A Murder of Quality

Oh yeah baby, this is George Smiley number two. I’m so close to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I can taste it. Yet it feels so far away because this book isn’t what I expected. It’s basically a murder mystery as opposed to the spy novel I was expecting.

Smiley is retired and gets a call from a friend about a murder at an elite boarding school. He gets on it right away because that’s what Smiley does, he figures stuff out, right away. In that way, he’s not much different from many spy novel heroes.

But Smiley, considering his outward appearance, is not your average spy novel hero. Le Carre, in fact, goes through great pains to portray him as overweight, clumsy, and downright ugly. I felt this in the first book, but not quite as acutely as in this book. Here is a passage describing Smiley scurrying up an escalator on his way to a meeting:

The descending escalator was packed with the staff of Unipress, homebound and heavy-eyed. To them, the sight of a fat, middle-aged gentleman bounding up the adjoining staircase provided unexpected entertainment, so that Smiley was hastened on his way by the jeers of officeboys and the laughter of typists. (pg 134)

That’s rough, almost mean. Le Carre also brings up similar sentiments when discussing Smiley’s ex-wife, a socialite who ran out on him and seems to have made a mockery of Smiley. This novel is set in his ex-wife’s childhood home and there’s a particularly cruel exchange with a socialite who, not acknowledging that Smiley is the actually ‘that Smiley’, makes note of how “quite unsuitable” the match was.

But the guy is competent. He’s a genius and has an admirable amount of spareness and frugality, in both his thoughts and actions. Here’s an example:

It had been one of Smiley’s cardinal principles in research, whether among the incunabula of an obscure poet or the laboriously gathered fragments intelligence, not to proceed beyond the evidence. A fact, once logically arrived at, should not be extended beyond its natural significance. Accordingly, he did not speculate with the remarkable discovery he had made, but turned his mind to the most obscure problem of all: motive for murder. (pg 92)

All this, I think, makes Smiley into an endearing, vulnerable, highly competent hero who I’m expecting to dominate Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I’m just fired up for the book movie/combination sometime in 2012.


Call for the Dead

This is le Carre’s first book and it introduces George Smiley to the world. I happened to snag it from a used book store a few weeks back (gosh it was thrilling to spy it in the smelly racks of old paperbacks). I’ve decided to forego seeing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on the screen until I’ve read it. I’m reading the Smiley books in order and Tinker is book three.

I finished The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a few months back, which featured Smiley momentarily, but is not considered part of the Smiley books. In order, the Smiley books are Call for the Dead; A Murder of Quality; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People. The last three are Kindle ebooks, so they’re easy to grab. I’ll have to dig up A Murder of Quality on my own or bite the bullet and order a paperback version. It will be so much more fun to happen across it in a used bookstore, but I doubt I’ll have the patience.

This is George Smiley, as described by a colleague:

Odd little beggar, Smiley was. Reminded Mendel of a fat boy he’d played football with at school. Couldn’t run, couldn’t kick, blind as a bat but played like hell, never satisfied till he got himself torn to bits. Used to box, too. Came in wide open, swinging his arms about: got himself half killed before the referee stopped it. Clever bloke, too. (pg. 76, Bantam Paperback)

It’s a classic character: not pretty but get’s stuff done. A lot of stuff.


We catch him as he’s getting older. Having spent a lifetime in the field, he’s now middle-aged and working in Cold War London. He’s a cynical, old school type, but his sentiments are prescient. Here’s him reflecting:

… The murder had taken place just in time to catch today’s papers and mercifully too late for last night’s news broadcast. What would this be? “Maniac killer in theatre”? “Death-lock murder – woman named”? He hated the Press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass-media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century. Everything he admired or loved had been the product of intense individualism. That was why he hated Dieter now, hated what he stood for more strongly than ever before: it was the fabulous impertinence of renouncing the individual in favor of the mass. When had mass philosophies ever brought benefit or wisdom? Dieter cared nothing for human life: dreamed only of armies of faceless men bound by their lowest common denominators; he wanted to shape the world as if it were a tree, cutting off what did not fit in the regular image; for this he fashioned blank, soulless automatons like Mundt. Mundt was faceless like Dieter’s army, a trained killer born of the finest killer breed. (pg. 130, Bantam Paperback)

How can you not like Smiley? We may disagree with his sentiments, but it’s the first book so let the character unfold before reaching any broad conclusions. It does make evident the passions that the Cold War stoked.

