Putting this series on probation; three stars probably overstates the case, but the overall subject matter and atmosphere were pretty well done. The mPutting this series on probation; three stars probably overstates the case, but the overall subject matter and atmosphere were pretty well done. The mechanics, well ...
Author Whellams constructs a fairly unwieldy mystery here, and then keeps adding clanking bits and pieces as he goes, as if it's not feeling complicated enough yet. He sets up a giant wheel of coincidence and consequence that continues to turn when nobody is looking.. all that's good, if you can bring it to earth again. But the complexities are not always linked back to a root cause or causes.
One definite "don't" is having a couple of killers running amok on the same turf at the same time; it's no spoiler, that exists right from the first chapter of this very much too-longish book. That one is written in stone from the dawn of mysteries. A newer don't --is having a convenient Search Results History turn up on an impounded hard drive when the clues aren't forthcoming in a more natural way (that one and checking the Recently Called List from cell phones are now officially not-for-big-revelations-anymore; they've been hammered too hard and may only be used as incidental backup, (say I, in my new capacity as Master Of Rules...))
Last, along with losing sight of the idea that linkages should seem inevitable when revealed to the reader, when the truth comes out, it should be plausible. And it should never ever strike the reader that the finally-emerged truth was clearly constructed and designed to instill max mysterioso for effect. That happens here, a bit.
In fairness, Whellams has a good Detective character going, gets a lot of things right, and probably has a great mystery in store for us. Next time. ...more
A kind of miniature symphony, from Peter Dickinson, master of the alternative-style mystery of the seventies and eighties. (By which I guess I mean thA kind of miniature symphony, from Peter Dickinson, master of the alternative-style mystery of the seventies and eighties. (By which I guess I mean that subject matter and construction were often a point of departure for Dickinson; the familiar milieu of the classic English mystery provided the landscape, but he invariably has other things in mind. As author he strikes me as some eccentric Cambridge don who liked atonal music and talking to his literature students while everyone was tripping.. Tweedy to a fault, but unmistakably indie/alt. In a late 70s-80s way.)
The ornate Death Of A Unicorn coincidentally takes up that very fracture in sensibility-- the familiar postwar austerity-britain themes are deftly upended here, with a 'bookended' narrative that encapsulates two eras, late fifties and early eighties.
Semi Spoiler : Before we go much further, it should be said that the conclusion of this novel doesn't actually resolve anything, and that's going to be a dealbreaker for some readers. (How they could traverse the eras described so beautifully here and still nitpick the ending is beyond me, but there is no real 'eureka' at the finale. More of a bleak 'nothing is revealed' sort of closing.) For this reader there is such extravagant period detail, such an intriguing cast, such perfect voicing and pacing-- that there was no problem having no grand resolution.
We begin in the drab postwar era, though the upper-crusty ingénue heroine feels no privations beyond, perhaps, having to find suitable employment at a 'Tattler' style society magazine:
Until this morning I'd hardly thought about Night And Day. It was just another magazine, slightly more exciting than some of them because Mummy wouldn't have it in the house... she hated the 'Social Round' pages... she disliked all that sort of thing. I think because she thought that what they were about was extremely important but private, and it was obscene to have it all written down for dentists' wives in Wimbledon to read.
Dickinson manages a fairly unmanageable trick, that of giving the lie to the flighty, effervescent heroine's observations while never coming off as icky-male-author-does-ingénue or, even more difficult, never allowing the reader's affections to be separated from her voice. We're led thru a carefully constructed working model of English reserve in the coldwar era, elegant and fizzed up while being deliberately deflated, as we witness the spectacle.
Disclaimers aside, there is a mystery in the works, and it is just interesting enough to carry us to the second era, when great country manors are managed with droll despair by the formerly posh. More intriguing for me was the shift in the rules, the sea change in practicalities that were required to weather the cultural storm at hand.
It's probably safe to say that Dickinson was much more passionate about rendering these shifts, and the eras that produced them, than he was in hanging them on the frame of the mystery plot. I think he may have seen enough of the standard escape hatches: There was a secret twin! She was pregnant at the time! He was a deserter! She was married once before! He was secretly gay! -- Often enough he wanders pretty far afield, generally scattering the clues-solution model (squandering it, you may think) but looking instead toward the internal mysteries :
Mummy let go of Jane but not me and by swinging a few inches round managed to split us off completely from the others. 'I hope you'll introduce me to your friend, darling,' she said. 'Tom? He's in the other room.' 'The one who settles your account at Harrods.' She smiled at me, the witch-who-will-find-you-in-the-end. Ever since I could remember she'd been able to do this ... I discovered that beneath my recent happiness and exultation--part of it, adding to its excitement--had been the certainty that this was going to happen. Of course I'd sometimes wondered what I'd do or say if she found out, but that's not what I mean. The rhythms of my life decreed that she had got to find out... In dreams of escape you glance back along your secret path and see that at the entrance you have left your pullover, caught on a blackthorn, a huge and obvious clue for the lion-faced people to find. You left it there on purpose, though you didn't know, because that is the logic of the dream...
