Review 1840: #1954 Club! Destination Unknown

I read Destination Unknown for the 1954 Club, and it is really more of a suspense/espionage novel seemingly based on Cold War politics than it is one of her usual mysteries. It is also not nearly as effective.

Thomas Betterton is just the latest of a series of scientists and researchers who have seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Although his wife Olive says she doesn’t know where he is, Jepson and his colleagues in a labyrinthian government office building think he has defected. When Olive asks for permission to travel for her health, they decide to have her followed.

Hilary Craven has left England for Morocco in the hope that a change of scenery will lessen her despair after first her husband left her for another woman and then her only child died of meningitis. But it doesn’t help, and she soon is going from pharmacy to pharmacy collecting sleeping pills. She is about to take them when Jepson bursts into her room with an alternative. The plane she was supposed to take to Morocco has crashed. She missed it and got another one, but Olive Betterton was on it. Both women are physically similar and have red hair. Will Hilary take Olive’s place and hope to be contacted, to try to find out where the scientists are even though it’s likely she won’t survive this mission? She agrees.

Although there are some complicated strands to the plot, not only is the novel not a mystery but it doesn’t feature the deft characterization or humor that are usually part of Christie’s books. Not one of her best, I’m afraid.

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Review 1355: Transcription

Cover for TranscriptionBest of Ten!
Things are not always what they seem in Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, but it isn’t until the last pages of the book that you understand what’s going on. For this novel, Atkinson returns to the time period that was so fruitful for her last two, World War II.

Juliet Armstrong hearkens back to 1940, when she becomes, at 18, a transcriptionist for a team in MI5 that is bugging the meetings of Fascist sympathizers acting as fifth columnists. She is at once extremely naive yet clever and prone to lying. She has a crush on her handsome boss, Perry Gibbons, and does not understand that he is using her as a beard. The team’s work centers on Godfrey Toby, who has infiltrated a group of Nazi sympathizers.

In 1950, Juliet is working for BBC radio on a children’s show, but she occasionally harbors refugees from Communist Europe for her old bosses. One day, she spots Mr. Toby in the park, and he pretends not to know her. Later, she receives a note that says, “You will pay for what you did.” She fears that her life during the war is catching up with her.

Transcription seems much more straightforward than Atkinson’s last two books, but Atkinson always has something up her sleeve. The last few pages turn the novel on its head, but getting there is a pleasure. Atkinson finds some sly humor in the mundanity and ineptness of the spying operation and entertains us with Juliet’s amusing turn of thought and exactness of expression. I loved this book.

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Review 1323: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Cover for The Spy Who Came in from the ColdThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the novel that made John Le Carré’s name as a master of espionage fiction. His introduction to my edition tells just how much he resented the attention he got for it. Even though it is one of his earlier books, having been published in 1963, it is one I hadn’t read.

At the beginning of the novel, Leamas watches in anger from West Berlin as his last good agent, Karl Riemeck, is shot crossing the border from East Berlin. Leamas is fairly sure, on his return to England shortly thereafter, that his career as an operator is over. Instead, he is offered a dangerous last mission. He is to appear to have been retired to a desk job, to go to pieces and lose his position and continue to go downhill with the hopes that he will be approached from the other side. The objective? To take down Mundt, a ruthless official on the other side of the wall and the man responsible for Karl’s death.

All goes according to plan, and Leamas is approached shortly after he gets out of prison for assaulting a grocer. Only, if you are familiar with Le Carré, you know that things will be much more complicated than they seem to be. And Leamas has one weakness. During his descent, he got involved with a young, naïve girl, Liz, a member of the Communist Party.

Le Carré is a master of suspense and a plotter of labyrinthine plots. In addition, his novels always have more going on in them that just action, such as raising serious issues of morality. This novel is rightfully a famous member of its genre.

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Day 1220: Tightrope

Cover for TightropeYet again, I had no idea that Tightrope, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was a sequel until I went into Goodreads to indicate I had started reading it and saw that it was “Marian Sutro #2.” In this case, the novel seemed to recap the events of the first novel rather heavily, so I don’t think I missed anything by skipping the first book except maybe some feeling for Marian.

