The 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:
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
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.
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.
commentary: 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…
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.
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.
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.