John le Carré (1931-2020) — an appreciation

I’m so very saddened by the death of John le Carré – a brilliant, insightful and humane writer, whose ability to capture the personal and political complexities of our time was second to none.

John le Carré

Below is a slightly edited post I first wrote eight years ago – my homage to this great writer and his works. I never met le Carré, but we did briefly have contact once, when he rode to the rescue of my beleaguered languages department after it was threatened with redundancies in 2010. He gave his help immediately and with a generosity that none of us have forgotten. During that period, he signed off a note to me with the words “All fine. Please feel free”. It sits framed on my mantlepiece, where I can look at it fondly: I reckon it’s a pretty good principle to live your life by.

Later, I was tickled to find out from Adam Sisman’s biography that we had both lived, at different times, in the same small town in our youth. I have happy memories of watching the TV series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with my dad back then – we adored Alec Guinness as Smiley, and that incredibly haunting Russian doll title sequence.

Here’s my personal appreciation of John le Carré and his works, which is shaped by our mutual love of Germany and its culture. Do you have a favourite le Carré work? Please let me know if so in the comments below.

1. I love that the author and his creation George Smiley are outward-looking linguists. Le Carré studied German literature for a year at the University of Bern, and graduated with first-class honours in modern languages from Oxford. Most of his spies are linguists, and the most famous of them all, George Smiley, studied Baroque German literature and was destined for academia until the British Secret Service came knocking — in the shape of the brilliantly named ‘Overseas Committee for Academic Research’. The profession of intelligence officer offers Smiley ‘what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions’ (Call for the Dead). And languages still really matter. Smiley’s ability to speak fluent German plays a vital role in Smiley’s People when he gathers intelligence in Hamburg, the city where he spent part of his boyhood, as well as a number of years ‘in the lonely terror of the spy’ during the Second World War. Le Carré says of him in an afterword that ‘Germany was his second nature, even his second soul […] He could put on her language like a uniform and speak with its boldness’. This author’s world, then, is overwhelmingly multilingual, multicultural and international. Monoglot Brits need not apply…

2. Many of le Carré’s novels brilliantly evoke Germany during the Cold War. The frequent use of a German setting was practically inevitable given le Carré’s education, his membership of the British Foreign Service in West Germany (as Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn and Political Consul in Hamburg, which provided cover for his MI6 activities), and the timing of his stay between 1959 and 1964 at the height of the Cold War. Berlin was the frontline of the ideological battle between the Eastern and Western blocs, and le Carré says in an afterword to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that ‘it was the Berlin Wall that got me going, of course’. Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, the year the Wall went up, and, along with a number of his other novels, is partially set in East/West Germany (see list below). The most memorable for me are The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Smiley’s People (1979), both of which feature dénouements involving Berlin border crossings and evoke the Cold War tensions of that time and place perfectly.

3. I admire le Carré’s sophisticated understanding of 20th-century German and European history. This is evident in his Guardian piece marking the 50th anniversary of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, where he references the complexities of Allied intelligence operations in West Berlin, including the pragmatic but unethical protection of former Nazis, because they were viewed as valuable in the fight against communism. The difficult legacy of National Socialism in post-war Germany is most closely examined in his 1968 novel A Small Town in Germany.

4. I love le Carré’s ability to communicate complex histories to a mass readership in the form of intelligent and entertaining espionage novels. This isn’t something that many authors can do well; le Carré is one of the best.

5. All of le Carré’s novels reveal a deep engagement with moral questions — A fascination with the themes of loyalty and betrayal – in relation to both individuals and ideologies/states – is particularly visible in the Cold War ‘Karla Trilogy’ (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 1974; The Honourable Schoolboy 1977; Smiley’s People 1979), which in turn forms part of the eight-novel Smiley collection. What’s always had the greatest impact on me as a reader, though, is the critique of how the intelligence services (on either side of the ideological divide) are willing to sacrifice the individual for the ‘greater good’, and the recognition of the immorality of this act. Le Carré’s third and fourth novels – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965) – are extremely powerful in this respect, as they recount the tragic tales of those who become pawns in larger political chess games. Incidentally, I’ll bet my maximum bet of 10p that the figure of Avery in the latter most accurately embodies the professional and moral disillusionment that led Carré to leave the Service. The central question for this author was and continues to be: ‘how far can we go in the rightful defence of our western values, without abandoning them on the way?’ (see Guardian piece).

6. — and their characters are fantastically drawn. Aside from the masterpiece of Smiley — the dumpy, middle-aged, unassuming, sharp-as-a-tack intelligence genius — who could forget Control, Connie Sachs, Toby Esterhase, Peter Guillam, Ricky Tarr, Jerry Westerby, Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux? All are so beautifully depicted that you feel they are living, breathing people.

Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

7. You won’t find more perceptive writing anywhere. In German one would say that le Carré is ‘wach’: he is awake. He really SEES the world around him and has a deep understanding of how its political and power structures work, and how individuals get tangled up in them.

