Thursday, December 28, 2017


The real director of our life is accident. So wrote the physician/philosopher/poet/revolutionary in Night Train to Lisbon. I haven't given the concept enough thought to feel comfortable offering an opinion on it, but I can say it was most likely a series of accidents that guided me to read Night Train to Lisbon, among the first being I didn't read any of the reviews, which probably would have persuaded me to pass it up. I include the film adaptation's belittling reviews, which might have nixed my borrowing the DVD from the public library.

As luck would have it I'd already packed my laptop and was browsing the DVD section hoping to find The Constant Gardener to watch that night. I’d just finished posting a review of the novel on my blog and wanted to see the movie again. Alas, our library doesn’t have it (they’ve ordered it on Inter Library Loan for me, which means it could come from Kenya or Timbuktu and I’d have to pay the postage on it, but I’m gambling a nearer copy will be found, the thrill of risk being a large part of the fun, you see). Meanwhile, as our librarians were busy processing the ILL order form, I, having worked myself into a mood to watch a video that night nonetheless, returned to the DVD section in search of something that looked palatable. After clacking through dozens of plastic cases protecting the likes of Adam Sandler originals and James Patterson adaptations I came upon Night Train to Lisbon. Knowing nothing about it but sensing from the title it might reach at least a tad beyond the predictable dialogue, firefights, and demolition derbies favored by the eternal-child American movie market, and seeing the sophisticated image of Jeremy Irons on the cover, I gambled once more and took it home.

And I liked it. Liked it so much that I went on and read the book. I liked that, too, although I must admit I’m glad I watched the movie first. Starting at the novel, with its sprawling, turgid, endlessly voluble quasi-plot, I’d have been hard pressed to suggest how a film adaptation was feasible. The adaptation was magical, I see now in retrospect. Still a lot of talking (although it’s no My Dinner with Andre), but the story’s cohesive, with smart changes that give form to the novel’s hodgepodge of meanderings, internal musings and dreams—annoying, frequent dreams that arrive with little or no warning and require renewed concentration and rereads to realize they’re dreams. Perhaps the intent was poetic, but whatever it was it slows the narrative down even more than the tedious repetitions of the already slow-going philosophical assertions that are really what this novel is all about.

Liesl Schillinger’s merciless review in the New York Times puts it this way: the “wording is so dense and overwrought, and Barbara Harshav’s translation [from German] so ham-handed, that unpacking each sentence is like decoding a cryptic crossword in hieroglyphs.” Needlessly harsh. A tad over the top, but in keeping with the generally disparaging tone of other stateside reviews. European reviewers loved the novel, written by Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri under the pseudonym Pascal Mercier.

In the U.K.’s The Telegraph Daniel Johnson describes Night Train, “a novel of ideas that reads like a thriller: an unsentimental journey that seems to transcend time and space. Every character, every scene, is evoked with an incomparable economy and a tragic nobility redolent of the mysterious hero, whom we only ever encounter through the eyes of others.” Johnson concludes that Mercier “now takes his rightful place among our finest European novelists.” Okay, that’s a tad over the top in the other direction, yet, because of the ideas explored in the narrative, and maybe also because of the movie, I leaned more toward the positive view.

I’ll get to the plot in a jiffy, but first a couple of the ideas I found worthy of pondering. Just one, as I already gave you one at the start. How about this:It is a mistake to believe that the crucial moments of a life when its habitual direction changes forever must be loud and shrill dramatics, washed away by fierce internal surges. This is a kitschy fairy tale started by boozing journalists, flashbulb-seeking filmmakers and authors whose minds look like tabloids. In truth, the dramatics of a life-determining experience are often unbelievably soft. It has so little akin to the bang, the flash, or the volcanic eruption that, at the moment it is made, the experience is often not even noticed. When it deploys its revolutionary effect and plunges a life into a brand-new light giving it a brand-new melody, it does that silently and in this wonderful silence resides its special nobility.” 

I spent a little time pondering after I read that one, probably got up to stretch my legs, drink some water, visit the lavatory (as I believe they say somewhere in the U.K.), and maybe even take a nap. There were many others. Slowed down the reading some, but gave me chunks of savory food for thought. An Army buddy once asked me, What happens to the garbage of food for thought? I laughed, but I still wonder about it. Maybe it’s recycled in an insouciant book review.

