Friday, 26 May 2017

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

published 2014

Funny Girl 1

[1968: the opening night of the musical Hair. Dennis and Sophie are attending together]

The audience for Hair was a surprisingly typical first-night crowd: lots of men in suits and their nervous-looking wives. Dennis was both disappointed and relieved. He would have enjoyed telling his mother that he’d spent the evening sitting amidst long-haired, bare-chested men and kohl-eyed, bare-breasted women, but many of the men looked as though they’d come straight from the City, and their wives straight off the 5.20 from Godalming. The men had a gleam in their eyes that might not have been there if they were about to sit through three hours of The Cherry Orchard, and there was a loud, and somewhat self-congratulatory, hum of anticipation before the curtain came up. But – and here was the relief – Dennis didn’t look out of place. He would go so far as to say that he looked rather young and bohemian compared to a lot of the people there – he’d decided, at the last moment and as a concession to the winds of change, to wear an open-necked shirt and a striped blazer.

Sophie looked extraordinary in a canary-yellow minidress and white boots, and the photographers in the foyer surrounded her.

Funny Girl 2

commentary: Half the features in Funny Girl are tropes I regularly object to. The heroine has two names, Barbara and Sophie, and – she's an actress and comedienne – her role of a lifetime over several years involves playing a woman called Barbara. I can just hear myself: ‘how dare he assume the reader can be bothered to keep track of that?’ The viewpoint shifts all over the place – there’ll be a scene involving several characters, and we go into it with one of them and leave with another. Real-life incidents, such as this, the opening night of Hair, and people – Jimmy Page, Terence Stamp – are pushed into the book in minor roles. There are real black and white photos from the era as illustrations. (Actually I  never mind that, no objections at all.)

And in fact I loved the book without hesitation or reservation. The name business is perfectly reasonable, and one of the strands of the book is the parallels and confusion between a TV series, the cast and crew, a fictional family and a real family – so the name confusion is perfect. He does the changes of POV beautifully, and I liked the glimpses of real people.

Nick Hornby is one of my favourite writers anyway (see his books and mentions of him all over the blog) – but that wouldn’t necessarily mean I loved this: many of his fans were very disappointed by it. Reading the reviews on amazon was fascinating, because they were evenly distributed. You can always ignore a lot of the reviews (‘arrived in good condition’ ‘this is a really terrible book so I only read 30 pages of it’) but the thoughtful bad comments were particularly intriguing because the criticism were of the features of the book that I most enjoyed.

Hornby is an incredibly literate, well-educated and well-read person, but there are two ways in which his books are unusual: he writes as though he has heard novels described but has never read one, so he tells a story in strikingly unusual ways (it is no wonder he likes Nina Stibbe, of whom I said something similar); and he has overtly said he likes books, his included, to be entertaining and interesting and funny, no matter how serious and literary their purpose. He says: all books can (and perhaps should) be all those things.  And he lives by what he says – his books are exactly that.

There is a certain inconsequentiality, a vagueness about it, and I loved that. It’s a book that will float over months and many events in a short time, then zero in on a short meeting or event and give it in great detail. He made that work very well, along with the characters moving in and out and being followed by the authorial eye.

The reviews I could not get on with for a moment were those (often from people saying that they were previously fans of Hornby) that said this book wasn’t funny. I thought it was hilarious, always witty and at times hysterically funny. There were pages and pages of incredible dialogue, that had me falling about – but at the same time those pages were wonderfully informative and convincing about the process of writing, the process of trying to be funny, about being part of a team trying to create something.
‘Where are you from, Sophie?’ said Dennis.
‘I’m from Blackpool.’
‘You see, that’s interesting,’ said Dennis.
‘Is it?’ Sophie was genuinely surprised.
‘Coming from Blackpool is more interesting than being a vicar’s daughter.’
‘Couldn’t she be a vicar’s daughter from Blackpool?’ said Tony.
‘She’s no vicar’s daughter,’ said Clive. ‘
I’m assuming that’s rude,’ said Sophie.
There was something in the room, Dennis thought.