Looking back on this, my second read of the novel, I realize there is some danger in its not-quite mystery status for some to see it as a kind of disguised historical fiction; which it is not, though the only real defense to that is to read the other Peter Dickinson novels. They are nearly all mysteries-run-astray from the pack, and a good thing, too. Having read them all in their era, I'm now revisiting the better ones, and with much pleasure. Next up, Hindsight, Sleep And His Brother, and the list has only begun. ...more
Adam Sisman's large, official biography of 'coldwar laureate' John le Carré, is a fairly exhaustive acc
" Spying is waiting. " - The Russia House, 1989
Adam Sisman's large, official biography of 'coldwar laureate' John le Carré, is a fairly exhaustive account of the family background and business dealings of the famous writer. Occasionally it is able to glance beneath the surface, though it operates under the cover of Authorized Bio and feels like le Carré had veto privilege. Long before this volume it had been established that le Carré worked for the Secret Service in some capacity after the war; generally this bio goes no further than what is already known, and does not much to strip the secrecy away from the murky past.
Mr. le Carré is established as a mercurial, conflicted young man, both stirred and shaken by the exploits of his unreliable, criminal con-man father. That he was sent to private schools put him within range of the Secret Services, who actively recruited in those quarters. It appears that Oxford and Cambridge both supplied footsoldiers in the Intelligence wars, and were necessarily fertile grounds for plotting and Red hunting amongst the dreaming spires.
Nothing happens to le Carré in a vacuum, however, and his early years coincided with the Suez Crisis, the Profumo affair, the Berlin Wall and the Airlift, Kim Philby, Cuban Missile Crisis. Keeping track fairly vicariously, author Sisman is able to convey the effect or what may have influenced the beginner spymaster along the way; it is left to the reader to draw the inevitable lines from the events to the books like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
By mid-life le Carré is married and a philanderer; the facts are firm but understandably neither author, Sisman or le Carré-- is very forthcoming on what drove the events. In a bio where the subject is participating, it would seem that infidelity is one of the red lines that gets drawn early in the proceedings. After his escape from academia, le Carré would always travel widely, appearing and disappearing where he pleased, often without notice; while it's tempting to ascribe some of this mysterioso to a longterm service engagement in MI6, it is just as explainable as youthful hedonism, stepping out on the wife and kids whilst maintaining an alternative aura to suit the new job.
After a couple of books, le Carré was no beginner spymaster in an underling capacity; in graduating on paper to Narrative Spymaster, he was now running the show, and on both sides of the geopolitical table. To his credit, Sisman does find room to equate tensions, deceptions and dualities in the extramarital realm with the content and mood of the written work, concerned as it is with double agents and misdirection.
Let's have an interesting example! Here we must introduce the Binghams. John Bingham was the young le Carré's manager for awhile in MI6. He was also an accomplished author of intrigue/ suspense novels, but less in the realm of 'spycraft', and more in the Hitchcockian 'wrong man' or innocent-enmeshed-in-evil school. It was understood amongst the secret services that anything done for print or media would always be forbidden unless buried beneath layers and layers of narrative analogy-- and Bingham's books preserved that agreement; le Carré's books did not, quite so much, edging close to the legality line, and to the limits of the Official Secrets Act, which both men had signed long before.
The interesting part emerges when the case is made that 1) John Bingham was a fair percentage of what comprised le Carré's fictional 'George Smiley' character, and that 2) Smiley's wife in the le Carré books, named Ann*, was unfaithful to him and subjected him to understated mockery in the service. It transpires that the real wife of John Bingham, named Madeleine, participated in, and is often dismissed, in the present bio, as unreliable or uncooperative. It also transpires that Mrs Bingham, Madeleine, found this Smiley=Bingham equation distasteful, and also to imply that Ann Smiley=Mrs Bingham. With the infidelity element included, she was not at all pleased, by any of it. The reader does get the sense that le Carré took lightly any sense of harming real-world people, and in fact may have found some amusement in the double game.
Overall, the biography here doesn't satisfactorily discuss the work, the literary world, of John le Carré and the inhabitants he invented. It is easy enough to run thru the regularly reported themes, the inversion of the glittering James Bond world of casinos and fantastic villains to the banal and frowsy world of le Carré. Which was austerity Britain, with its little men who spy on each other. But Sisman isn't able to make the bigger case, of what the tragedy of the little official liars meant to a once-great Empire, or the domestic tragedy, that of learning and teaching deception, what it may mean to humanity.
An example of which, quoted near the end of the book but not discussed: "To categorize le Carré as a spy novelist is to do him a disservice; he uses the world of cloak-and-dagger much as Conrad used the sea--to explore the dark places in human nature."** Exactly so.
Although there are a few good tricky bits here, the general scope of this bio comes to outlining le Carré repeating the cycle : idea and research, often with travel, obstacles to completion solved by rewrite and general endurance, dealmaking, publishing, then the reviews, profits, screenplay and movie. Which might interest publishing insiders, but quickly goes pretty dry for the average reader. As le Carré himself put it (in describing the translation to the screen): You sit there and watch this great cow you've designed-- reduced to a bouillon cube.
Sisman's bio is that, a series of connected bouillon cubes, all leading up to but never revealing the secretive and dissembling cow-of-origin. Or something. _________________________ * Mr le Carré for some reason used the name of his own wife, the mother of his children, "Ann" --for the snippy and unfaithful --fictional-- Mrs Smiley. And to recap, that would be during the period that he was gaining international renown while also cheating on her all over Europe. ** Washington Post review of le Carré's Mission Song, Phillip Caputo, 2oo6. ...more