborne! And she made an interesting observation; namely, that often when children and youths find themselves living in a trying situation such as boarding school can be, with no parents nearby to advise and encourage them, they’re forced to fall back on their own resources. For some, that can be a strengthening experience.
In A Murder of Quality, we find more intriguing clues to George Smiley’s true character:
It was a peculiarity of Smiley’s character that throughout the whole of his clandestine work he had never managed to reconcile the means to the end . 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 bit later, in the same chapter, we’re told of Smiley that “Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession.” LeCarre goes on to make a general observation that “The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction.” As Ian Fleming had already sprung James Bond on a delighted reading public – the first, Casino Royale, came out in 1954 – we can guess what probably prompted this comment.
And of course we still have the conundrum of Smiley’s wayward wife. The venomous Shane Hecht manages to get a dig in at Smiley on the subject:
“There was a fellow called Smiley married Ann Sercomb, Lord Sawley’s cousin. Damned pretty girl, Ann was, and went and married this fellow. Some funny little beggar in the Civil Service with an OBE and a gold watch. Sawley was damned annoyed.”
Smiley, apparently accustomed to this sort of mockery, does not respond.
Frances had an interesting theory about Lady Ann. Perhaps she recognized the fact that Smiley had an extraordinary mind and might be a fascinating person to live with. Unfortunately, she did not have the bottle to stick around and see if the idea bore fruit.
Someone – sorry, I forgot who – observed that for a book written in the early 1960s, A Murder of Quality reflected almost no awareness of the seismic social and political changes engulfing the world. In fact, Britain was just on the cusp of those changes: decimalization of their currency, decriminalization of homosexual acts in private, between consenting adults, and abolition of the death penalty for murder – all were shortly to come. So, in the sense, this novel reflects old mores and antiquated prejudices, about to be swept away (Although this is doesn’t quite produce the wholesale change in hearts and minds that people assume it will, at least not at the beginning). At any rate, when Fielding cries out, “They’ll hang me,” he has good reason to fear.
Pauline had with her an edition of Call for the Dead which included a foreword by Otto Penzler. Penzler was of the opinion that LeCarre’s characters shared certain traits with those of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. When Pauline first mentioned this, I thought it bizarre, but after the discussion had gotten under way, I think we were more able to grasp his point. I’ve already said that Ailsa Brimley was of a type; the same might be said of Felix D’Arcy and his sister Dorothy, Jane Lyn, or “mad Janie,” Stanley Rode, Shane Hecht, and even Terence Fielding himself. They’re real people, yet they are also exaggerated portrayals. For his part, Inspector Rigby was the world weary yet stalwart and conscientious law officer so often encountered in detective fiction, from Sergeant Cuff and Inspector Bucket down to the present day. What one misses in this novel and so readily finds in the works of Dickens and Austen is the occasional lightening of tone, if not downright comic relief. The atmosphere in A Murder of Quality is almost unremittingly grim, almost Gothic.
I had a problem with Stella Rode. The different facets of her character – reported to us, of necessity, by others – did not seem to cohere. Others in the group, however, disagreed with me, believing that she was sufficiently cunning to encompass contradictory traits and to deceive the unsuspecting in the process of exercising her wiles.
So, who was the most genuinely interesting, even appealing, character in the novel? One whose actions and reactionstended to be both unexpected and unpredictable? For me, that person was George Smiley.
I haven’t said much about the actual plot of this murder mystery. That’s because I thought it at several key junctures to be quite confusing. (The other Suspects present largely agreed with me.) Also a great deal of explication and explanation was piled on at the very end of the book. This happens not infrequently in crime novels, and I always find it to some degree unsatisfactory.
I think the over all verdict of our group was that A Murder of Quality was an interesting novel in many ways, but something of a period piece as well as a journeyman work for LeCarre. The novel that followed, his third, took the literary world by storm. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold signaled the end of LeCarre’s apprenticeship and his emergence into the world of spy fiction as a true master.
Suspects, I hope you enjoyed this discussion as much as I did!
I loved this description of the village of Pylle, which lies adjacent to Carne:
The village of Pylle lies to the south of North Fields, upon a high spur which rises steeply from the flat, 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 low-lands 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 bronze 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.