The plot. Okay, here’s the plot (I shall rely on the film version, as it makes more sense than the novel’s despite critics' seemingly universal dismissal of it because it didn’t thrill them the way popular movies must thrill the youth of our frightening world these days. A New York Times critic—possibly himself a teenage intern—decried the lack of “action” in flashback scenes of the resistance to Portugal’s dictator, Antonio Salazar. Perhaps the “reviewer” was staring at his idiotphone and missed the scene where Salazar’s secret police smash with a hammer the hands of a pianist they’re interrogating, ho hum).

Really fairly simple, the plot. And the acting is first-rate. Jeremy Irons is perfect as stuffy, divorced, middle-aged classics teacher Raimond Gregorius, who tackles a young woman and pulls her to safety from the rail of a bridge where it appeared she was preparing to jump. The city is Bern, Switzerland, and Gregorius is walking to work on a rainy morning when this “accidental” encounter takes place. The woman follows him to the school and into his classroom. She sits awhile, then gets up, holds her finger to her lips and slips out the door, leaving her dripping coat hanging on a hook. Gregorius steps to the window and watches her walk away. Without explanation to his students he immediately grabs the woman’s coat and deserts the classroom, but when he gets outside, she’s gone.
Bieri/Mercier naps while pondering a philosophical notion?

In the pocket of her coat he finds a book titled A Goldsmith of Words, written by the Portugese physician/philosopher/poet/revolutionary whose quote I served as an hors d’oeuvre up top (first sentence, in fact). He reads some of the golden words and uses a train ticket to Lisbon (that was also in the coat pocket) to try to find the author, Amadeu Inacio de Almeida Prado. He amazes himself with the abruptness of his decision not to return to the school where he’s taught for some thirty years and is a highly regarded faculty member. Although he’d given it little thought, and felt ambivalent about the choice, he knew that for the first time in his fifty-seven years he was making a life-changing decision.

In Lisbon he soon learns Prado is long dead of an aneurysm, but Gregorius tracks down people who knew the author, including his two sisters, a couple of  unusual girlfriends, and several people who knew him in their resistance against the Salazar regime. Gregorius even finds a hint of romance with a woman who tells him, unlike his ex-wife, she does not find him boring.

Leaning on the film version, I've strayed somewhat from the book’s plot, but the conclusions are so different, I’ll leave out the film ending, though preferable to the perhaps post-post modern one in the book, so as not to spoil the more satisfying (to me) ending for those considering watching the movie first. In the book, Gregorius eventually returns to Bern, where a friend has scheduled a diagnostic appointment for him because of the severe dizzy spells he first experienced in Lisbon--the same symptoms the long dead Prado had suffered before his aneurysm burst and left him dead on a Lisbon street. We leave Gregorius as he steps into the clinic and the door closes behind him.

Here’s an encore philosophical quote from The Goldsmith of Words (you deserve it for putting up with this review to the bitter end):

The mind is a charming arena of self-deception, woven of beautiful, soothing words that give us the illusion that we have an unerring familiarity with ourselves, a closeness of discerning that shields us from being surprised by ourselves. How boring it would be to live in such effortless self-knowledge!”

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, December 21, 2017


It was soon into chapter seven I first felt the thrilling tickle reminding me of that scene in the film version of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps through the door into a world of brilliant color, leaving behind the sepia Kansas of her home. The equivalent sensation in Tbe Constant Gardener arrived when the story became Justin Quayle’s, ditching the jaded, guilt-ridden point of view of Sandy Woodrow, Quayle’s boss in the Chancery section of Kenya’s British Embassy. From then on it grows into a meticulous, complicated exposé of lethal greed, harrowing suspense, a deeply tragic love story, and an intimidating exhibition of startlingly good writing.

