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 1282: Snowdrops

Cover for SnowdropsBest Book of Five!
At the beginning of Snowdrops, A. D. Miller explains that “snowdrops” are what Russians call the bodies that emerge from the snow after it melts. Sometimes these bodies are of drunks who have fallen asleep in the snow, but sometimes the explanation is more sinister. This note at the beginning of the novel is not the only hint that things are not going to go well for someone.

Nick Platt is a British lawyer who has been transferred to Moscow during the reckless years of the 2000’s. He thinks he is worldly and sophisticated, but he has a lot to learn when he meets Masha and her sister, Katya, in the metro one day. He is soon involved in a love affair with Masha, who asks him to help with the paperwork for her elderly aunt’s purchase of an apartment.

During the same time, Nick’s bank is shepherding an investment in oil managed by a character he calls the Cossack, a typical example of the gangsterish businessmen he and his boss have to deal with. Finally, Nick’s elderly neighbor, Oleg Nikolaevich, is worried about the disappearance of his friend.

It doesn’t take much to guess that all three of these situations will go badly wrong, assisted by Nick’s willful blindness because of his infatuation with Masha. It is getting there that is the pleasure of this engaging, slowly unfolding thriller and absorbing character study. Snowdrops is a novel I read for both my James Tait Black and Man Booker Prize projects. It’s really good, teeming with the atmosphere of those lawless days in Moscow.

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Day 1272: Beast in View

Cover for Beast in ViewHere’s another book for the R.I.P challenge!

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Beast in View is quite the creepy tale. One of the novels in my 1950’s Women Crime Writers collection, it makes a departure from the others.

Miss Clarvoe has been leading an isolated life since her father died. She fled her home after inheriting most of his money, but she has been too reserved to do much with it except sit in her apartment. That situation is about to change.

Women Crime Writers coverMiss Clarvoe receives a phone call from Evelyn Merrick. She cannot remember Evelyn, but Evelyn begins to abuse her on the phone and threaten her if she doesn’t give her money. Miss Clarvoe is too embarrassed to go to the police, so she turns to Mr. Blackshear, her investment counselor, and asks him to find Evelyn Merrick.

While Mr. Blackshear investigates, we follow Evelyn as she commits a series of malicious acts. We soon realize that Evelyn is mad. Eventually, a murder is committed.

This novel builds up a terrific amount of suspense. It also has a mind-boggling conclusion. I have not been disappointed in this collection. All of the novels included in it have been excellent.

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Day 1255: The Blunderer

Women Crime Writers coverPatricia Highsmith can be very dark, and The Blunderer is about the darkest of her works that I have read. It appears in the 1950’s volume of my Women Crime Writers set.

The novel begins with a murder that at first seems to have little to do with the main action. After establishing an alibi for himself by making sure people at the movies see him, Mr. Kimmel follows his wife’s bus out of town until it stops for a break. Then he calls her out of the way to talk to him and strangles her.

Walter Stackhouse notices an article about the murder and figures out that Kimmel could have murdered his wife. He places a clipping about the murder in a scrapbook where he keeps notes and articles about different personality types, and he even goes so far as to visit Kimmel’s bookstore to take a look at him.

Walter is unhappily married to Clara, who criticizes him constantly and tries to drive away his friends. Lately, she’s been accusing him of having an affair with Ellie, a woman he has only met twice socially. Walter isn’t thinking of murder, however, but of divorce. When he asks Clara for a divorce, she attempts suicide.

The Stackhouses give their marriage another try, but soon Clara is behaving the same way. Walter does begin an affair with Ellie and makes plans to get a divorce in Reno.

Cover for The BlundererYou guessed it, of course. Clara gets on a bus to take care of her mother’s affairs after her death. Walter stupidly follows the bus to do he knows not what but cannot find her at the bus stop and assumes she has gotten off. Later, her body is found dead at the bottom of a cliff. Detective Corby sees the similarities to the Kimmel case and decides Walter has murdered his wife.

The suspense derives from Walter’s dilemma as he does just about everything wrong, raising suspicion in everyone he knows. Then Corby decides he can solve both cases by playing Stackhouse and Kimmel off one another.

This novel is certainly suspenseful. It may have been a little dark, though, even for me.