Nick Hornby writes about being a reader better than almost anyone I know – he did a regular column for the magazine The Believer called ‘Stuff I’ve been Reading’, and they were collected into books that are a great read (although you end up with a list of books to find). Some of  my favourite books have come from these collections. He wrote a wonderful description of that rare feeling of finishing a book and of loving it so much you can’t read anything else, you are still lost in the world of the book. I was so glad that he described that – I have had it with a very few books, including Hilary Mantel’s two Thomas Cromwell books. And although I didn’t feel Funny Girl was my favourite book ever, it didn’t change my world – but still, I was so lost in the book that I had to read through my favourite bits again rather than starting something new. I am certain this book is one I will re-read more than once.

An absolute topclass book – though not for everyone.

The pictures show Girl in a Yellow Dress by Wayne Thiebaud, and the singer Diana Ross in Courreges from a website pleasingly called c PleasurePhoto

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hat Heaven: Mosaic by GB Stern

published 1930

Mosaic Hat 3

[Aged aunts Letti and Berthe are entertaining young relations from England in their Paris apartment]

Letti staggered in with the albums, busily dusted them, and they were plumped down in front of Val, Berthe sitting beside her to explain, Letti leaning over her other shoulder, Helen poised nonchalantly on the table, surveying her ancestors upside down….Val flipped over page after page, stopping every now and then for a luscious explanation from Berthe, or to give a shout of recognition at the sight or Truda in a particularly dressy blouse… Pretty little Susan Lake, the first Goyisher girl to marry into the Rakonitz family, looking sweet and modest and religious under a hat that had practically everything on it that a hat could possibly hope to have in this or the next world

Mosaic 2

[Helen] pulled off her hat, and held it, a fantastic two-cornered shape, flat and black, across her knees… With her Punchinello nose, her black and…white Chanel jumper cut into lozenges and diamonds, each posture as though it were snipped by a pair of flashing scissors, she might well have been a figure from an ultra-modern form of harlequinade.

commentary: I’ve already done an entry just about corsets in this endlessly rewarding book. The hats also are overflowing in Mosaic – there’s a nice 1885 mention of a ‘high bonnet with a bird’s wing on one side’, and endless trouble arises from the fashion for directoire hats ‘whose crowns were one inch in depth, very disconcerting for the Rakonitz ladies with their heritage of thick hair.’

Mosaic Hat bird

But all the clothes descriptions are wonderful throughout.

And then there is this on mourning, after a rather distant connection has died:
Papa did not think it necessary to go into full mourning… he went into Peter Robinson’s and asked for grey gloves, and the shop-walker, a very polite young fellow, said to him: ‘Grey gloves, sir? That will be in our Semi-Bereavement Department.’ We simply couldn’t stop laughing…
Me too.

On another semi-bereavement occasion – light purple colours are the key - the bridesmaids at a wedding:

Mosaic Hat mauvewere quietly dressed in mauve taffeta; but for the dinner and dance in the evening, they changed into full evening dress, white satin with broad mauve velvet ribbon running round the edge of the bodice, and a fringe of violets, and mauve cotton stockings with lace-work up the front, and mauve leather shoes… and mauve suede gloves - right up the arms.

Which sounds rather festive, but then ‘nobody cared very much for the elderly Czelovar-Bettelheim relation who had recently died’.

(The picture, by Giovanni Boldini, via the Athenaeum, shows a dress that is probably far more revealing than those of the bridesmaids, but is nicely dashing, and all those chairs in the way of the dancing looks exactly like a wedding…)

The characters are described as fully as their clothes, and their (many) foibles are treated with kindness. Berthe, one of the key characters in the book, whose adult life is followed throughout, is the kind of person you can recognize completely – as she gets older she is forever boasting about the great singing career she could have had, and about all the men who were in love with her.
On her 67th birthday she finally made a stand at ’20 years ago’ and did not depart from it: ‘Helas, it is too late to start now!’
The descriptions are funny, Berthe is sharply skewered, and the descriptions of her singing are absolutely hilarious. But there is a kindness that is missing from, for example, George Eliot’s dealing with the singing of Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda, or the despised music of a character in Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows

And I am, always, endlessly grateful to Hilary McKay (someone else who writes so well about families) for telling me about the books. There are multiple earlier entries on the first two books, The Matriarch and A Deputy was King.