Unlike the Wizard’s contrast with its abrupt shift from drab to splendor, the move from Woodrow’s cramped, self-serving outlook to Quayle’s awakening is incremental. It opens like the bud of a rose gradually spreading its petals to full bloom. Both parts of Constant Gardener’s story—thorny stem and lush blossom--sprout from the same portentous seed: the murder of Tessa, Quayle’s beautiful, flirtatious wife. Woodrow himself unwittingly foreshadows this divide, thinking as he’s about to inform Quayle of Tessa’s fate, “From now until the end of your days there will be before this moment and after it and they will be separate ages for you, just as they are for me.”

Woodrow’s vision of the “before” is of presumed cuckold Justin Quayle, a pleasant, articulate but mediocre diplomat with not much future in the Foreign Service. Woodrow’s two biggest worries are, officially, that Tessa’s murder while on an extended trip with African physician Arnold Bluhm, her black associate and rumored lover, will explode ingloriously in the media and embarrass the embassy. Privately, Woodrow worries that an imprudent note he’d sent Tessa on official stationery, proclaiming his love for her, will surface and prove disastrous to his promising career.

Scotland Yard investigators grill both Woodrow and Quayle trying to establish a motive for the murder, making it obvious they think it was related to the apparent Tessa/Bluhm romance. The cops’ suspicion at first centers on Quayle with the suggestion he hired someone to kill his unfaithful wife. She was found, her throat slit, in the overturned vehicle she and Bluhm had borrowed. The driver’d been decapitated. Bluhm was nowhere to be found. The second theory was that Bluhm had murdered Tessa and the driver, and fled. Bluhm’s supposed motive was that the romance had somehow soured. Quayle sets that presumption straight, if only for the reader: appearances to the contrary—she was half his age, had an independent spirit and was a notorious flirt--there was no illicit romance with anyone. Quayle and his wife were devoted to each other. Tessa and Bluhm worked to help people living in poverty, their relationship strictly professional.

To protect her husband in his sensitive job, Tessa and Quayle agreed that she should keep her activities from him. Quayle begins to regret this arrangement when he starts looking into her death, as evidence mounts she’d been investigating a giant pharmaceutical conglomerate using Kenya’s underclass as guinea pigs for an unproven and potentially fatal tuberculosis drug. A lawyer, she’d been documenting deliberate falsification of test results and deaths attributed to the drug.

He mourns by taking “one huge plunge into the heart of her secret world; to recognize each signpost and milestone along her journey; to extinguish his own identity and revive hers; to kill Justin, and bring Tessa back to life."
from the film

Reflecting during this quest he gives us an intimate view of their unusual relationship. She was an idealist; he’s a sophisticated pessimist. He knew the danger when he found himself falling in love with her, fearing the implications of getting involved with someone “who, though delightfully uninhibited in many ways, was unable to cross the road without first taking a moral view.” Tessa, he told himself, “was that rarest thing: a lawyer who believes in justice.”

Yet the marriage worked. “For much of the journey,” he reminds himself, “Tessa had ridden alongside him, and now and then they had shared a good joke together—usually after some deflating and irrelevant comment of Tessa’s, delivered sotto voce. Other times, they had reminisced, shoulder to shoulder, heads back and eyes closed like an old couple...the pain of grief overtook him like a cancer he had known all the time was there.”

Quayle sets out to learn what Tessa had found, and to pick up where she’d left off. His investigation takes him to England and Switzerland and back to Africa, eventually to confront principals in the lethal marketing scheme. He’s aided by documents Tessa had kept from him and by allies who had helped her in her own investigation. Among the documents she’d saved were anonymous death threats warning her to stop probing into the Swiss-based company. As his probe deepens, Quayle receives the same threats and suffers a severe beating by anonymous thugs he knows were sent by the targets of his investigation. His most disheartening finding was that Tessa had compiled her evidence in a report she’d given to Woodrow, who’d forwarded it to his boss in London, who ignored it.