I found Mawer’s The Glass Room to be icy in its distance from the characters, so I wasn’t excited about reading Tightrope. It turned out to be better than I expected but not much.

Tightrope begins toward the end of World War II, when Marian Sutro returns to England. She was one of the women sent over to infiltrate Europe during the war, where she worked with the French resistance. But she was betrayed and spent the last two years in Ravensbrück. Shortly before the liberation, she and some other women managed to escape.

Because of Marian’s background, she is of interest to the British secret service. She is of interest to the Russians, too, primarily because her brother Ned is a nuclear physicist. Her own beliefs that knowledge of nuclear weapons must be shared to maintain peace also draws her into the midst of the Cold War.

This novel is narrated by Sam, the son of one of Marian’s friends, and his story contains lots of details he couldn’t have known, even though he had access to her file and she tells him parts of her story. This narrative also allows Mawer to insert a certain amount of salacious detail, as Sam has a mad adolescent crush on Marian. I think I mentioned Mawer’s fascination with labia in my last review.

Marian is essentially an unknowable character, which kept me, as a reader, from becoming very engaged with her story. It didn’t help that she seemed to be the product of some adolescent idea of a perfect woman—a beautiful woman who sleeps with just about every man she meets and cares for none of them. Yet we are to believe she cares for one, even though there is little evidence for it. I found the book blurb, which says “Marian must risk everything to protect those she loves . . .” laughable.

Quotes on the cover call Mawer “a true master of literary espionage” and call the novel “gripping.” If you want gripping, try John Le Carré or Robert Harris instead.

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Day 930: Early Warning

Cover for Early WarningEarly Warning is the second in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. It continues the story of the Langdon family, picking up in the 1950’s and ending in 1985.

The family, which began with a couple and their children and the occasional appearance of other relatives, expands during this period to grandchildren and eventually their children. As you can imagine, by 1985 we are dealing with many characters.

This is one of my criticisms of the novel. With so many characters, we don’t spend very much time with any, which creates distance from the novel. I already felt this with the first book, and this feeling increases for the second.

But is the purpose of this novel to follow the characters or the main events during these times? It seems to be the second, as we look at the ennui of suburban housewives in the 50’s, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and its associated protests, the counterculture and Jonestown, to name a few. Smiley manages to have at least one family member involved in each of these events or movements, which is quite an accomplishment for one family from Iowa.

Of the Langdon children whose families are the focus of this novel, Frank concentrates most of his attention on business and sexual escapades, while his wife Andie struggles with a feeling of pointlessness and self-absorption. Neither of them pays much attention to their children, except that Frank puposefully fosters competition between his two twin boys, Richie and Michael. All of his children suffer from this upbringing, and the boys are at times truly scary.

Joe is the only Langdon to stay on the farm, and although he was one of my favorite characters in the first book, we don’t see much of him in this one. He and Lois have had some lucky breaks, and the farm is in better financial shape than their neighbors’, but decisions of the Reagan administration make small farms a tough business.

Lillian and Arthur raise a rowdy and happy family in Washington, D.C. But Arthur’s job with the CIA brings him under terrific pressure, and a tragic loss creates ramifications for years. This family has more than its fair share of sorrows.

Claire eventually marries a doctor and settles down in Iowa. But she has selected her husband almost in competition with a friend and eventually regrets her choice.

The novel is saved somewhat at the very end by a touching event linked to the presence of a character who isn’t explained until the end, one who appears in the middle of the book and at intervals throughout. At first I found the introduction of this character confusing, but I figured he had to be a family member, so then it wasn’t too hard to guess who he is.

I will read the final book, but I fear that the distance I feel from the story will only increase.

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Day 880: Exposure

Cover for ExposureIt’s the early 1960’s, the height of the Cold War, and Giles Holloway is a spy for the Russians, employed by the British Admiralty. He has been slipped a file to copy by his superior, Julian Clowde, and he takes it up to his secret attic room to photograph it.

But Giles has become an unreliable drunk. He falls down the stairs, breaking bones. He knows he must do something about returning the file by the next day, so he calls Simon Callington from the hospital and asks him to pick up the file and give it to Julian Clowde’s secretary.

