Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: John le Carré

From the description at Goodreads:
In the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall, Alec Leamas watches as his last agent is shot dead by East German sentries. For Leamas, the head of Berlin Station, the Cold War is over. As he faces the prospect of retirement or worse—a desk job—Control offers him a unique opportunity for revenge.
I consider myself quite fortunate that I was able to go into the story knowing very little. It is hard to say that one enjoys reading a book with such a cynical, dark theme, but it is a great story and I am very glad I finally got around to reading it. And viewing the movie too, after all this time.

John le Carré writes so eloquently, and his writing engages me. He develops his characters bit by bit and pulls me into the story. Somehow I knew that this story would not be a happy one, but I kept hoping for some glimmer of a happy ending. The story was very suspenseful, but also filled with fear, distrust and betrayal. The last few chapters of this book were unrelentingly dark, and I was appalled at the manipulation of human beings in the name of the greater good.

The setting of Germany after the Berlin Wall has gone up was especially appealing. In le Carré's introduction to the edition I read, he talks about going to see the Wall as it was built... and how terrifying it was.
It was the Berlin Wall that had got me going, of course: I had flown from Bonn to take a look at it as soon as it started going up. I went with a colleague from the Embassy and as we stared back at the weasel faces of the brainwashed little thugs who guarded the Kremlin’s latest battlement, he told me to wipe the grin off my face. I was not aware I had been grinning, so it must have been one of those soupy grins that comes over me at dreadfully serious moments. There was certainly nothing to grin at in what I saw, and inside myself I felt nothing but disgust and terror, which was exactly what I was supposed to feel: the Wall was perfect theater as well as a perfect symbol of the monstrosity of ideology gone mad.
That brought back memories from my preteen years. My father was in a National Guard unit in Alabama that was called up to active duty for nearly a year during the Berlin Crisis. He left in October 1961 and was stationed in France for a few months and in Germany the rest of the time.  I don't remember how I felt about the Berlin wall going up; I only remember that it was a difficult year for me, my mother, and my sister and brother while my father was gone. It was two years later when this novel came out and I don't remember anything about the book from that time either, although I have read that it created quite a stir.

I read this book at this time because it is listed in many places, including John le Carre's web site, as one of the Smiley novels. Having read the first five of the Smiley novels, I can see now that there is no need to start at any one point, but I think I gained a lot from reading this book and The Looking Glass War before moving on to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The 3rd and 4th books feature Smiley only incidentally, but they show another side of him.

Here are a couple of posts that give an overview of John le Carré's books: at Tipping My Fedora and Mrs. Peabody Investigates.


Publisher:   Pocket Books, 2001 (orig. pub. 1963) 
Length:       212 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       George Smiley novel
Setting:      Germany, UK
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Murder of Quality: John le Carré

I am currently working on a project to read all the Smiley novels by John le Carré. I read the first one, A Call for the Dead, eight or nine years ago and did not get to the second one until early this year. A Murder of Quality has much in common with the first book, in that both are really detective stories, and not spy novels at all. It was a surprise to me initially that the espionage element is missing but that made no difference in the end. Yet it is something that readers should be aware of if what they are looking for are spy novels.

Miss Brimley, editor of The Christian Voice, receives a letter from a subscriber, Stella Rode, the wife of an assistant master at the Carne School. She fears that her husband is planning to kill her. Brimley worked with Smiley during the war and knows he is not currently employed, so she calls and asks him to follow up on the accusation. Smiley makes an introductory call to the Headmaster at Carne and finds that Mrs. Rode had been murdered the previous night. He takes the letter to Inspector Rigby in Carne. Rigby, knowing that Smiley will have easier access to the staff at the school, asks him to aid in the investigation.

Some reviewers make a case that le Carré is writing more about British society and the class system than about espionage in all of his books, and I can see that point of view. Being from the US, I may not notice so much. This book is set in an academic setting, and in the introduction to the book, le Carré makes clear his hatred of that type of elite boy's school environment, based on personal experience.