The ending surprised me, and I won’t say any more about it for fear of giving it away. I saw the award-winning film adaptation years ago, and remembered very little of it when I started the book. I still don’t recall how the movie ended, but the book’s version caught me off guard, even as I foresaw it intuitively.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Monday, December 11, 2017


You fall asleep in Mayberry, North Carolina, and wake up to find yourself in Blacklin County, Texas. It might take you awhile to realize you've been transported.You have the same hawhaw country laughs and foolishness, but instead of Andy and Barney running things you have Sheriff Rhodes and Hack & Lawton. And interrupting the foolishness and hawhaws every so often you'll find youself in the middle of real crimes, everyday crimes up to and including murder. Of the two dozen "episodes" of Bill Crider's Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries series, Dead To Begin With is the most recent. I've read the first one and a couple in between, with more waiting in my Kindle library. I'm almost a permanent Blacklin County resident by now, and I like it. But I have no intention of running for sheriff there. Rhodes has more hair than I do and more patience than I ever would, considering Hack, his dispatcher, and Lawton, his jailer, haven't driven him crazy by now. Here they are, by sheer coincidence, discussing the sheriff's hair:

"'What he called about is a bad haircut,'" Hack said, referring to a call he'd just received from a citizen.
“'I had one of those once,' Lawton...said as he walked in from the cellblock. 'Wanted to stay in bed for a week but had to work instead. Wore a ball cap all day for a while.'
“'I remember that,' Hack said. 'That was a good while ago. Back when you had hair.'
“'I got hair. More hair than some I could name.'
“'You talkin’ about me or the sheriff? ’Cause he’s the one got the thin spot in back. I still got all my own hair. Mostly.'
"Rhodes knew what they were doing. He’d thought for years it was a conspiracy to drive him crazy, but he’d decided it wasn’t, not really. They dragged everything out simply because they couldn’t help themselves. Or because they thought of themselves as the Abbott and Costello of Blacklin County, Texas, a duo to whom they bore a physical resemblance.
"Or it might have been a conspiracy."
Bill Crider
Even though I've kinda gotten to like them—at a distance--I would have to fire them both, which is why I could never be sheriff of Blacklin County. Also, I'm much too chicken to inspect the catwalk above the Opera House stage, not to mention trying to pull myself to safety if rotten boards give way under my feet, which is what Rhodes does and then is needled mercilessly by Hack and Lawton who see the video shot by a local freelance Internet journalist. And someone has to inspect the catwalk because Jacob "Jake" Marley, the murder victim, plunged to his death from there. Marley'd bought the old abandoned theater and was fixing it up with the intent of staging a Texas version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Marley'd left in his will that he wanted several former high school classmates of his to play the parts, except for Jacob Marley's ghost, which Jake Marley had reserved for himself. Fifty years hence, the classmates are still in Blacklin County, and Sheriff Rhodes must try to figure out which one of them murdered Marley—if in fact he was murdered. Rhodes thinks he probably was, but the motive, if any, is elusive.
A realist, Rhodes knows the odds are against him. He "knew he wasn’t Sherlock Holmes, and he knew that CSI: Blacklin County was never likely to become a hit TV series. Or any kind of TV series. Rhodes relied mainly on talking to people and waiting for someone to lie to him or make a mistake that would lead him to the answers he was looking for." Sort of a country bumpkin Columbo—with thinning hair.
Hair is a recurring gag. Here he is talking to a couple of hairdressers he's just saved their shop from being smashed up with a sledgehammer by a disappointed customer:
“'You want a haircut on the house?” Lonnie asked. 'I could give you what we call the Brad Pitt cut. Looks tousled all the time but still looks really good. What do you think, Eric?'
“'He’s definitely the Brad Pitt type,' Eric said. 'A little taller than Brad, though.'
"Rhodes didn’t think he was the Brad Pitt type at all.
'I don’t know about that thin spot in the back of your hair, Sheriff,' Eric said. 'That might not work with a Brad Pitt cut.'"
One might wonder if indeed Hack and Lawton had planted a bad seed in their boss's head. Here's more evidence of his sudden obsession with hair:
He observes that a suspect he's interviewing has thck, wavy hair with "no thin spot in the back." And another suspect's hair was "thin all over, so thin on top that his scalp showed through. Rhodes wondered how long it would be before his own hair became like that." The sheriff inspects even a female suspect, noting that "her smooth brown hair hung just about to her collar. Rhodes was sure that the cut wasn’t a Brad Pitt, and it didn’t look like Elaine’s classic bob, so Rhodes had no idea what to call it. To him it was just a haircut."
If it seems I'm making Rhodes look ridiculous, I apologize. It's not my intention. Maybe I'm the one with the hair obsession. Rhodes is a very human fellow (I almost wrote "for a cop," but that would be a cheap shot. I know some deeply human police officers. Rhodes, though fictional, is one of them). He's unseasy examining the dead Jake Marley's body on the Opera House stage:
"Rhodes wondered if he’d ever get accustomed to death. He’d seen many dead bodies, too many of them, and every time he felt a kind of sadness come over him. Some people reached out and embraced life, and some people, like [the reclusive] Marley, shut themselves away from it, but they all came to the same end.
"It wasn’t as if Rhodes had known Marley. He’d hardly ever spoken to him, but the death of any person took something out of the world that couldn’t be returned, no matter what the person had been."
Here he tries to avoid one of the endless arguments Hack seems to love to start: "Rhodes started to argue, but thought better of it. He wouldn’t be able to change Hack’s mind, no matter what. It wasn’t just Hack, either. Rhodes’s experience had been that he’d never changed anybody’s mind by arguing with them. He thought that when the rest of the world caught on to that important truth, things would change for the better."
When Jennifer, the freelance journalist, tries buttering him up to get an interview, claiming he "gets a lot of respect," Rhodes reminds himself he's the "Rodney Dangerfield of sheriffs." He doesn't tell her that, but he gives her the interview.
Dead to Begin With is another enjoyable canter in the series. The pacing is smooth and easy, with a seamless mix of gentle humor and serious police work. I've come to regard Dan Rhodes as a friend. And I'd buy Hack and Lawton a beer were I to run into them in a bar, but I'd get the hell out of there before they started in on me.
The book's title? Straight from Dickens: Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