The harlequin photo is from a much later date than the extract, but the hat and diamonds seem right, and Helen was always way ahead in fashion…

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

TNC: Helen’s Month. Defectors…

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:

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 writing about a crime short story by Anton Chekhov

My first post for the month was on a book Helen Szamuely recommended to me - Murder a la Mode by Eleanore Kelly Sellars; then I looked at crime writer Helen McCloy’s Two Thirds of a Ghost. Last week I looked at John Le Carre’s classic Our Game -  about the aftermath of the Cold War, about what happened to the now redundant spies: a true subject for Helen.

This week I’m looking at a brand-new book (it will be published on 1st June), but one that is set in 1961, and looks at the fate of spies who defected to the Soviet Union. Again, right up Helen’s street.


Defectors by Joseph Kanon

published 2017


[1961. Simon Weeks is visiting his brother Frank in Moscow: Frank was a Soviet spy who fled to the USSR when he was about to be uncovered]

Red Square. A place he’d seen in a thousand photographs, filled with tanks and military saluted and politburo members who disappeared from the pictures a year later, airbrushed from memory. He’d always imagined a gray ceremonial square, boxed in by Kremlin towers, but instead it was open and bright, flooded with light, the onion domes of St Basil’s at the far end swirls of colour, GUM department store frilly and ornate, something a child’s illustrator might have dreamed up. People hurrying across to work. Anywhere. He looked at the high fortress walls. Where Stalin had sat up at night putting check marks next to names on a list. Names he knew, names other people knew, names that struck his fancy. Terror had no logic. Check. Gone. Night after night.

Defectors Dacha

[Simon attends a lunch party at a dacha, attended by a number of defectors]

Joanna had sun for her party, a spring day warm enough for summer. A long wicker table and chairs had been set up on the lawn, something out of a tsarist era photograph, the family posed around an outdoor table… revolution just a thundercloud away. Now there were bottles of Georgian wine and Hanna Rubin in a dowdy sundress.

commentary: Often spy novels are quite sprawling, spanning a long period of time, perhaps a double timeframe, and travelling with the agents from one place to another. This book is the opposite: it almost resembles a Greek drama in its unities. It takes place over the course of a couple of days in 1961, and 90% of it is set in Moscow. There are tempting memories for the characters, but Kanon refuses to go in for the usual flashbacks.

It’s a great setup: Simon and Frank Weeks are brothers, sons of an important and highly respectable (and one guesses rich) American political family. They were born to rule. But 12 years earlier, Frank had been exposed as a Soviet spy, and only just managed to escape to Moscow, where he’s been living ever since. Simon’s own diplomatic career was ruined, but now he is a publisher. And he has been given the chance to publish his brother’s memoirs, and has flown in to go over the MS with him, to sort out the details. It turns out that Frank’s wife Joanna (who is in Moscow too) has some history with Simon. Of course both brothers are under constant surveillance.

It is a most winning assembly of circumstances: you know it’s not just going to be about copyright and the royalties – something is going to happen. And Kanon turns it all into a great, enthralling and very tense book: this is a fabulous read.

Frank is an amalgam of some US and British spies – but has a lot in common with Kim Philby: not so much the history (though anyone familiar with the story will be substituting ‘Albanian’ for ‘Latvian’ at certain points), as the attitudes and the positioning and the post-defection life. Frank’s book is to be called ‘My Secret Life’, Philby’s very similar book is called ‘My Silent War’.

Significantly, Philby is just about the only real-life spy of the era not mentioned in the book – several of them have walk-on roles. Then there is the lunch-party at the dacha (weekend house in the country) in the second extract above – other (fictional) defectors attend, and it is a particularly compelling scene, I wished it would go on forever.