From the introduction, written in 1989:
Rereading the book now, I find a flawed thriller redeemed by ferocious and quite funny social comment. Most of all I recognise the dankness of those old stone walls that formed the limits of my childhood and left me for the rest of my life with an urge to fight off whatever threatened to enclose me.
Le Carré is one of those authors that I can read just for the way he tells the story. I am not saying that I can do without any plot at all, but the plot is not the main attraction. Le Carré does characterization very well but most of the people in this novel are extremely unlikable. The school environment is a closed society, and the relationships between various members of the faculty and their wives are competitive and strained at best, sometimes adversarial. I was rooting for some of them to be the murderer, they were so horrible.

I am now reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In late January I read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and more recently The Looking Glass War. Both of those books are very grim. Even though those books feature Smiley for just a minimal amount of time, I think they add to the picture I have of Smiley going into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.


Publisher:   Walker & Co., 2004 (orig. pub. 1962) 
Length:       152 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       George Smiley novel
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book in 2007.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Once Upon a Time X: Reading Fantasy, Folklore, and More

(Art by Melissa Nucera)

The Once Upon a Time Challenge, hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings, takes place during the months of spring. Carl has been hosting this challenge for ten years. He describes this event thusly:
This is a reading and viewing and gaming event that encompasses four broad categories: Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, including the seemingly countless sub-genres and blending of genres that fall within this spectrum. The challenge continues through June 21st and allows for very minor (1 book only) participation as well as more immersion depending on your reading/viewing/gaming whims.

Check out the post for Once Upon a Time X to read various options and suggestions for participation.

The option I have chosen is The Journey. I want to participate but not commit to reading a specific number of books.

These books were on my list last time but did not get read:
  • The Black Company by Glen Cook
  • Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams
  • Land of Dreams by James P. Blaylock
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
  • Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook
  • The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
Other possibilities are:
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (2nd book of the Earthsea trilogy)
  • Declare by Tim Powers (blends a spy story with fantasy)

I may also read some short stories if I find that they fit in with this event.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Red Death: Walter Mosley

Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins is the protagonist in a crime fiction series by Walter Mosley. The fourteenth book in the series will come out later this year.  The first book, Devil in a Blue Dress, was set in 1948 in Los Angeles, California. That book was followed by A Red Death, and picks up five years later.

After the occurrences in the first book, Easy Rawlins has come into a large amount of money, and he has used that money to buy some apartment houses. However, he keeps his ownership secret:
Everybody thought I was the handyman and that Mofass collected the rent for some white lady downtown. I owned three buildings, the Magnolia Street place being the largest, and a small house on 116th Street. All I had to do was the maintenance work, which I liked because whenever you hired somebody to work for you they always took too long and charged too much. And when I wasn't doing that I could do my little private job. 
On top of real estate I was in the business of favors. I'd do something for somebody, like find a missing husband or figure out who's been breaking into so-and-so's store, and then maybe they could do me a good turn one day. It was a real country way of doing business. At that time almost everybody in my neighborhood had come from the country around southern Texas and Louisiana. 
People would come to me if they had serious trouble but couldn't go to the police. Maybe somebody stole their money or their illegally registered car. Maybe they worried about their daughter's company or a wayward son. I settled disputes that would have otherwise come to bloodshed. I had a reputation for fairness and the strength of my convictions among the poor. Ninety-nine out of a hundred black folk were poor back then, so my reputation went quite a way.
For me this book was not an enjoyable read, but I learned a lots, both about Walter Mosley and about the black experience in this country in the 1950s. In addition, it portrayed the time of the Red Scare in the years following World War II. I was a child in those times and just vaguely remember the fear that was instilled in children at that time, but haven't read much in fiction about the persecutions that resulted.

I did not know that Mosley is both Jewish and black. His father was black and originally from Louisiana. His mother was Jewish and her family immigrated from Russia. I am sure that his background informed the story of A Red Death. One of the main characters is Chaim Wenzler, a Jewish man who is active in the black church in Easy’s neighborhood. An IRS agent threatens Mosley with jail if he doesn't pay the taxes on the money he used to buy the real estate. An FBI agent promises to take care of that charge if Easy will spy on Chaim Wenzler. Craxton (FBI Agent) is sure that Wenzler is a Communist,  and wants Easy to find proof. Easy doesn't want to spy on anyone and especially not in a church that many of his friends attend, but he does not see that he has much choice.

