Mystery Books for Sale

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by Matthew J Bruccoli and Judith S Baughman, editors
University Press of Mississippi, December 2004
180 pages
ISBN: 1578066697

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I think highly of the work of John Le Carré, believing that if he'd stopped just about anywhere in his long writing career, it would have sufficed. At least we'd have had George Smiley.

I grew up in the James Bond era and only later realized the oxymoron of "world-famous glamorous spy". Le Carré is a writer who changed the nature of spy fiction forever, giving us the oh-so-different view, the invisible brainy spy, the plodding analyst, the self-effacing Everyman.

And I admit it, George Smiley blows me away. Last year, the publisher Walker reissued the first two Smiley books in celebration of an anniversary. Well, worth reading, watching the quiet anything-but-exotic master at work.

The strength of Le Carré for me was always in the opaqueness of the story; I didn't always get what was going on, but was willing to go along for the ride, figuring that eventually, the narrator would show me exactly what had been in front of my face all along.

In a 1966 interview Le Carré says: "I want people when they open my book and begin to read to feel 'God, this could be me!' When they are reading this other type of heroic book, I think they are saying 'Oh, gosh, I wish this were me,' and that is a sharp difference."

This is a collection of interviews with the author. The author, the guy who invented the term tradecraft that is so common today that it's as if it was always there. The 'conversations' are from magazines, newsletters, newspapers and radio, spanning almost 40 years.

The strength of the collection is that is does span 40 years. Within this period the author discusses his style, his values and his background, including having a conman father who served prison time and faced bankruptcy more than once. The early pieces where he denies having any personal experience in espionage give way to later admissions that yes, he knows whereof he speaks. Even the tale of how he took his pseudonym changes.

I had a couple of unkind thoughts about some of the interviewers, who seemed to be in love with their own wit and delicate prose (describing their subject as "purring" a sentence, his "flaring nostrils" and the way he speaks in a "musical croon" -- but then that interview was from Vanity Fair) or the fatuous statement by one in a 1974 Daily Telegraph Magazine piece that read "like all stylists, he does not work on a typewriter". It's possible that the best read here isn't a 'conversation' at all, but some remarks to the Knopf Sales Force from 1996.

The editors, while I'm sure they had dozens of interviews to choose from, chose well for the most part, although they could have deleted some repetitious language, as stories, lines, observations, spoken quirks repeat several times. That's not the fault of Le Carré -- we all use the same words, the same metaphors that we've developed over the years, but in a collection of interviews that's fewer than 200 pages, the reader doesn't have the luxury of spreading out over time and the examples that shows up repeatedly works only to make this talented author look unimaginative.

A little judicious use of ellipses would not have harmed the flow of the interviews, nor made Le Carré look any less intelligent. He can't sound anything but intelligent and erudite; he talks of conscience and history, of institutions and power and does it all without pomposity, without lecture. If you like reading about writing, if you've spent time with George Smiley or his compatriots over the years, this book will only add to your enjoyment and appreciation.

Reviewed by Andi Shechter, May 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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