It’s a short read (148 pages) and worth it. I have a feeling that it will set me up nicely to get a deeper understanding of the master spy as I read the next four books. It would have certainly helped me had I read it before The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It would have set the scene and introduced me to Mundt, a key foil of Smiley’s.

Long live the British spy novel!


Berlin Game

Like I said, I was inspired to read more spy novels after seeing Page Eight on PBS. I had Berlin Game in the hard copy backlog stack (from a summer trip to a thrift shop or used bookstore) and grabbed it just before getting on a flight. I’ll tell you, the burden of hauling paper around is worth it during air travel because you don’t have to worry about turning off electronic devices upon takeoff and landing.

This was a great spy novel, but there’s not much I can say that’s not a plot killer. It’s just what I expected after reading le Carre and watching Page Eight. Great British, cold war spy stuff. It’s the first book in the game, set, match trilogy, which is actually the first trilogy of three trilogies. There’s a hook, line, and sinker trilogy and a faith, hope, and charity trilogy. So that’s a massive nine book set that Deighton started in 1983 and finished in 1996, regularly referred to as the Bernard Samson novels.

Samson, the main character of the whole series, is a different type of character. Many spy novels, much like works of crime fiction, have an unmarried, surly, independent main character. Not so for Deighton’s hero. Samson is a fearless British spy, but he has a decided sensitive side; and he’s also married with two kids.

I’m excited about the whole beast, but none of it’s on the Kindle. I need to get to Open Books and The Brown Elephant to keep an eye on more titles in the series. What are my other options for getting these old books? This is quite a quandary. I’m going to have to take some careful plot notes so I don’t get confused when I start Mexico Set (maybe the alternative Amazon resellers is the best way to get this book).


There’s a traitor in British intelligence leaking secrets to the KGB and Samson is uniquely qualified to find out who. Why? Well, it’s the cold war and Berlin is the center for much of the spying, where Samson cut his teeth. He was stationed there for a long time, speaks unaccented German, and is the only one who can identify the top agent in East Berlin by sight.

In the end, it’s Samson’s wife who is the traitor. It was a brilliantly complicated plot, but very manageable. The ending scene where he confronts his wife is riveting. She thinks she has the upper hand and was able to keep their children, but Samson had planned for that. His buddy Werner Volkmann informs him in the last couple of paragraphs that his kids are at Samson’s mother’s house, safely out of danger from his wife (Fiona) or any other Russian.

These characters will figure in the next book:

  • Tessa, Fiona’s sister – is she KGB also?
  • Samson’s superiors in British intelligence – Dicky Cruyer (Samson’s boss) and Bret Rensselaer (department head)
  • The East Berlin agent von Munte, whom Samson helped escape
  • The KGB agent, Lenin/Erich Stinnes, who apprehended Samson while he was helping von Munte escape (I know this because I read the first few chapters of Mexico Set on Amazon)

I’m looking forward to the next book greatly.

Also, I love the intelligent and sober character analysis of Samson. The books are told in first person and Samson says stuff like this:

“Don’t be so bloody bourgeois,” said Tessa, handing me a champagne flute filled right to the brim. That was one of the problems of marrying into wealth; there were no luxuries. (page 57, Ballantine paperback 0-345-31498-0)

… and this, after being told by Lenin/Erich Stinnes that he would not be interrogated by the KGB:

I nodded but I was not beguiled by his behavior. I’d long ago learned that it is only the very devout who toy with heresy. It’s only the Jesuit who complains of the Pope, only the devoted parent who ridicules his child, only the super rich who picks up pennies from the gutter. And in East Berlin it is only the truly faithful who speak treason with such self-assurance. (page 338, Ballantine paperback 0-345-31498-0)

Man I liked this stuff. I could easily become a spy novel junkie.


The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

I was inspired to read this by the trailer for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I saw before Moneyball. This is le Carre’s third book and one of the precursors to Tinker. It features George Smiley, the famous spy from Tinker, but for only a few moments. The main character of this book is Alec Leamas.