Simon is not a spy. He’s an unambitious coworker who is more interested in his family than his job. Long ago, when Simon was at university, he was Giles’s lover, and Giles thinks he will do as he’s told. But when Simon sees the folder, he knows it should not be in Giles’s possession and realizes the truth. Instead of taking it back to work, he hides it in a briefcase in the closet. But someone has seen Simon in Giles’s apartment.

Simon’s wife Lily finds the briefcase with the file behind Simon’s shoes while she is cleaning. She knows Simon isn’t guilty of espionage and can guess what happened, as she is aware that Simon went out the night before in response to a call from Giles. Lily buries the briefcase in the garden.

Suddenly, policemen arrive to arrest Simon and search the house. They find nothing, but somehow a small camera for microfilm has been found in Simon’s office.

link to NetgalleyDunmore does an excellent job of invoking the Cold War era and of creating suspense in this novel. The authorities are misguided, as it becomes clear that the real spies are trying to frame the innocent Simon. Lily, a German Jewish refugee during World War II, is questioned as if she were a Nazi. The newspapers break the news, and Lily loses her job as a French teacher and is treated like a pariah. After a while, the novel moves its focus to the struggles of Lily and her children, who go to a small village to live.

Although it took me a while to warm up to Lily and Simon, I was gripped, wondering what was going to happen to them and their three children. I liked this novel much more than I did The Greatcoat, the only other book by Dunmore I have read.

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Day 492: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Cover for The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt KidThe Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is billed as a memoir, but it is even more a collection of information and odd facts about 1950’s America, each chapter headed by a strange newspaper clipping from the time. This book is one of nostalgia similar to the work of Jean Shepherd, the humorist whose works centered on a slightly earlier time and author of the books that spawned A Christmas Story.

The memoirs bear many similarities to Shepherd’s, possibly because of the similarities in the imaginations and predilections of young boys, although Bryson’s continue on into the 1960’s and lose a lot of their innocence as the boys become obsessed with gaining glimpses of naked women and stealing beer. I’m guessing that a lot of the humor, with its emphasis on body functions and pranks, would be more amusing to men than to women.

Still, I found the book mildly funny. It turns out that I am roughly one month older than Bill Bryson, so I can vividly remember many of the things that Bryson relates as curiosities, clambering under our desks for the absurd air raid drills, for example, or going to view model air-raid shelters. Bryson grew up in Des Moines, a much bigger town than my own, so his memories are a little more urban than mine.

One place where my memory differs from his is in his repeated assertions that the Russians would never bomb Des Moines. When I was in the seventh grade, I distinctly remember being forced to watch an “educational” film during which we were informed that our town was among the top three bombing targets in the country (which is, of course, absurd, but we believed it). My subsequent informal research (occasionally asking people) has lead me to believe that every school child in America was told the same thing.

Readers Bryson’s age can take a brief look back through time in an afternoon of light reading. Younger readers might be surprised at some of the tidbits Bryson has uncovered, but they were no surprise to me.

Day 385: Sweet Tooth

Cover for Sweet ToothBest Book of the Week!

I’m always suspicious of book blurbs that compare one writer’s books to another’s. On the cover of Sweet Tooth, a blurb says “Jane Austen meets John Le Carré meets John Barth.” To my shame, I can say nothing about John Barth (except that I attempted once without success to read The Sot-Weed Factor), but Sweet Tooth has nothing to do with Austen except that she is mentioned in it and has only a few similarities with Le Carré but none of the extreme tension. Generally speaking, I don’t really believe that the work of one writer is like that of another, and certainly no one is like Ian McEwan.

Serena Frome is a smart, beautiful young graduate from Cambridge in the early 1970’s when she takes a job as a very minor employee of MI5. She has been groomed for this position by her much older mentor and lover, Tony Canning, a don. She is a naive young woman from a relatively privileged background who loves literature in a fairly superficial way (speed reading through stacks of novels) but has been pushed into mathematics because her mother wants her to accomplish something “important.” Unfortunately, she finds her facility at mathematics to be superficial too, unequal to the level of her classmates, and only earns a third. Her only distinction at school is some breezy articles written for a student magazine about what she is reading, and they lose their audience as soon as she writes more seriously about political issues.

Really, her mother seems much more eager for her to accomplish something than she is. She is somewhat shallow and eager to please, more interested in her relationships with men than in a career. She also has a tendency to pretend she knows about things that she doesn’t.

