The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

the_spy_who_came_in_from_the_cold_coverThe Spy who came in from the Cold. John Le Carré. Copyright 1963. Penguin 2010.

I am a huge fan of the George Smiley radio plays on the BBC but haven’t often sat down to read one of the original books. This classic was a good choice to start with and made me appreciate Le Carré is not only a brilliant storyteller but also an excellent writer.

The Spy Who came in from the Cold is a classic spy novel from 1963 set in the midst of the Cold War. Alec Leamas has just lost his entire network in Berlin due to his opposite in East Germany, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Back in disgrace at “the Circus” (the British intelligence service) the chief “Control” asks him to do one last mission; to take Mundt down for good.

I appreciated Alec Leamas as a character much more than in the radio plays now that I can read his voice unfiltered. His ability to antagonise every smooth operator he comes across was hilarious but I also liked the streak of empathy that he hadn’t managed to lose. The other characters also remained with me well after I had finished the book- Mundt, who sent chills down my spine, the characters in the library, and my favourite character Fiedler, a soft spoken and vastly intelligent communist under Mundt.

This is an exceptional book. It is written so cold and sparse and yet it is incredibly emotive. It has the kind of dialogue that I want to go back and read over and over, to hunt for hidden motivations and see what I missed. Part of the magic of this book is many hints throughout that something is not quite right and Leamas is right there with us, unable to see the whole picture.

“Do you really feel that?” Control enquired politely. And then, having looked at Leamas thoughtfully for a moment, he observed: “Yes, I really think you do. But you musn’t feel you have to say it. I mean, in our world we pass so quickly out of the register of hate or love – like certain sounds a dog can’t hear. All that’t left in the end is a kind of nausea; you never want to cause suffering again.”

I recommend this book both for being a thrilling story and for the message it conveys that at the time caused waves. John Le Carré was the pen-name of a man who actually worked as a British Intelligence Officer and his George Smiley series challenged the notion that British espionage was morally superior to any other country. Many writers have commented on how atmospheric this book is but my favourite quote is one by J.B. Priestley: “Superbly constructed, with an atmosphere of chilly hell.” 

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The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

8686068“It’s more difficult to create the problem than to solve it. All the person trying to solve the problem has to do is always respect the problem’s creator.”

Is it a coincidence that the only other Japanese crime novel I read also involved bento box production and a woman strangling her husband? The Devotion of Suspect X opens with single mother Yasuko Hanaoka strangling her ex-husband after a period of stalking, sponging off and threatening her teenage daughter Misato who finally cracks and hits her stepfather over the head with a vase. Faced with the problem of a dead body they are  overheard by their next door neighbour, a maths teacher named Ishigami, who proceeds to come conveniently to their rescue.

There is no give away of the plot by saying this. The murder happens in the books opening. The majority of the plot is dedicated to the cat and mouse game Ishigami plays with the police, the genius consultant they bring in and the strength of Ishigami’s devotion to Yasuko when an old flame re-enters her life.

Despite committing the murder Yasuka and Misato are not really the protagonists of this story. They only seem to react to the situations around them. It is the male characters doing the scheming, the investigating and the brainwork. I was a bit disappointed because the opening led me to believe it would be the two women at the centre of the plot

This book sold over 2 million copies in Japan and is considered Higashino’s best work. While I enjoyed the read I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat as the detectives circled around the evidence for nearly the entire book. It wasn’t like the speeding car falling down hill in Out where the situation spirals out of control and in fact I found the novel dragged quite a bit. It is unfortunate for this book that I read Natsuo Karino’s work first and the premise was so similar. However Karino created a work of devastation you can’t look away from and imprints the horror on your mind. The difference between the two crime novels is like the snow outside to the snow inside a snow globe.

 

 

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan

565f08411b0000d80029ef52As soon as I had finished this book I wanted to go back to the beginning and read it all over again.

The story starts with a murder of a rather sleazy family man, Anwar Sadat, but we already know who has committed it- what is important is why. The murderer is a sweet young man called Margio who within him conceals a supernatural female white tiger. What I loved most about this book was not only the sensual imagery of papaya, prayer and cigarette smoke but also the drama and the suspense. Kurniawan holds the reader in his grip until the very end with characters that crackle with romance and violence.