8. Le Carré’s works have given us wonderful TV and film adaptations, starring great actors such as Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Rachel Weisz and Gary Oldman. My favourites are probably still the two Guinness ‘Smiley’ TV series, but I do have a soft spot for the Tinker Tailor film, which was very stylishly done and featured a stellar cast including Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.

Alec Guinness as Smiley, retrieving a clue in Smiley’s People (1982) The man sees everything….

9. The quality of le Carré’s work is consistently outstanding — the plotting, the characterisation and the settings are all sublime. One of my own later favourites is 2001’s The Constant Gardener – a brilliant exploration of pharmaceutical corruption in the developing world. In his review of 2013’s A Delicate Truth, Mark Lawson wrote that ‘no other writer has charted – pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers – the public and secret histories of his times, from the second world war to the war on terror’. The sheer range of his writing is breathtaking — and it was all impeccably researched.

10. Last but not least, le Carré was a true friend of languages, and was extremely generous in using his influence to promote language learning in the UK. He was deservedly awarded the Goethe Medal in 2011 for ‘outstanding service for the German language and international cultural dialogue’.

I’ll be raising a posh glass of red to his memory tonight.

Here’s a list of Le Carré novels that reference the German-speaking world/history:

  • Call for the Dead (Smiley’s German links; Nazi past; East Germany)
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Nazi past; divided Berlin; East Germany)
  • The Looking Glass War (East and West Germany)
  • A Small Town in Germany (Nazi past; Bonn, West Germany)
  • Smiley’s People (Hamburg, West Germany; Bern, Switzerland; divided Berlin)
  • The Perfect Spy (German at Oxford; Vienna and Berlin)
  • The Secret Pilgrim (diverse, including East Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Zurich)
  • Absolute Friends (West Germany, East Germany)
  • A Most Wanted Man (Hamburg, Germany)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (Switzerland).

Jingle Bells! Mrs. Peabody’s 2020 Christmas crime recommendations

Well, it’s been quite a year. My ‘crime time’ has been severely dented by all the upheaval, but here are some of my reading and viewing gems.

Treat others! Treat yourself!

And if you’re in the UK, please consider using https://uk.bookshop.org/, which is a brilliant way to support local booksellers while keeping yourself and others safe.

Mrs. Peabody’s 2020 Christmas crime recommendations!

Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson, 2019 (USA)

Wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey celebrates his 85th birthday at his mansion surrounded by his loving family. The next morning he is found dead; his throat has been cut. Enter the police and investigator Benoit Blanc, who begin to discover clues…and some unsavoury secrets within the family.

My son recommended this film to me with the words ‘you’ll love this’ and he was absolutely right. Knives Out is huge fun from start to finish, as well as a razor sharp commentary on race and class in the USA. Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas is fantastic as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s beleaguered carer, who finds herself placed in a very tricky situation. And the all-star cast — including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Christopher Plummer — have a high old time hamming their way through this clever take on the Golden Age country house mystery. Perfect Christmas viewing for those who like their crime martinis both shaken and stirred.

Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, tr. Samantha Smee, Pushkin Press 2019 (France)

Opening line: My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money.

This prize-winning novel was recommended to me by crime writer Angela Savage a while ago, and it’s a cracker. As a translator myself, I was hugely tickled by the idea of a police interpreter inadvertently falling into a life of crime. And Madame Patience Portefeux, a 53-year-old widow with some tough times behind her, relates her story with wit, verve and plenty of caustic insight into French society. There’s an excellent review of the novel by RoughJustice over at Crime Fiction Lover (minor spoilers) – a very entertaining festive read! Winner of the 2020 CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Penguin 2009 [1962] (USA)

Opening line: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.

This cult Gothic (crime) novel was one of those ‘how-have-I-never-read-this-before’ books. Mary Katherine — or Merricat — lives a largely isolated life in the Blackwood home with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian. Early on, she nonchalantly tells us that ‘everyone else in my family is dead’. The rest of the novel teases out the unfortunate story of the deceased Blackwoods, and relates a series of events in the present that will have a decisive impact on the family’s future.

I was instantly hooked by Merricat’s highly original voice and the novel’s creepy Gothic atmosphere. It also has some interesting things to say about suffocating patriarchy, sisterly sacrifice and social exclusion. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a genuinely unsettling delight and I’m sure I’ll be rereading it a number of times.

Antti Tuomainen, Little Siberia, tr. David Hackston, Orenda Books (Finland)

Opening line: ‘And how do you know what happens then?’

Our 2020 Petrona Award winner, by one of crime fiction’s most inventive and versatile writers – what’s not to like?!

Little Siberia, set in an icy northern Finland, opens with a bang when a meteorite unexpectedly lands on a speeding car. Transferred to the local museum for safe keeping, the valuable object is guarded from thieves by local priest Joel, who is grappling with both a marital crisis and a crisis of faith. Absurdist black humour is expertly combined with a warm, perceptive exploration of what it means to be human. A celebration of resilience, fortitude and simply muddling through, this is a novel for our times.

Giri/Haji, BBC 2020 (Japan/UK; now on Netflix)

Giri/Haji [Duty/Shame] is billed as a ‘soulful thriller set in Tokyo and London, exploring the butterfly effect of a single murder across two cities — a dark, witty, and daring examination of morality and redemption’. And that’s pretty much spot on.