But I also loved many of the other scenes as they travelled around Moscow, and later the then-Leningrad, and the occasional fascinating comments. Frank points to
‘Gorky Street… Everybody wanted to live here then. You know, Moscow’s still medieval that way – people want to be close to the castle, to the center.’
Perhaps even un-American rather than mediaeval?

There’s quite a dreamy atmosphere to the first half: to describe it as ‘slow’ would be quite wrong, but it skims along nicely as you try to work out what is going on. It explodes into action around half way through, and becomes almost unputdownable. It is extremely well-plotted, and full of unexpected events, right through to a strangely touching ending.

Throughout the book, the Americans are referred to as the Agency (CIA)  and the Russians as the Service (KGB). I (not being a spy) did occasionally have to think which was which. And a point was made in the book that I’ve often thought: ‘Defectors’ is the title of the book, and I have used the word in this post, but:
‘It’s a funny word, defector. Latin, defectus. To desert. Lack something. Makes it sound as if we had to leave something behind. To change sides. But we were already on this side. We didn’t leave anything.’
It’s not an overlong book, but it also fits in, alongside the tense and compelling plot, considerations of the life of a Western spy resettled in the USSR, the meaning of being an agent or a spy, the moral considerations, the philosophies involved.

Anyone who likes spy fiction will love this book… I have read and enjoyed several excellent books by Joseph Kanon, and this is the best so far.

The top picture shows the British spy Guy Burgess in Red Square Moscow, with Tom Driberg, a British politician who visited him there.

The painting is by Aleksandr Gerasimov showing a young woman at a dacha in 1912. I found it on Wikimedia Commons: it had been picked up from this site.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Sunnylea by Jean Metcalfe

published 1980


Sunnylea 4Sunnylea

Father works in the Southern Railway in their Head Office at Waterloo Station. He loves his job because trains are his life. He can recognize rolling stock from its shadow on a wall. And his free season ticket in its celluloid holder allows us to live here where there are catkins and butterflies, away from London.

Mother is a self-effacing smiling lady who thinks that, outside her own home, everyone is better at everything than she is. Her dairymaid prettiness which Father carried in a sepia photograph through the war, is becoming contentedly plump so she has taken to salmon-pink corsets with laces. Now and again, when she has made sure that no-one will be calling, they glow on the washing line like a bright cotton sunset and the bones creak in the wind.

Sunnylea 2Sunnylea 3

commentary: This is a gorgeous book.  I got the tipoff from blogfriend Daniel Milford Cottam, who’d seen a reference to it elsewhere - that description of the corsets on the line was what grabbed the attention of all of us.

It looks like a children’s book – text on one page, an illustration facing it - but I don’t think it is particularly. It is a memoir: Jean Metcalfe, a very well-known broadcaster in her day, is talking about her childhood in Reigate, south of London, and has painted beautiful watercolours to accompany her thoughts. Sunnylea is the name of her childhood home.

It’s just a straightforward picture of life in the 1920s in her family: simple, but immensely enjoyable, memorable and affecting. She remembers the arrival of their first wireless – she wasn’t impressed – and that this was an era where you wore your best clothes to go to the beach for the day. The book covers the 1920s – she was born in 1923, and in 1930 a little brother was born, bringing her memories to a close.

It is a beautiful, enchanting book, and someone should reprint it.

And of course this section covers two of Clothes in Books favourite things: hanging out the washing and corsets. (Readers’ favourites too –  that hanging out the washing item was by far the most popular post of 2015, and corsets are perennial winners.)

The top left picture is by John Sloan and can be found on Wikimedia Commons. Next to it there’s one of Jean Metcalfe’s own illustrations for the book, and the two lower pictures are an advert and a photo from the era.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald

published 2015, but with complex publication history, see below

Another Margaret

Another Margaret 2
I remember thinking Dr Hilary Quinn was not a bit like I’d been picturing her for the previous six months. I’d had visions of a rather frail, older woman with her hair up in a bun. Don’t ask me why; maybe my brain’s casting director lumped all bookish characters – professors, libararians, authors, bookstore clerks – into one type. All I knew is that Central Casting had to do a massive reshuffle when the office door swung open.

