Tuesday, 16 May 2017

TNC: What Came After the Cold War?

Helen's MonthThe Tuesday Night Club is a group of Golden Age crime fiction fans, writing on a different theme each month. A frequent contributor, and one of our founder members, was the wonderful Helen Szamuely, who died in April. There’s an obituary for her here, and a personal memory from someone who obviously knew her well here. And there's more of an introduction to her in my previous posts

We have decided to nominate May as a tribute month:

Helen's Month

Posts might feature an author or a character called Helen; or be involved with her great interests in life: Europe, History or Russia; or any other connection that works.

Bev Hankins has done the splendid Helen logo for us.

I am collecting the links this month, so check back here to catch up on the other posts.

Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is looking at a story published in Helen's birth year - check it out here.

So far I have done a post on a book Helen Szamuely recommended to me - Murder a la Mode by Eleanore Kelly Sellars – and a look at crime writer Helen McCloy’s Two Thirds of a Ghost.

This week I’ve veered over to her other interests: I’m looking at a classic by John Le Carre, a book about how the security services coped with the post-Cold War period, when their jobs had disappeared…

Our Game by John Le Carre

published 1995

Our Game Le Carre 1

Now we are lounging in the walled garden among our vines, telling ourselves that by our presence we are nurturing them to the last stage of their fruition. Emma has the swing chair and is wearing the Watteau look that I encourage in her: wide hat, long skirt, her blouse unbuttoned to the sun while she sips Pimm’s reads sheets of music, and I watch her, which is all I want to do for the rest of my life.

Our Game 2

She is a tall girl and a very pretty one, and her legs are remarkably good…. Her clothes part Salvation Army, part Edith Piaf on the stomp.
our Game 3commentary: When the Berlin Wall came down, a lot of questions came up – the future of the world, the fate of various people, would there be names emerging in newly discovered files? And – very importantly – what was John le Carre going to write about? He was the Bard of the Cold War, the writer who taught us all about deception and double lives, and the shadowy world of the Circus. Smiley was our battered hero, trying to keep his honour bright. But with détente and the end of communism (well…), what would be left for him to write about?

This book was one of his early answers, and it is a wonder: the story of Tim, the man who no longer has a role to play, and who retires to grow grapes and produce English wine. He meets the young and magical Emma. He keeps up a friendship with one of his old friends/work contacts, Larry. For a time it seems that post-USSR life will be a delight.

But then Larry disappears, and who knows where Emma is? Tim, his life falling apart and his heart on the edge of being broken, finds himself being investigated. What does he know, and what should he tell?

Readers of the book seem to divide into those who found the first two-thirds quite slow, then the action finale wonderful, and those whose preferences came the other way round. I was definitely in the second camp: I loved the slow skin-crawling interrogations, the trips up to London to shadowy offices, the sudden bursts of activity when Tim showed wholly unexpected competence in house-burgling and checking files. I liked the tight tension of some of the later sequences, but I found them less entrancing than the slow push through 90s England. (Though really, some of it seemed much more like 70s England – you would never know from this book that things had changed at all since Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy…)

I liked not knowing where the book was going, but it was obvious it was going to involve the Caucusus and the various different small groups there: the Chechnyans, the Ossetians and the Ingushetians. John Le Carre obviously knew perfectly well that the world problems were not going to end, and he had a good idea where future troubles and threats would come from.

And he also has some characters who talk in the most unlikely way, like extreme cartoons, and others who are wholly convincing, truly real people. Tim, Emma and Larry were all three so believable to me. Tim has his slightly rigid view of the world – I loved his shock when Emma wants to kiss him 'in the Connaught?'  -  it's a very grand London hotel restaurant: he thinks it inappropriate. (Nancy Mitford would have laughed - she and her lover Gaston Palewski had a running joke about behaving badly at the Connaught). 

And there's his disdain for the way Larry wears his raincoat:
He had worn [the belt] knotted. It had a perfectly good buckle, if you have to wear a belt with your raincoat, but the buckle wasn’t good enough for Larry. He had to knot his belt like a gigolo.
And yet this restrained, repressed man has a most convincing all-consuming love for Emma, whose affections he tries to buy, or at least pin down, with beautiful things. She is as annoying in the book as she would be in real life, but she was also very familiar – most of us have known someone like Emma. And someone like Larry – clever and badly-behaved and wild. He and Tim were at Winchester College together (a very expensive school for very clever boys with very rich parents, and one that I can see from my house) and the relationship established there doesn’t change. It is real and believable in its complexity and the way opposites attract. ‘You stole my life, I stole your woman.’

And some lovely glancing looks at the old days of tradecraft:
When God invented the supermarket, we used to say in the Office, he provided us spies with something we had till then only dreamed of: a place where any fool could transfer anything in the world from one car to another without any other fool noticing.
And Tim’s colleague’s question to him when the new relationship has been reported in:
‘Would you like to take a tiny deniable peek at her biog before you plunge? I’ve made up a little doggy-bag for you to take home.’
Tim, ever the honourable man, says No – for now.

And there are moments of real psychological depth. Tim again:
Past mistakes in love, I want to tell her, can no more be explained than rectified. But she is young and still believes, I suppose, that everything has an explanation if you look hard enough for it… 

She smiles, and I, in a fit of secret anger, find myself comparing her with Larry. You beautiful people are exempt from life’s difficult tests, aren’t you? I want to tell her. You don’t have to try so hard, do you? You can sit there and judge life instead of being judged by it.
I think Le Carre is surprisingly good at clothes, too (my version of Emma’s clothes, above, are from fashion magazines of the era.) Larry comes to the vineyard wearing a French peasant smock – a subject dealt with at length in the blogpost and the comments on Patricia Wentworth’s Anna Where Are You? He is also wearing his school straw boater, called a strat – the schoolboys like their exclusive chitchat, and I presume this is a joke shortening of a Winchester(h)at, in fake common accent. There is a memorable senior woman at the Office in a broad-shouldered navy blue suit with a white stock.