When I say the read was not enjoyable, I am certainly not criticizing the writing. However the story is very dark, gritty, and violent. Although Easy solves most of his problems in this book, there is no happy ending. It just wasn't a pleasant read, but I am very glad I read it.

In a review for Rose Gold, the 13th book in the series, Ivy Pochoda talks about the secondary characters in the Easy Rawlins series:
Every Rawlins novel can be read on its own, but it's a far richer experience to read them in sequence and follow Easy's complex evolution as well as that of his ad hoc family and tight circle of friends. These are the folks who provide a fascinating set of roadside attractions as Easy's case rolls on. Mosley doesn't let anyone slide; everyone, no matter how minor, gets full billing.
Pochoda notes in the review that Easy's "slick criminal pal Mouse" is the best character in the novels.


The question now is what will I read next by Walter Mosley. I have the next book in the Easy Rawlins series, White Butterfly. I have Fearless Jones (the Fearless Jones series), The Long Fall (the Leonid McGill series), and Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (the Socrates Fortnow series). I am curious about the other series.


Publisher:   W. W. Norton & Company, 1991
Length:       284 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Easy Rawlins #2
Setting:      Los Angeles, CA
Genre:        Historical fiction / Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"Fire Burning Bright" by Brendan DuBois

I was very lucky to find The Dark Snow and Other Mysteries by Brendan DuBois at our local independent book store. I did not recognize the author but I already have several short story collections from Crippen & Landru, so I thought it was worth the gamble. Now I have found a new author and want to read more of his book length fiction too. Not that I need any new authors on my shelves.

"Fire Burning Bright" was a selection for the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge, when I drew the 5 of Hearts.

This story is set in a rural area in a northeastern state. The protagonist, Jerry Auberg, had been an editor for various big city newspapers but had decided to move to a smaller town and purchase a weekly newspaper. By the time of this story, he has lived there five years and is beginning to feel settled in and accepted by his neighbors.

As the story opens, Jerry, who narrates the story, is going out to the scene of a fire that has just started. He reflects on the situation leading up to the fire. The town and the surrounding areas have been plagued by an arsonist, and it has had a bad effect on the town. People are suspicious and distrustful of their neighbors. The ending snuck up on me. It was very sad and affecting.

This short story was first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in the Winter 1989 issue. It was also included in The Year's Best Mystery and Suspense Stories, 1990, edited by Edward D. Hoch.

Brendan DuBois published his first short story in 1986 in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. There is a very nice introduction in The Dark Snow and Other Mysteries where DuBois talks about writing short stories in the science fiction genre for years before he finally got one published in a mystery magazine. Since then, most of his published works have been in the mystery genre. In 1994, his first novel, Dead Sand, was published. It was the first in a series about Lewis Cole, a former Department of Defense research analyst, retired in a small coastal town in New Hampshire. He has also published standalone novels, one of which is the well known Resurrection Day, an alternative history about what happens after the Cuban Missile Crisis escalates into a nuclear war.

My list of short stories for the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge is here. Jay at Bibliophilopolis hosts the challenge.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Minute for Murder: Nicholas Blake

Minute for Murder by Nicholas Blake is my submission for the Crimes of the Century meme for the year 1947. I selected this book because the story was related to World War II. You would think just about any book written between 1940 and 1947 would have references to the war and how the war affected people and their lives, but that isn't true. This one was perfect in that respect.

The Crimes of the Century meme is hosted by Rich at Past Offences. Every month he designates a year and bloggers contribute a post on a crime fiction book (or film, TV, comics, or short story) published in that year. There is still time to join in for March.

The book opens shortly after V-E Day. Nigel Strangeways works in the Visual Propaganda Division in the Ministry of Morale. A war-hero (and former member of the division) returns to visit the group, and the director's personal secretary is poisoned at the office gathering to celebrate his return. Nicholas Blake is the pseudonym of Cecil Day Lewis, who worked as a Publications Editor for the Ministry of Information during World War II, and used his experiences in writing this book.