Despite the myth of the white tiger this isn’t exactly magical realism but a layered and moving story deeply embedded in its culture. We don’t go forward in time from the murder, we go back. Back to Margio’s family, his victim’s family and the way they are closely knitted together.  Kurniawan’s writing  can be striking and cinematic with the immediateness of the crime genre but he can also give us clouds of atmosphere that portray the steamy tense landscape of Indonesia with the memory of Japanese occupation and structure of Islamic tradition. Overall I loved his ability to take my breath away with a single scene.

His feet brought him to the cell. He stood by the door, watching Margio shiver on the mattress, hoping that the secret would be revealed with a simple question. But bitterness and pity weighed on him, preventing him from speaking and as he struggled Margio turned to him and understood his unspoken question.

“It wasn’t me, “he said calmly and without guilt. “There is a tiger inside my body.”

I read through this quickly- it’s as gripping and page turning as a murder mystery and yet there are layers underneath that would make for satisfying second reading. The way Kurniawan portrays the million tiny grievances that build up into a storm reflects the violent history of his country and the way a storm can break over anything in its path in misdirected rage. By the end of the tale we understand why Margio did what he did and we can appreciate the tragedy and randomness of it.

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie

the_seven_dials_mystery_first_edition_cover_1929 (1)I don’t think I’ll ever find a crime author I love as much as Agatha Christie. I had so much fun reading this book. Not only was the mystery cleverly plotted out in Christie’s usual flair but there was a great deal of humour and unexpected twists.

The book begins at a country house party where one of the guests, Gerry Wade, known for oversleeping and missing breakfast, unexpectedly dies in his room. The other guests had arranged a practical joke to wake him up by placing eight alarm clocks in his room.  When he is found dead seven clocks are found on the mantelpiece and the strange clue ends up leading back to a secret society in London. His friend Ronny Devereux has only just started to investigate when he is shot and found dying by the heroine Bundle- real name Lady Eileen Brent. She joins forces with Gerry’s friend Jimmy Thesiger, and two others mixed up in the house party but all of them have their own agendas and no one is telling the absolute truth.

The book was extremely funny as all Agatha books are but there was also the unintentionally hilarious. Bundle spends a lot of time while stuck in a wardrobe spying on a dangerous international secret society obsessing over the one woman in the group and how beautiful her back is. I was beginning to hope the book would spiral in an unexpected direction especially as the female gaze comes out again later at another woman but alas it was not to be.

What I loved most about Bundle is that despite being in the dark without the police’s resources she is very determined to sleuth in dangerous situations more than her male companions and doesn’t really pay attention to anything they tell her to do.

Bundle Brent was a resourceful girl- she was also a girl of imagination. She had foreseen that Bill, if not Jimmy, would make objections to her participation in the possible dangers of the night. It was not Bundle’s idea to waste time in argument. She had made her own plans and made her own arrangements.

While the boys set to watch the house she climbs outside in the middle of the night to make her own investigation, noting that they don’t think far enough outside the box.

I didn’t guess who the murderer was at all and ended up suspecting practically everyone at some point as the author intended. The espionage element of the plot was never taken very seriously, actually a lot of the story wasn’t taken very seriously and that’s what made the book so good. Christie makes a lot of satirical asides at the upper class and noveau rich and Bundle’s interactions with her father were brilliant.

My only criticism of the plot was that the reveal of the murderer and reasons behind it were rushed in at the end. I had to read it over twice and it ended a little too abruptly for me. Still I highly recommend this book and will definitely be reading The Secret of Chimneys. I didn’t realise until half way through that this was a loose sequel of a previous book but it doesn’t really matter and can be enjoyed as a stand alone novel.

This is one of the crime books I got for Christmas. I love the vintage covers that Harper Collins have brought back and they’ve even included the original blurbs which sound very strange by today’s standards/

 

2016 Cloak and Dagger Challenge

CDChallengebadge2016-204x300So after I got this delicious pile of crime novels for Christmas I decided to sign up for the 2016 Cloak and Dagger Challenge at Books, Movies, Reviews, Oh My.

There are four levels

1-10 books – Amateur sleuth

11-20 books – Detective

21-30 books – Inspector

31+ books – Special agent

 

I’ve decided to aim for Detective. I’ll be aiming to read this pile of Agatha Christies and Dorothy L Sayers, another Natsuo Kirino book and more international crime novels.