[For more tributes to Bill Crider check the links Friday on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, December 7, 2017

OUR GAME – John le Carré

Trying to preserve the very British feel of Our Game for this report, the best word I can think of to describe the effect of Sergio Angelini’s Our Game review on me, even now, is daunting. (I tried to think of a way to slip a pip pip chin up in there somewhere, but a frisson of sanity arrived in time to warn me I was dangerously close to stepping a bit over the top, which, of course, one never does.)
After much procrastination then, eliminating many false starts with words less precise than daunting, I’m now taking the bold step of muddling forward with a purely American TV sportscasting analogy in mind, to wit: I shall try to serve as “color man” to Sergio’s play-by-play announcing of plot, context (historical and vis a vis the le Carré canon), and overall articulation of the Our Game literary experience. Oh yes, my friends, John le Carré’s novel is literary despite the Nyew Yawk literati’s presumed sniffs at any fiction pandering to common tastes by means of story—i.e. beginning, middle, end. To carry the aforementioned analogy a step further, Our Game’s got story. And, as one might guess, it’s a spy story. Although the title as well adheres to the sports analogy its resonance does suggest the less collegial game of international high jinks.
[I strongly suggest that anyone who’s read this far and wonders when the hell I’m going to get to the actual novel should first read Sergio Angelini’s definitive review, and then perhaps come back to this—or, perhaps read them side-by-side, or at least in close proximity. Immediately following this intrusion is an explanation directly from Our Game as to what in fact the title means in the novel’s context.]