Leamas is a British spy, and recently, all of his agents in the East German section were killed (talking 1960 maybe). He’s back in London and seems to be playing the ruse of being retired, angry, and drunk, but he’s still working one last job for Control. He consents to this last job because it’s his chance to get back at Mundt, his East German nemesis and the guy responsible for exterminating his whole section.

This is a short, but classic spy novel. You really never know what’s going on, but you can follow it very easily. That’s a great compliment to le Carre. You’re in the dark, but you can easily survey the field so you’re not blind. He leaves stuff out that he thinks you don’t need to know, but not too much stuff. He’s mastered that part of the craft.

I’m starting to understand why I was so frustrated by this when I was younger. I’m a lot more patient now. I didn’t feel manipulated when I finished, I felt outfoxed.

And I enjoy the dialogue reflective of the times. There was a great conversation between Leamas and his captor (friend or enemy?) in the middle of the book about the justification for spying. It’s in the chapter entitled Pins or Paper Clips (page 120 of my paperback) and some say it reflects the mixed emotions of Brits towards the spying and turbulent times of the Cold War. There was a point where the East German agent justified spying because it was in the interest of the state, which he viewed as much different from the point of view of the west.

“You see, for us it does,” Fiedler continued. “I myself would have put a bomb in a restaurant if it brought us farther along the road. Afterwards I would draw the balance – so many women, so many children; and so far along the road. But Christians – and yours is a Christian society – Christians may not draw the balance.”

“Why not? They’ve got to defend themselves, haven’t they?”

“But they believe in the sanctity of human life. The believe every man has a soul which can be saved. They believe in sacrifice.”

While reading this I did not grasp the social commentary le Carre was putting forth. The wiki article for this book seems well-informed. I’ve started to read wiki articles for a lot of the books I read and love the “cultural impact” discussions. Plus, caring wiki editors often toss in links to cool stuff. For instance:


This is grim, depressing, and stressful stuff. There isn’t too much action, but there is torture and cruelty. And the ending is not pretty. I’ve read two le Carre books this year and both have ended abruptly and not good for the protagonists. This one ended with an especially touching scene, as two lovers get shot dead in the last few paragraphs.

This is classic spy literature and I’m tempted to classify it as lit. But I won’t. It’s a must read if you like spy novels.


Our Kind of Traitor

I mentioned last year how I was inspired by The Company of Strangers to read more spy novels. Well, here I am, reading some John le Carre, the rock star spy novel writer. It was about thirty years ago when I picked up either Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Little Drummer Girl (can’t recall exactly), and tossed it after a couple of days because it was too slow. Those were the Ludlum years for me and I needed more killing and car chases than le Carre usually provided. Oh, how old age changes us. Now I’m becoming a big fan of the spy novel.

This book is the story of two innocent Brits, a Russian mobster, and a few roguishly likable members of British Intelligence. The innocents are tossed into the spy game when the Russian mobster requests their assistance for defecting after a chance meeting while vacationing in Antigua. The innocents turn to British Intelligence for help and get hooked up with handlers who work for a “special projects” division.

A fairly sized portion of the story is recalled in a light interrogation of the two innocent Brits by British Intel. It dominates maybe the first third of the book and takes place in the basement of a nondescript house which doubles as the office for this special projects division. It’s mostly told through the perspective of the female innocent Gail, the deepest character in the book. I think that may be a hallmark of le Carre, strong and thoughtful female characters, judging from a few of the movies I’ve seen. Now that I think of it, this is the only le Carre book I’ve ever finished. Anyway, this retrospective format is at times confusing to follow, but it’s a great format for getting to know Gail.


After this, there is a big chunk of back story on the crew from British Intelligence, mostly told through the eyes of the number two guy, Luke. It dominates big chunks of the second third of the book (this could be a three act play). Luke is flawed with hints of a dark side, but in the end was the consummate professional. This section was deliberate and mysterious. That’s a spy novel and that’s le Carre. I can see how I got frustrated as a youngster. There is a lot of personal back story type of stuff that thriller writers leave out. Spy novelists seem a little more spare on the crackling dialogue and action sequences. I knew this going in and liked it.

Things get intense in the last third when the civilians get to Paris (with British Intelligence nearby) for the meet-up with the Russian mobster and potential defection of his entire extended family. The reader needs the first two thirds of the book to understand what is going on in the minds of the characters. That’s why the last third, the real time action sequence, so to speak, is so good. There aren’t gunfights, chases, and brawls, but there is a very detailed caper and suspenseful aftermath. And you get to feel it through the minds of a large number of the characters. Great ride.