In this excerpt from the book, Nigel ruminates on his former co-worker, the "improbable hero, Charles Kennington."
It was pleasant to reflect how many of his sort this war had thrown up. The long-haired, sensitive types, who had voted at the Oxford Union that under no circumstances would they die for king and country, and a few years later had gone up into the air with the professionals of the R.A.F. and helped win the Battle of Britain, fighting with the same skill and abandon as once they had speechified. The conscientious objectors, who refused to kill but performed prodigies of valor during the blitzes as members of rescue squads and fire brigades. The clever little dons, who vanished one day from their universities and were next heard of having dropped by parachute into occupied territory, organizing the resistance, dynamiting bridges, standing up to a firing party in a squalid backyard. The anonymous-looking scientists, who walked up to unexploded bombs and coldly took them to pieces, as though they were demonstrating an experiment in a laboratory, and generally were not blown to bits. ...
I have read some of Nicholas Blake's mysteries in the distant past but I wasn't sure I wanted to read more of them, with the exception of The Beast Must Die, which has a very good reputation. After reading this book, I know I want to find more of his books. Primarily, I liked the author's style of writing, although I have a few quibbles with this book.

Quibble 1: There is too much conversation at the end about the reveal of the culprit. Once the detective (in this case, the amateur detective) knows who it is, I don't want the denouement to be strung out.

Quibble 2: The portrayal of women. Not many women have roles in this book, and those that are there are not especially complimentary. There are plenty of secretaries and assistants mentioned towards the beginning but they fade away when the real detection gets underway. Maybe it makes sense in this context, but still, I noticed the absence.

Thus not a perfect book, but entertaining and a good depiction of the time period. I must be a sucker for mysteries set in the office environment because I also liked With A Bare Bodkin by Cyril Hare (set in another fictitious wartime Government office) and Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers (set in a publicity firm).

Some quotes from a review at PaperBack Swap:
He captures the tensions among different grades of staff and the problems of supervising talented but temperamental people. 
The material on the human factor and red herring combine to make this rather longer than the typical old-time whodunnit, but he’s such a charming writer that we don’t mind.

This review is also a submission for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Blond (woman)" category.


Publisher:   Perennial Library, 1985. Orig. pub. 1947.
Length:      261 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Nigel Strangeways, #8
Setting:      Wartime Britain
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2010.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Reading Summary for February 2016

I read a wide variety of books this month but the total was not very high. Not that this is a competition but I do usually like to read at least five or six. I have lowered my goal at Goodreads this year to 52 (to make more room for reading short stories) so four or five a month is a good average, and I did meet that.

I did read one graphic novel, The Secret Service: Kingsman.

Summary at Goodreads:
A British secret agent feels guilty about never spending time with his deadbeat sister and takes his wayward nephew under his wing after he's arrested in the London riots. The boy is heading straight for a jail cell until his uncle steps in and tries to give him a new life, training him to be a gentleman spy.
It was an interesting concept, but there wasn't a lots of depth. I will be watching the movie adaptation and then reviewing them together.

Now for the four crime fiction books I read this month:

Web of Deceit by Katherine Howell

Although this is the sixth book in an eight book series, this is only the third book by Howell that I have read. I read the first two books, Frantic and The Darkest Hour. (I liked all three of them.)

From a post at Petrona:
In one sense, the books are police procedurals, as Detective Ella Marconi and her colleagues investigate the crime that forms the basic plot of the book. In another sense, the books are “slice of life” dramas about the city’s paramedics, given great authenticity by the fact that the author was a paramedic before she became a full-time writer.
Maxine also mentions the pacing in the books, which is the element that drew me in when I read the first book. And I forgot to mention that Howell is an Australian author and the book is set in Sydney.

13 at Dinner by Agatha Christie

13 at Dinner is the seventh novel featuring Hercule Poirot. It was first published in the UK in 1933 as Lord Edgware Dies. Poirot is approached by the well known actress, Jane Wilkinson, to mediate for her to convince her husband, Lord Edgware, to give her a divorce. She states very openly that things would be much better for her if he was dead. A couple of days later, Lord Edgware is murdered. The rest of the book has Scotland Yard Inspector Japp and Poirot following leads to discover the murderer.