The two main characters, Tim and Larry, first meet in England’s notorious public school system—a fictitious school named Winchester—where Tim outranks Larry and, according to custom even though they are friends, has to cut Larry down to size unless he can pass an arbitrary test administered by Tim:
“‘What is the Notion for Winchester football?’ It is the easiest test I can think of in the entire school vernacular, a gift.
“‘Jew baiting,’ he replies.
So I have no alternative but to beat him, when all he needed to say was Our Game.”
The expression never appears again. The boys move on to Oxford, and thence to British intelligence, where Tim again is Larry’s superior recruiting him as a double agent to feed misinformation to the Soviets. As Our Game opens, the Cold War essentially is over, the Soviet Union is breaking up, and Tim and Larry are recently retired. Tim takes over his parents’ winery, and is living with a girl half his age. Larry gallivants around the world, as is his nature, but now and then visits Tim, eventually stealing Tim’s girl. Larry and the girl go missing, and Tim soon learns from his former employers that Larry and his former Soviet contact have stolen 37 million British pounds from the Russian Embassy. Tim, as Larry’s former handler, is suspected as an accomplice.
le Carré
 I didn’t like Tim especially—at first. Found him too fussy and passive. I’d have had little sympathy for him when Larry ran off with the girlfriend were it not that by then I’d begun identifying with him, as I almost invariably do with protagonists, especially when, as Tim does, they narrate the story. But I didn’t like Larry, either. Here’s how Tim sums him up:
How could Larry be anything except what we had made him: a directionless English middle-class revolutionary, a permanent dissident, a dabbler, a dreamer, a habitual rejecter; a ruthless, shiftless, philandering, wasted, semicreative failure, too clever not to demolish an argument, too mulish to settle for a flawed one?”
Then again, neither does Tim think much of himself:
I began cursing.
I cursed the goad of Englishness that had held me back and spurred me forward all my life.
I cursed [ex-wife] Diana for stealing my childhood, and despising me while she did it.
I remembered all my agonizing lurches for connection, the mismatches, and the return, time and again, to burning alone.
And after I had cursed the England that had made me, I cursed the Office for being its secret seminary, and [girlfriend] Emma for luring me from my comfortable captivity.
And then I cursed Larry for shining a lamp into the cavernous emptiness of what he called my dull rectangular mind and dragging me beyond the limits of my precious self-mastery.
Above all I cursed myself.”
Tim, of course, now a fugitive from his former employers, must try and find Larry if only to clear his name in the theft. Reviving the spy’s tradecraft he’d left behind in his retirement, he tracks Larry to a tiny country splintered from the former Soviet Union. There he finds himself caught up in a historical civil war among the peoples divided ethnically for centuries. Speaking here is a former Soviet KGB agent, a native of one of the splinter countries:
Ingushetia is a country under Russian occupation. And here in Moscow we are pariahs. We are neither trusted nor liked. We are the victims of the same prejudices that prevailed in tsarist times. Communism brought us nothing but the same. Now Yeltsin’s government is full of Cossacks, and the Cossacks have hated us since the dawning of the earth.”
Sergio mentions obvious overtones of Joseph ConradLord Jim and Heart of Darkness—and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American in this novel. I would add T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (I should think even the Nyew Yawk literati would accept these works as literature. But, then, what the hell do I know?) I agree with Sergio, though, and urge you once again to read his most excellent review of Our Game.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, November 30, 2017

SINGLE & SINGLE – John le Carré

I laughed whenever I heard the whimpering sounds in the song Lawyers in Love, and I laughed in the movie Jurassic Park when the Tyrannosaurus plucks the screaming lawyer out of a privy and eats him. I might have laughed when Alfie, one of the lawyers in Single & Single was facing his execution, but I could not. That's because Alfie had gotten into my head cringing and prattling and babbling and wheedling and wetting his pants while staring down the muzzle of a Russian gangster's pistol. Almost wet my own pants as his fear clung to me for dear life.

At the same time Alfie is frantically applying his sizable lawyerly skills trying to persuade the gangsters they’re making a large mistake, his senses are heightened to excruciating acuteness, noticing smells and sounds and visual details as if discovering a new universe while his mind zips around, like a honeybee in a flower bed, sampling notions, memories, regrets, hopes, promises, possibilities, and impossibilities, his powers of denial gradually leaching away from the stark, unyielding core of the fate no one ever escapes.

This first scene/chapter has the kind of leap-into-the-deep-end writing that reminded me I’d neglected le Carré far too long. My blogging buddies Sergio at Tipping My Fedora, and Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery are way ahead of me, and their reviews have enticed me back to the fold. And their reviews are real reviews, with knowledge of the le Carré canon lending an authority to their opinions I cannot match. Nor, as a reader whose priority is entertainment, do I care a whit for authority in trying to convey my experience to you—unless, of course I come away from the book with a bad taste, and, if so, I let you know straight up. Le Carré had me in the palm of his authorial hand with Single & Single. Savory all the way. Ordinarily when reading fiction I suspend my critical faculties—such as they are—surrendering to atmosphere and character and being pulled willy nilly through story by a narrative subtly subordinate to the experience. The author’s wizardry casts a spell that carries me over the occasional bump or odd turn with no inclination on my part to give these micro distractions a hold on my attention. Le Carré’s skills worked this magic on me with singular success in Single & Single haha.