After carrying on a fairly innocent flirtation with a coworker, Max Greatorix, and having him break it off, Serena gets her big break at work. MI5 is setting up an operation called Sweet Tooth, the intention of which is to quietly fund young writers who have political beliefs sympathetic with those of the government in a subtle propaganda war against communism. Serena is told that the money will simply give the chosen writers more freedom to work, and the operation will not interfere in any way with their work.

Serena, with her voluminous reading habits but flimsy background of the series of articles she wrote in college, is asked to pronounce on the work of Tom Haley. She loves his stories and is soon given the job of recruiting him, the only fiction writer in the operation. The project seems to go swimmingly, although Tom is soon writing about themes the government would not approve. But Serena tells herself that they were not to influence Tom’s work, and anyway she is having an affair with him.

Their relationship is born in deceit, though, since Tom has no idea that his grant is coming from MI5 or that Serena is his handler. As their affair grows more serious, Serena struggles with when to tell him. Soon something else is going on that Serena doesn’t understand. As with any good spy story, you don’t always know who is lying to whom.

Since this is McEwan, we know the story will not be straightforward, and again he presents us with a great example of an unreliable narrator and a foray into metafiction. We also get a light evocation of England during a difficult period of miners’ strikes, economic and political instability, IRA bombings, and the dawning hippy and drug cultures. Although by no means a Cold War spy thriller, the novel provides plenty of plot twists.

Day 187: A Perfect Spy

Cover for A Perfect SpyWhen I was younger, I used to confuse John le Carré and Ken Follett, but last year I went to see the excellent movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. After that, I began reading le Carré again (my review of the novel is here) and have realized that he is the real spellbinder.

Although le Carré writes about espionage, these are not your typical James Bond novels. Le Carré is interested in the moral ambiguity of the work and in psychological drama rather than action. Nevertheless, his novels are extremely suspenseful.

At the beginning of A Perfect Spy, Magnus Pym has escaped his bosses in the British government and the Americans who are investigating him and has arrived at his secret rooms in a small British seaside town to write his novel, he says. As the British search for him feverishly and his boss Jack Brotherhood reluctantly begins to wonder if he is the traitor the Americans claim, Pym writes the sad story of his life.

Pym’s father has recently died, and Pym feels himself finally free to be himself, but perhaps even Pym doesn’t know who he is. His story begins with his charismatic father–a man who is beloved by many but who is also a liar, a cheat, a con man, and a thief. Pym learns to lie and pretend everything is fine from a master, and he goes on pretending for his entire life. But Pym’s motivating force, unlike his father’s, is never money. It is love. He will be anyone and do anything to make people love him.

Is Pym a traitor or isn’t he? As his boss and his wife frantically try to find him, Pym recalls the circumstances and tangled events that lead him to where he is in the present time, alone in his rooms contemplating the next step.

It is difficult to convey, without giving much away, just how compelling this novel is. Le Carré’s genius is that he can make you care for this deeply flawed character and keep you riveted by his story. A Perfect Spy is said to be the most autobiographical of le Carré’s books. It is certainly an involving novel.

Day 117: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

After seeing the exciting movie this winter, I decided to read the novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré. George Smiley has been drummed out of the service and the entire leadership of “The Circus” (slang for Britain’s intelligence organization) replaced after the death of Control, their former leader.

But the ministry calls him in to listen to the tale of Ricky Tarr, a low-level operative from Penang, who has been missing for months. Tarr’s story includes information from the wife of a Soviet operative and an allegation that The Circus has a mole at the highest level, moreover, that the mole has been sending the Russians information for some time. The ministry wants Smiley to investigate. It is soon clear that the mole is one of only a few of Smiley’s colleagues, whom he has known and worked with for years.

The novel is breathtakingly suspenseful even though, having seen the movie, I knew the ending. Smiley puts the pieces together by going over records of significant events and interviewing several agents who were replaced because of suspicions they raised or events they witnessed.

This may not sound exciting in this day of explosions and car chases, but le Carré is a master at building up the intrigue and suspense. You will not want to put this book down. I recommend the movie as well, featuring a host of excellent British actors.