Dr Quinn was just average height for a woman in her late 40s or early 50s, but she held herself with such amazing posture that she seemed taller than me. She had shoulders I’d have killed for, the Joan Crawford kind but without the padding, and short dark hair that resembled anthracite with a few strategically-placed veins of silver running through it. She wore a large red sweater over a black and red tartan skirt. I was going to have to fire my casting personnel; Dr Quinn was altogether the quintessential professor.

commentary: There’s all kinds of interest in this apparently routine book. First of all, I came to it via my good friend Bill Selnes over at Mysteries and More. He said it was
The most unusual academic mystery I have read. Another Margaret is a nice surprise which will confound your expectations.
--so I was hooked at once and ordered copy. It’s a Canadian book, and was not easy to get hold of in the UK, but I managed it. And then (quel surprise) failed to read it, it sat on the shelf along with all the other tempting books. But Bill recently returned to Janice MacDonald, and with specific reference to me: in this blogpost he strongly urged me to read another book by the author, one with fascinating clothes references. So that finally forced me to pick up this book, and I was so glad I did: I agree with Bill that this is a splendid author, with a lot to say and a good line in detectives and crime. (I have downloaded his second recommendation, and will read it, and blog on it. Soon. Honest.)

The book has a Preface, to be read first, in which the author explains that Another Margaret is a rewrite of an earlier book by her (then called The Next Margaret) and she explains her reasons for doing this: apparently the first book is unavailable, and so she incorporated the plot into a new version of the story more than 20 years later… Most unusual.

As a result, the book has a dual timeline: We read about Miranda (Randy) Craig as she takes her first steps in academia, anxious to write about a new and marvellous Canadian author, Margaret Ahlers. MacDonald does a terrific job of creating the life, persona and work of the fictional Ahlers and (as Bill says) really makes you want to read her books. There is a fascinating story which ends in high drama. The book then takes us back to Randy’s current life: there is to be a reunion at her university, and some of the participants in the first story will be there… obviously, trouble is the result.

I loved many things about the book: I always like an academic setting, and this was a good one. We heard a lot about Randy’s life, followed her through her day in a way that reminded me of the much-loved Gail Bowen books (also Canadian, coincidence?) and the great (but very British) Cassandra James in Christine Poulson's books. Randy's interest in, and studies in, literature featured in a readable and intriguing way. There is a plotline concerning the mysterious Ahlers’ books which would be of particular interest to crime fiction readers. And there is much discussion of the difficulties of getting tenure, the culture of ‘publish or perish’, and the almost-arbitrary way in which works of literature (and non-literature) are divided up, and judged, and found either worthy or wanting.

The book is thought-provoking, but also funny and very entertaining. I liked the reunion party which is ‘just classy enough to show us we’ve come along, and still makeshift enough to feel grad-studentish.’ And I learned a new phrase:
This weekend was going to be a minefield of emotions, or as my students said, this would be a time of ‘all the feels.’
My only complaint would be that there was a giant plothole at the end, something left completely unexplained. But I enjoyed the rest so much I forgive her, and will move on to the next book.

Anyone who enjoys an academic mystery will like this one (you know who you are, Margot, Chrissie, Lucy,  Bev).

And thanks very much to Bill for the tipoff.

The book frequently mentions another Margaret, the Canadian grande dame of literature Margaret Atwood, who has featured on the blog here.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

I’ll Eat When I’m Dead by Barbara Bourland

published 2017
I'll Eat when I'm Dead 3

[fashion editor Cat is making notes on jewellery that has been sent in to her magazine]
Bracelet, rose gold, hinged band, with raised white enamel dots.
Very Julianne Moore in A Single Man.
Price point: Green ($5,000+)

Possible shoots: Day Drinking, January issue; Astronauts’ Wives, December issue; or Dotty for It, the Sylvia-Plath-in-a-mental-hospital-themed feature for the October issue, shooting in three weeks.