I’ve already started Our Game (for next week), which Sergio says in his review of Single & Single is a tad better. Thus far, Our Game does feel more plot-friendly, with its single narrator and a storyline like a monster storm edging up over the treeline. Both are set in the immediate post-Cold War, with Our Game’s focus apparently more on the sputtering remnants of East/West spy intrigues and Single & Single’s on the feeding frenzy of greedy, crooked venture capitalists and international crime networks grabbing what they can of the fallen Soviet economy’s material assets.

One aspect of Single & Single that had a special resonance with me is the relationship between the two principal characters—the crooked big-time lawyer Tiger Single and his honorable, somewhat bumbling son, Oliver. Le Carré acknowledges in the book’s introduction his personal father/son relationship suggested the fictional one in Single & Single, as it did also in The Perfect Spy. Not up to the bummer of doing an actual biography of his own father, he says, he nonetheless can’t resist bringing an imagined version of him into his fiction. “ is inevitable,” he explains, “that now and then I propose a version of him, not an actual version, not a snippet of documentary, but a hypothesis, a ‘what-if.’ And the ‘what-if ‘ in Single & Single is this: What if my father, instead of being rumbled by the forces of the law—which sadly for him was regularly the case—what if, like so many of the bent businessmen around him, he had got away with his scams scot free, and become, as he always dreamed of becoming, a respected fat-cat of the West End, owner of an instant ancient pile in Buckinghamshire, president of the local football club, cricket club, giver of garden fêtes for the renewal of the church roof?

What if, instead of merely enrolling from time to time as a law student, he had possessed enough self-discipline to study law rather than just finger it—and had thus acquired the skills that enable so many crooked lawyers to flourish in the world of finance?”

Perhaps this subliminal association brought an extra dimension to the characters, making them more empathic to me, and maybe the troubled father/son dynamic attracted my attention more closely, as well. Single & Single’s other characters are pretty much from Central Casting—Brock, the good guy representing the British Customs Office in an unspecified “interservice task force,” who recruits Oliver to help bring down the elder Single’s crooked empire; the rough-hewn Georgia-Russian patriarch; his dark-eyed poetic daughter (who captures Oliver’s heart); and her husband, the ex-KGB gangster whose face and manner gradually morph (for me) into Vladimir Putin’s.

Tiger Single, while nearly a caricature of the sort of James Cagney charming/tough-guy operator, has enough real blood in him to be believable, especially as seen through the sensibility of his doting-yet-horrified son. The son, Oliver, is one of the more simpatico characters I’ve come across in any fiction genre, if only for the avocation he works so hard to perfect, entertaining children with magic shows. We find him constantly practicing his skills--sleight of hand maneuvers and making figures out of balloons—between episodes of high danger and unimaginable suspense:

Balloons were Oliver’s sanity and Brearly was his mentor. When he could resolve nothing else in life, he could still set a box of balloons at his feet and recall Brearly on the arts of modeling...

The balloon burst, but Oliver—who in the normal way held himself responsible for every natural or unnatural disaster—did not scold himself. There was not a magician on earth, he was assured by Brearly, who could beat bad luck with a balloon, and Oliver believed this.”

A little nuts, my lawyer dad would have said, but on another occasion he would have assured me, “everyone’s a little nuts,” albeit never including himself in that assessment.

le Carré

For me, the two central characters in Our Game have proven thus far to be rather predictable. Larry, the scamp, a former British Intelligence operative who disappears, is the most interesting. But I don’t like him. Engaging though he is I wouldn’t let him near me, especially were I with a beautiful woman. Oh, hell, I despise the punk! He’s better looking than I was at his age, smarter, and can do apparently anything he wishes to do, again, better than I ever could had I tried. The other fellow, who narrates the novel and whose name I believe is—I could flip back to the Kindle app to refresh my memory, but it doesn’t matter. The guy’s too bland, too passive, too deserving of having Larry steal the beautiful musician half his age who’s living with him. But I’ve just started this one. Le Carré might well surprise me. He’s done it time and time again.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]