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Day 1251: Mischief

Women Crime Writers coverMischief by Charlotte Armstrong is the first novel in the 50’s volume of my Women Crime Writers set. It is an excellent start to the second volume.

Ruth and Peter O. Jones are in New York for a convention at which he is a speaker. Because Peter’s sister cancelled her babysitting gig at the last moment, they have had to bring their nine-year-old daughter, Bunny, with them. The elevator man hears them talking about where to find a babysitter and volunteers his niece, Nell. Once Ruth and Peter leave, though, Nell begins to behave strangely.

Jed Towers is on his last date with his girl, Lyn, before moving across country to take a new job. They have a spat, however, and Lyn walks out. Jed goes back to his hotel determined to find another date for his last night in town. Across an open courtyard, he sees a girl in the opposite window, who seems to be inviting him over.

I can’t say more about this novel without giving away the plot. Suffice to say, it builds up a great deal of suspense as one guest after another starts to worry about what is going on in that room on the 18th floor.

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Day 1216: The Broken Girls

Cover for The Broken GirlsMost of Simone St. James’s spooky novels have been set in the early 20th century, so The Broken Girls is a bit of a departure. Some of it is set in 1950, but the bulk is set in 2014.

Fiona Sheridan’s sister, Deb, was murdered 20 years ago and her body found on the grounds of what had been Idlewild Hall, a school for girls. Although Deb’s boyfriend, Tim Christopher, has long been in prison for the murder and Fiona believes he is guilty, something about the case still bothers her. This issue tends to raise tension between her and her boyfriend, Jamie Creel, a cop whose father investigated the murder.

When Fiona drives by Idlewild Hall near the anniversary of her sister’s death, she sees that development work is going on. A reporter, she pitches an idea to cover the local story, including rumors of a ghost on the property. But the body of a girl dressed in the uniform of the old school turns up in an old well, and Fiona begins trying to identify her.

In 1950, four girls are roommates at Idlewild Hall, a school for throw-away girls. Katie was sent away when she was raped by a neighbor boy. Cece is the bastard daughter of a wealthy man. Roberta witnessed her uncle’s attempted suicide and temporarily stopped speaking. Sonia is a refugee from post-war France.

All the girls in the school have periodic glimpses of the ghost of Mary Hand, and there are stories about her written inside the school textbooks. Everyone at the school, including the teachers, is afraid.

link to NetgalleyThe novel begins in the 1950’s with a girl fleeing someone on the school grounds. It takes us a while to figure out who and what from, and that’s a secret of the book.

The Broken Girls is another excellent spookfest from Simone St. James. She and Catriona McPherson are beginning to be my favorite authors for light, scary reading.

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Day 1203: The 1977 Club! The Honourable Schoolboy

Cover for The Honourable SchoolboyI actually read this novel before the 1977 Club was announced, but I was pleased to find that it was published in that year. I have a couple of other books I’m reviewing this week that I read especially for the club.

Here are my previous reviews of some other books published in 1977:

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I wasn’t aware that there was a sequel to John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy until I picked up The Honourable Schoolboy and started reading it. It is truly a worthy successor.

In summarizing the plot, I have to give away a key point of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but a point revealed toward the beginning of the novel. In that novel, of course, George Smiley uncovered a mole for the Russians high up in British intelligence. Because of the mole’s position, as The Honourable Schoolboy begins, all of the service’s spy networks are compromised and must be dismantled.

With a small staff of personnel who were dismissed during his predecessor’s reign, Smiley must figure out a way to make the service viable again. He has the idea that they can look for intelligence in the lacunae of his predecessor’s work, that is, look for promising leads that were suppressed.

1977 club logoThey find one, payments by the Russians to an account in Hong Kong, first small ones but later very large. Since the “spook house” in Hong Kong has been closed, Smiley recalls a journalist, an “occasional” agent, Jerry Westerby, from retirement in Tuscany to investigate this lead. A tangled path leads him from a Chinese businessman in Hong Kong to the man’s former prostitute English mistress, a Mexican drug courier in Vientiane, and some ugly dealings.

It is always amazing to me that Le Carré can evoke as much excitement from a paper chase as from an action sequence. Once again, he is in top form with a taut thriller. This novel is set against a backdrop of Southeast Asia exploding into chaos with the end of the Vietnam War. Westerby’s investigations take him to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and Saigon.

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