This was not my favorite Agatha Christie book but it was still very entertaining. Hastings narrates the story and there are lots of interesting characters. My full review here.

What is Mine by Anne Holt

This is serial killer book about the abduction of children, not the kind of book I normally seek out. And, to tell the truth, I don't know if I knew the subject when I bought it (10 years ago).  But, even so, I liked the book a lot. I liked the way the story was told, and I liked the characters. The setting in Norway is also a plus. So this one was a winner for me.

What is Mine was the English language debut of Anne Holt, a Norwegian author, and the first book in the Vik and Stubo series. Several novels in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series were published prior to this one in Norway, and most of the books in both series have now been translated into English and published in the US and the UK.

Kissing the Gunner's Daughter by Ruth Rendell

This was Ruth Rendell's fifteenth Inspector Wexford book, and it has a very good reputation. Based on reviews I had read, I had very high expectations, and unfortunately was disappointed. Not to say that this was a bad book; we are talking about Ruth Rendell here. As usual, Ruth Rendell is a good storyteller and very adept at creating interesting characters. Except for the policemen, the characters were not very likable, but that is fine. My full review here.

The Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme is hosted at Mysteries in Paradise. Bloggers link to summary posts for the month, and identify a crime fiction best read of the month.

My pick this month is What is Mine by Anne Holt. I will be reviewing it soonish, but for now you can check out Bernadette's review at Reactions to Reading and Rebecca's review at Ms. Wordopolis Reads.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Kissing the Gunner's Daughter: Ruth Rendell

It seems that those who read Ruth Rendell's crime fiction are divided between those who prefer the puzzle plots of the Wexford books and the fans of her standalone novels, which are primarily psychological thrillers. I am in the camp that prefers the Inspector Wexford series, and I have read nearly all of them. For my taste, the standalone books are too tense and uncomfortable. However, many reviewers have compared this book, Kissing the Gunner's Daughter, to her psychological thrillers, and I suppose it is closer to them than most of the Wexford books. The book does have its dark elements and most of the characters (except for the policemen) and not very pleasant people.

The book has a wonderful opening chapter. Detective Sergeant Martin of Kingsmarkham CID drives his son to school and along the way discovers that his son has a replica gun in his case. Martin takes the very large and dangerous-looking replica gun and puts it in his pocket. It is his day off and he stops at a bank; while there, the bank is robbed while he is still in the queue for the cashier. Things go badly, and DS Martin dies at the scene. We are told from the beginning that this incident will link up to later deaths.

The bank robbery and the murder of Martin is not solved over the next few months. Then there is a bloody incident at Tancred, home of the wealthy and well-known author Davina Flory. Several members of the family are killed, and Davina's 17-year-old granddaughter, Daisy, has been left for dead. She survives and is the only witness to the crime. Her memories of it are shaky at best. On the face of it, the crime seems to be a robbery gone wrong.

There are many inconsistencies that the police cannot reconcile. Tancred is isolated and on a large wooded estate; tracking arrivals and departures is difficult. There is a friend of Davina's daughter (Daisy's mother) who has left town inexplicably and cannot be found. Daisy's father, never a part of her life, is investigated. Daisy's moods swing violently, sometimes she is inconsolable, sometimes euphoric.

Thus the story begins very well, and in general, it is a good mystery. But I was still disappointed in this novel. The ending was no surprise at all to me and it takes a long time to get there. A good bit of time is spent on Wexford's relationship with his daughter, Sheila, who is planning to marry a man that Wexford detests. Those issues are a counterpoint to his relationship with Daisy, with whom he has to spend a good deal of time, yet it still grew tiresome to me.

Even with my reservations, I don't regret reading the book, and I would encourage others to do so. Overall, Ruth Rendell is a good storyteller and very adept at creating interesting characters. Some reviewers consider it the best Wexford book. Many were surprised and shocked by the ending. My recommendation is to give it a chance; there are many elements to enjoy.

For a much more positive take on this book, see the review at The Passing Tramp.


Publisher:  Mysterious Press, 1993. Orig. pub. 1992.
Length:     378 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Inspector Wexford, #15
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Police procedural
Source:    My husband found this book for me in a San Jose bookstore, 2008.