I was addicted from the first episode, which sees frazzled Japanese police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) sent to London to find his wayward brother and stop a Yakuza war. The characterization of the main players is fantastic – including Kelly MacDonald as Detective Sarah Weitzmann and Will Sharpe as Rodney, a rent boy whose dad is from Kyoto and whose mum is from Peckham… There’s also some beautifully inventive use of film techniques and genres, including a number of sequences that draw on manga. I can’t find this on DVD, and it’s gone from iPlayer, but it *is* on UK Netflix. Sneak off from Christmas duties, pour yourself a glass of sherry, and get stuck in.

And finally… Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Hulda’ or ‘Hidden Iceland’ trilogy (Penguin), which is told in reverse, with each novel set prior to the last (when Hulda is aged 64, 50 and 40).

The first novel, The Darkness (tr. Victoria Cribb) introduces us to taciturn Reykjavik Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. She’s about to be shoved into retirement, but is grudgingly offered the chance to look into one last cold case before she goes – that of Elena, a young Russian woman whose body was found on the Icelandic coast. This is an intriguing, multilayered novel, whose true power only becomes evident right at the end. Jónasson dares to follow through in a way that few crime writers do, and the final result is very thought-provoking indeed. The second in the series is just as powerful, and I’m looking forward to reading the third. I have a theory about how things will go. Let’s see if I’m right!

Happy reading, stay safe, and wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

The winner of the 2020 Petrona Award – a first for Finnish crime!

*Drumroll* The winner of the 2020 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year is:

 LITTLE SIBERIA by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston and published by Orenda Books

The judges’ statement on LITTLE SIBERIA:

Antti Tuomainen’s LITTLE SIBERIA stood out on the shortlist for all of the judges. From its arresting opening, in which a meteorite unexpectedly lands on a speeding car, to its very human depiction of a pastor grappling with private and theological crises, this is a pitch-perfect comic crime novel with considerable depth and heart.

The first Finnish crime novel to receive the Petrona Award, LITTLE SIBERIA is a particularly fitting winner for 2020 – a year in which life was turned upside down. A celebration of resilience, fortitude and simply muddling through, it is a novel for our times.

David Hackston’s fine translation captures LITTLE SIBERIA’S depictions of an icy northern Finland and its darkly comic tone, skilfully showcasing the writing of one of Scandinavia’s most versatile and original crime authors. LITTLE SIBERIA is published by Orenda Books, one of the UK’s foremost independent publishers, which consistently champions international and translated crime fiction.

View the entire shortlist here.

 

Comments from the winning author, translator and publisher:

Antti Tuomainen (author):

To make a long story short, I have to make it long first. A few years ago, after publishing five very dark and very noir books, I felt there was an element within me I had to bring into my writing: humour. Before my first darkly funny book The Man Who Died was published I was very nervous. Was I making a big mistake? One of those career choices you read about in artists’ biographies under the chapter title ‘The Fall’? Not that anyone would write about me, as I would be forgotten, found much later in a basement room, alone, perished in the middle of a last ‘humorous’ sentence … Happily, I was wrong, and not for the first time. Which seems to bring us to Little Siberia. It is my eighth book and now the recipient of the prestigious Petrona Award. When I set out to write a darkly comical crime novel with a priest as main character, I knew I was taking a leap – again. Alas, here we are. I want to thank David Hackston and Karen Sullivan, both incomparable and indispensable, as without them all the jury would have had was a book in Finnish with no idea who sent it. I send my warmest thank you to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Oh, and that shorter story: after fifteen years of writing and nine books, it seems I’m finally an overnight success.

David Hackston (translator):

I’m extremely honoured to receive the Petrona Award 2020, not least because of the illustrious, formidable company on the shortlist. Many congratulations to all the authors and especially to my fellow translators – my co-conspirators in bringing Nordic writing to English-speaking readers. My thanks to the panel and a huge, heartfelt thank you to Orenda Books, without whom none of this would be possible. Of course, behind every good translation is an excellent original text, and in this respect Antti Tuomainen is the gift that keeps on giving. Kiitos, Antti; thanks for the laughs thus far. Long may it continue.

Karen Sullivan (Orenda Books):

We are honoured and absolutely thrilled by the news that Little Siberia has won this prestigious award – quite possibly the only designated award for Scandinavian crime fiction in English – and it feels fitting that in such a difficult year, Antti’s beautifully written, funny, philosophical and exquisitely plotted thriller has been chosen. Antti has pushed the crime genre in so many exciting directions, and I applaud the judges for making such a bold and perfect choice. It can be no easy feat to translate Finnish and yet David Hackston has once again produced an elegant, pitch-perfect translation, and we are so delighted that his work has been rewarded in this way.

The judges would also like to highly commend THE SILVER ROAD by Stina Jackson, translated from the Swedish by Susan Beard and published by Corvus (Atlantic Books).

Congratulations to all of the winners! And a heartfelt thanks from the Petrona team to our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous and continued support of the 2020 Petrona Award.