I'll Eat when I'm Dead 2Bess had placed a tray of possibilities on her desk next to the tray for Judy and the Technicolour Housecoat, Margot’s inspired shoot for the November issue about a bored suburban housewife who decides to eat a fistful of magic mushrooms and Scarlett O’Hara some clothes out of every goddam upholstered object in the house.

I'll Eat when I'm Dead 4I'll Eat when I'm Dead 5

[Arriving in Paris]

The base layer was a crisp black cotton mid-length dress with a full skirt and neckline that plunged… with her shorn hair, thick black eyeliner, block sunglasses and the rectangular leather backpack she’d brought as a carry-on, Cat looked like a terrorist sent from the future.

I'll Eat when I'm Dead 6

commentary: My friend Sarra Manning recommended this one to me (see her excellent book After the Last Dance on the blog) – she said I’d love it and she couldn’t have been more right. Of course a book set in the NY and Paris fashion world, a crime novel at that, will appeal to me – but it is so much more than that.

It bears a strange resemblance to a non-fiction book recently guest-blogged here: How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell. The titles could pretty well be reversed, and the heroine of I’ll Eat When I’m Dead is actually called Cat: at times I almost forgot they were different books.

Real-life Cat wrote about her work on New York fashion mags, and her spiralling addictions and honest over-sharing online. Fictional Cat is holding things together a bit better, but is worried about certain events at the fashion mag Rage, and the death of her mentor. The book is set in the very near future, and jumps around following the fashionistas from their Manhattan apartments to the state-of-the-art offices, to the huge parties and special events, to art installations and fashion shows, and eventually to Paris. It IS a crime story, but it is a very unusual one, and Bourland has – wrapped up in her designer fairtytale – some sharp points to make, and most interesting messages about the state of the world now. She has tackled social media and the online world head-on, and takes for granted a situation where everything is online and accessible, and where it is hard to keep any secrets.

And of course the clothes – described in enough detail even for me – are beyond fabulous: I loved them. I couldn’t hope to find pictures to illustrate directly, so instead have gone for a selection of pictures of NY and Paris street style round the time of their Fashion Weeks.

I'll Eat when I'm Dead 7

I'll Eat when I'm Dead 8I loved the book: I loved its combination of high fashion and high seriousness: as the guest blogger pointed out, it’s vanishingly rare to find an account of real women’s working lives, a book where women take their jobs and careers seriously: both these books do that – ironically in a world that many outsiders would dismiss as not-real-work.

The book looks at issues of feminism, size-ism and eating disorders, with particular relation to fashion, and also looks at ethical manufacturing. Bourland knows that people want there to be no sweatshops, but they also want cheap clothes.

She faces up to women’s desire to do great things in the world, and their equal interest in the way they look and dress. 

Here is Cat explaining to her assistant that she went to a girls-only school:
“We ate real food, played sports, spent a lot of time outside.”

Molly looked confused. “That sounds like lesbian summer camp.” 

“I think it was healthy,” Cat said.

“But how did you get into college?” Molly asked. “Didn’t you need to be, you know, the best or whatever? I’m not saying bulimia makes you ‘the best’; it’s just, you know… a real Type A thing to do. Like… being organized.”
And a few pages later we learn that vodka – ‘really cheap vodka, comes-in-a-plastic-bottle cheap’ – is useful for taking the body odour out of anything that hasn’t been dry-cleaned. 

This book goes everywhere. A fashion maven’s way of disguising herself is to dress in cheap clothes and sip at:
A venti Starbucks paper cup with “double caramel latte whip” written on the side, though it held plain black coffee… as good as wearing an invisiblity cloak.
This book is marvellous: I’m sure it will be dismissed by some as just more Sex and the City or The Devil Wears Prada, but Bourland is a brave, clever writer with something to say. I will be fascinated to read whatever she writes next.

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 d├ętente 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.