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Out by Natsuo Kirino

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This is the first Japanese crime novel I’ve read and if they’re all as good as this I may become addicted. There’s a great deal of atmosphere, tension and clever characterisation which are all things I love in a book. The plot centres around four women who work in the graveyard shift in a bento box factory in the suburbs of Tokyo. One of the women finally cracks and brutally strangles her philandering husband with her belt and then enlists the three other women to help hide the body. The situation gets more desperate when the police discover the body and the owner of a gambling club is accused of the murder leading him to search for the real culprits.

The story opens with the bleak drudgery of the factory work and captures perfectly the grimness of being in a dead end job that pretty much all of us can relate to. I definitely felt instant empathy with the character Masako from the start as she smoked in the factory car park. Kirino flawlessly captures the feeling when a day is so dismal that a cigarette is the only highlight you can look forward to.

We begin with the point of view of Masako and move through the other characters throughout the book. There was Masako herself, Yayoi the weak willed beautiful woman married to a gambler, Yoshie whose life revolves around her bedridden mother in law and sullen daughter and Kuniko a sly girl obsessed with designer brands and heavily in debt. We also spread to beyond the factory to the families of the four women, a beautiful Chinese hostess in a gambling club and a slick money lender. All the characters had a touchable human element, even Kuniko who I started out despising but ended pitying for the shallowness of her life.

The atmosphere of this novel is perfect and I saw every scene in my mind in shades of monochrome like film noir. Despite the gore and grimness of the plot this book is very enjoyable and even strangely humorous in a black deadpan way. The language is stark and plain with each word crafted carefully into place with random splashes of poetic imagery like when a money lender describing Kuniko as a girl you could see through like a jellyfish.  Despite being a clever and thickly plotted novel the story is highly readable and very addictive. I read through it in two days desperate to see what happened next as the four women dug themselves into a darker and darker hole.

“You know,” she murmured, “we’re all heading straight to hell.”
“Yes,” said Masako, giving her a bleak look. “It’s like riding downhill with no brakes.”
“You mean, there’s no way to stop?”
“No, you stop all right – when you crash.”

I found Masako to be the biggest mystery in this book in what motivates her and what she feels but strangely she is the character I feel most comfortable reading about. I won’t say like because I’m still not quite sure if I actually like any of these characters but I certainly loved reading about them. Kirino balances character driven plot with layers of social and political commentary of ordinary life in Japan for women and the dangers of moneylenders and heavy debt. Money and the need of it drives half the evil in this book and pushes the characters beyond their moral compasses.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

cloudsClouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers, 1926, New English Library 2003

I don’t usually read crime series and in fact this may be the first “proper” modern crime novel I have read. I want to start reading more in this genre because I love reading or seeing the same protagonist over a series of books and delving deeper and deeper into their character as the series goes on. It’s why I first started reading urban fantasy (which is a bit like a supernatural crime genre). The problem is my reading tastes have changed over the years and I don’t enjoy the style with which many urban fantasy series are written now.

I started with Dorothy Sayers because I’ve seen her name mentioned a lot and know she is supposed to be one of the best modern crime writers. This is the second book of her Lord Peter Wimsey series and the story starts with Wimsey taking a holiday after his last case while back in England his brother is suspected of murdering his sister’s fiancée.

It took me a while to get used to the characters and I wasn’t easily drawn to them. At one point I put the book down for nearly three weeks and had to force myself to pick it back up. The problem was I was slightly irritated that Wimsey was investigating his own brother’s case and was given respect and privileges by the police because of this merely because he is a Lord. Of course Sherlock Holmes is technically also an aristocratic “amateur” detective but the difference is that Holmes could have been born into any family and you would imagine he would still end up with the ear of Scotland Yard because of who he is as an individual.

When I picked the book back up I was more in a mood to enjoy it and started to see the humour in Sayer’s writing.

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Peter; “it’s so uncommonly jolly findin’ all you Yorkshire people so kind and hospitable, what? Nevermind who you are, always a seat by the fireside and that kind of thing. Excuse me, but do you know you’re leanin’ on the gate so as I can’t open it? I’m sure it’s a pure oversight, only you mayn’t realise that just where you’re standin’ you get the maximum of leverage.”

I finally got engaged when I started to enjoy Sayer’s writing and it didn’t matter so much that I wasn’t a fan of Wimsey. The rest of the cast grew on me too especially Lady Mary. The mystery and suspense of the book was very well written and it is because of all of these things I’ll probably read another Wimsey book. There’s still a chance all the characters will grow on me and I did enjoy reading Clouds of Witness.