Few writers divide my opinion the way Le Carre does. This one (like Our Kind of Traitor, 2010) had a satisfying penultimate few pages, but then lost it with a completely abrupt and uninformative final page. But most of what had gone before was terrific: overall this book was a complete winner for me.

And I’m pretty sure Helen Szamuely would have enjoyed it too.


  1. I think le Carré is so good at building suspense and creating characters with more depth than you think they're going to have. He's certainly good at the unexpected and the slow reveal, in my opinion. Glad you liked this one, Moira, despite the one or two things that didn't work so well for you.

    1. Yes Margot, he is so good at creating a world and everyone in it - you can really enjoy getting lost there at the right moment, and it was the perfect book for me when I started it.

  2. Tim has the wrong end of the stick. Life does not exempt the beautiful from tests; there are far too many people around who will despise and belittle them and count their accomplishments as nothing, simply because they rolled sevens and elevens in the genetic crap game.

    1. That's a firm answer! I remember in a Psychology class we were shown research showing that beautiful people got off lightly with juries over some crimes; but not anything where they were considered to have used their looks to help them. So it was judged more serious if they were eg con artists or fraudsters.
      thinking about it in relation to the book - Tim is shown as being very aware and competent in some areas, and not at all in others, so I suppose the reader can decide...

  3. I really enjoyed this one as a story of middle-aged malaise disguised as a spy story - I thought the ending was fine n that context. It reminded me of CONSTANT GARDNER (which came after, but still ...).

    1. I can think of a few endings of his that I didn't care for - but I don't hold it against him. I did like CG, book and film, and the closing sequence of the film was astonishing - no complaints there.
      And yes - he's very good on middle-aged malaise!

  4. A bit more like it, it's on the pile (in a tub) somewhere..one day, assuming I start reading some older books that I own, instead of all the new, bright, shiny ones I get.

    1. You need to cut off the supply, refuse the new books! I think you'd like this one. Have you read other Le Carre, I can't remember?

    2. The first Smiley book a few years ago now. Most of not all of his canon still waits in the tubs

  5. I happened to mention to my sister last night that I prefer mysteries to spy stories, and she wholeheartedly concurred and said she had never cared for le Carré. So,I thought about the le Carré books I had really liked and realized there were some spy stories I liked a lot (I've read the first two Mick Herron Slow Horses books and LOVED them). This one sounds like one I'd really like.

    P.S. I gave all the Ruth Galloway books to my sister to read, and she started the first one at the dentist's the other day. She had a chance to read only a very little, but she came home and said she knew why I liked them. I was just like Ruth! I was astonished, as I've read all she's written so far and never thought I was like her. But I guess I am a little. What is that saying about seeing ourselves as others see us?

    1. Oh I so agree about the Mick Herrons, I love them.

      And what an intriguing thing for your sister to say! Life is always full of interest and surprises: I can imagine that was a good thing to hear.

    2. I was really complimented! :-)

  6. Ruth Galloway is a wonderful character, so realistic.

    I haven't read any books by John Le Carre, although my father read the ones the writer published during his lifetime.

    But I liked the film of The Constant Gardener, which almost pushed me to read the book. Are they very similar? Or different?

    1. Ruth is marvellous, I think we would all like to be like her.
      It's a while since I saw or read CG, but I think they are largely similar and both very good. I liked that JLC took a stand in the work: there could be no doubt that he felt very strongly about the issues within.

  7. After the end of the Cold War, Le Carre wrote some good books (this one, THE NIGHT MANAGER, THE CONSTANT GARDNER)but I've not really got very far with a number of the newer ones. You may have hit the nail on the head when you say that his view of '90s England looking and sounding strangely like the '70s. I do wonder if he ever sits at his typewriter and waves his fist in the air, declaiming 'Damn You, Cold War, why did you have to go away and leave me?!'. It sounds strange to say, but I'm not sure that he's really happy writing about the modern world. A MOST WANTED MAN is shot through with his apparent belief that the Western Security Services are paranoid about the infiltration of Islamic Terrorists,which seems way off the mark. In the earlier books he was writing about something that he seemed to have a real knowledge of, but at times it seems as if he is as clueless as the rest of us (in comparison to someone like Fredrick Forsyth, who whatever one thinks of his actual writing, does feel as if he understands the world that he's writing about).


    1. Yes, interesting: it's quite possible that he knows no more about the secret aspects of the world nowadays than anyone else. And based on this one, he doesn't know much about everyday life. but I do enjoy some of his books - though perhaps for other reasons than the face value ones. I think he is quite sentimental, soft-centred: not necessarily a bad thing, but he's not really a tough writer, unlike some of his contemporaries.

  8. I do like that Le Carre took a stand in The Constant Gardener. The plot is based on a real pharmaceutical company using children in Nigeria, I believe, to test antibiotics that were only prescribed for adults. Children got sick. The company then did not prescribe it for children in the States.

    I believe that Nigeria sued the company, which I think was Pfizer, but the courts would not grant that the case could go through the courts. I have to look this up again, but I have read that his book is based on a real incident.

    I do not believe murder was involved; that was the author's inventiveness at play.

    1. I think I heard there was a factual basis, but I didn't know as much as that. I will go and look it up.

  9. Here's a Wikipedia article on the Trovan situation.

  10. To further explain what I posted about Trovan, the drug was tested in Nigeria by Pfizer on children; terrible results occurred. Nigeria did sue Pfizer. That entry at Wikipedia explains this.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, which will help anyone coming here new to the story! I will look up the Wikipedia article.