15 February 2013

Library Limelights 23

Tiny book reviews; subjective and superficial, that's moi. A reminder for not borrowing/buying the same book twice!

John Le Carré. A Most Wanted Man. Toronto: Penguin Group, 2008.
Some well-loved masters of crime and mystery novels are just more ... um, more masterly than others. In what might be dubbed the related or sub-genre of espionage, no-one beats the oeuvre of Le Carré (with a respectful bow to the classics of Len Deighton set in Berlin). Le Carré's real name is David Cornwell (not to be confused with Bernard of that ilk who wrote and still writes the "Sharpe" historical novels, probably because Sean Bean's face and figure are totally imprinted in our brains).

The opening scenes set immediate suspicions with an ominous stalker. Central figure Issa is a conundrum. How innocuous is he? Enter the idealistic lawyer. But the main plot is not to be about illegal immigration. Enter the failing banker. Will it be about money laundering? Enter the frustrated spymaster. These characters unfold the story from their individual perspectives; Le Carré's precisely witty language guarantees mental portraits of them. Most hilarious are the scenes of bureaucratic wrangling as "espiocracies" vie for control, blurring the issues and keeping the reader guessing. Vintage Le Carré. Go for it.

The banker:
"He was well built and cautiously good-looking, with a broad freckled brow and a Scotsman's mop of wiry red-brown hair which he had somehow tamed and parted. He had the assurance of wealth but none of its arrogance. His facial features, when not battened down for professional inscrutability, were affable and, despite a lifetime in banking or because of it, refreshingly unlined. When Germans called him typically English he would let out a hearty laugh and promise to bear the insult with Scottish fortitude. If he was a dying species, he was also secretly rather pleased with himself on account of it: Tommy Brue, salt of the earth, good man on a dark night, no high flyer but all the better for it, first-rate wife, marvellous value at the dinner table, and plays a decent game of golf. Or so the word went, he believed, and so it should." (27)

The would-be control agent (including an entry for the longest sentence competition, if there is such a competition):
"And that was another lecture Bachmann would have dearly loved to give to these swiftly risen managers of the post 9/11 boom-market in intelligence and allied trades---another Bachmann Cantata that he kept up his sleeve for the day when he was invited back to Berlin. It warned them that however many of the latest spies' wonder-toys they had in their cupboards, however many magic codes they broke, and hot signals chatter they listened to, and brilliant deductions they pulled out of the aether, or lack of them, and however many tame journalists were vying to trade their questionable gems of knowledge for slanted tip-offs and something for the back pocket, in the end it was the spurned imam, the love-crossed secret courier, the venal Pakistani defence scientist, the middle-ranking Iranian military officer who's been passed over for promotion, the lonely sleeper who can sleep alone no longer, who between them provide the hard base of knowledge without which all the rest is fodder for the truth-benders, ideologues and politopaths who ruin the earth." (319-320)

 Nicola Barker. Burley Cross Postbox Theft. London: Fourth Estate/HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.
Neverending riches out there in the literature world! This book is an excellent choice to acquaint yourself with the quirky Barker who's already had two novels on the Man Booker list. The story of a Burley Cross village mystery is cleverly told only through letters (who writes letters any more?). My only complaint was the length of the introductory letter, the breathlessness of which seemed to arbitrarily affect a few other scribes, but the character development soon finds its individual paces. Public toilets, dog fouling, and manhole covers occupy much of the village mindset. The scattiness becomes contagious. What is not to love about the pompous Baxter Thorndyke, or Eliot Tooth the pond warden, the Brooks sisters, and a host of unhinged inhabitants? ... Inhabitants who fail to see through their own disguises but paint vivid portraits of each other. Behind the humour the author has a certain proportion of balance, one might say even a sense of compassion.

In a gossip letter:
"She was (in Rhona's words) a silly old trout (and sometimes worse!) ... Glenys tolerated me, at best. It's not that she was entirely cold. There were signs of warmth, on occasion (not heat, no -- just the dull, red coals that glimmer in a cooling grate at the end of a long, inhospitable evening). (66)

In a formal letter:
"I am writing to you today in my capacity as an elected borough councillor and as a concerned -- a very concerned -- member of the Great British Public, about the burgeoning problem of manhole cover theft in the United Kingdom.
"It is with a combination of astonishment and dismay that I am obliged to inform you that these apparently insignificant -- you might think dreary, even inconsequential -- items (a constituent part of every road and high street in the civilized world) have lately become the subject -- the focus -- of an organized, international crime wave, sponsored by no less an adversary than the Chinese.
"If you are, as yet, unfamiliar with this startling phenomenon, do not be dismayed. I am more than happy to fill you in on everything you need to know ..." (146)  

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