The ending really rocked me. Not necessarily in a good way, but not in a bad way either. It was abrupt. Probably as abrupt as any I’ve experienced in my history of reading fiction. It effectively resolved nothing, nada, zero. I’m not saying it was bad, I’m saying it didn’t put everything in a nice package with a bow and hand it to you – in fact, it didn’t even get to the point of buying wrapping paper and some ribbon. But I accept the ending. I’m comfortable ruminating on what could have happened rather than knowing exactly what did happen.

Bring on some more le Carre.


The Company of Strangers

I was looking for a serious spy novel – I got a serious spy novel. There’s nothing light about this book. I read one of Wilson’s novels before I started Booktakes and I recall thinking it was really cool. Well, this one is even better. In fact, it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year.

It starts out in Hitler’s bunker in the middle of the war but quickly transitions to Lisbon, Portugal during the summer of 1944. Lisbon was interesting during this time because it was a neutral city, so delegates and spies from the Axis and the Allies coexisted. That’s where double agent Karl Voss, German spy working for the Brits, ends up after his brother gets killed in Stalingrad and his dad shoots himself. It’s also where Voss meets English spy Andrea Aspinall.

The Third Reich was in a weakened state after D-Day and they incurred heavy losses on the Russian Front. A faction of the German establishment, including Voss, wanted to assassinate Hitler, sabotage German efforts to build a bomb, and smooth relations with the US and GB so that a conditional surrender could be negotiated. The meat of the book depicts a few furious weeks in Lisbon where Karl and Andrea navigate the landscape of spies and double agents from the Third Reich, the US, GB, and Russia in an effort to figure out who’s buying and selling secrets to build the bomb.


It culminates with the failed attempt by Claus von Stauffenberg to kill Hitler, depicted in the movie Valkyrie, resulting in Voss being rounded up with all of the other traitors and sent back to Germany for interrogation. But we are still only two thirds through the book, yet Voss has had time to save Andrea’s life, fall in love with her, and unknowingly conceive a child with her.

Fast forward twenty plus to years to 1968. Andrea thinks Voss died in 1944 (he didn’t, but the reader does not know that). She’s back in London because her mother is on the brink of death. Her marriage, to a Portuguese military man, is on the rocks because he’s embroiled in another military exercise in Africa which she opposes. She hasn’t told anyone about the real father of her son, who is in Africa fighting along side her husband.

It sounds kind of messy, but it get’s messier. In another furious few weeks, Andrea’s mom dies of cancer, her son gets killed in Africa, and her husband kills himself as a result. She tries to get her life back on track by working in her field at Cambridge, but gets entangled in a dysfunctional relationship with a math professor, who is also connected to the Communist party, which has a special place in her heart because it was the only viable deterrent to fascism in Portugal. Was that a run-on sentence?

Eventually, she rejoins the Company, the British Secret Service, to spy for the communists.

Let me digress into a discussion about spy novels. I think of spy novels as a very specific genre, much different from international intrigue (ie…Robert Ludlum) or thrillers (ie…Dan Brown). The spy novel is a thoughtful, complicated, often dark, character study, the best example of which is probably John Le Carre. I didn’t like spy novels growing up. I can remember struggling through a Le Carre novel as a kid, all the while wishing I was reading something by Ludlum. I haven’t read anything by Le Carre since, but I liked this Wilson book so much that I’m inspired to do so.

Back to the story. In Andrea’s second stint as an agent, she eventually runs into Voss during an operation in Cold War East Berlin. It’s an emotional few scenes. They save each other’s lives and diverge for another twenty years.

They eventually meet in their 70’s I guess, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She moves to the country in a small house in a quaint town and one day he shows up. He’s writing a book that’s going to blow the lid off the British Secret Service. They take a quick trip down memory lane back to Lisbon, where Andrea gives Voss a box of family memorabilia that she salvaged from his apartment when he was busted. It felt like loose ends were tied up. I had some warm fuzzy feelings. I was premature.

When they get back home, Andrea gets strangled by her next door neighbor, who I assume was a British agent trying to make sure Voss didn’t publish his secrets. That ending friggin’ rocked. Great book. Classic spy novel.