Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Smiley's People, Berlin Game, His Majesty's Dragon

Coincidentally, two spy novels this time around. Audible was having a big sale, and I've been thinking about re-reading Smiley's People for a while. I've also been kicking around the idea of reading some Deighton, since he's in much the same sort of espionage as leCarre.

LeCarre has two modes that most of his writing falls into. There are the suspenseful novels and detective-y, more character-based novels. (These things are relative, of course -- even at his most suspenseful, leCarre isn't writing James Bond novels). The former ones are books like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Night Manager, while the latter include books like Tinker, Tailor and A Murder of Quality. It certainly isn't the case that one style is better than the other -- in my examples above, Spy Who Came in and Tinker, Tailor are among the best espionage books around, and the other two are not so good.

Smiley's People is at the extreme end of the detective-y side (although I suppose Murder of Quality is arguably more so, but it's a lousy novel, so I don't count it). There is a little bit of suspense when KGB agents try to arrest one of the minor characters in Paris, but most of teh action happens off-stage. Instead, we follow George Smiley around as he follows up the death of one of the Circus's informants against the wishes of his superiors. As the novel progresses, Smiley gets closer and closer to Karla, his nemesis in Moscow Centre, but le Carre makes the process deliberately anti-climactic. I say deliberately because le Carre has shown that he can do suspense as well as anybody, and so I think that he decided not to, here.

Indeed, le Carre has subverted a number of conventions in Smiley's People. For one, he never actually confronts Karla. When Karla finally defects to the West, he crosses over the border and gets into a car. In a sort of epilogue, we here that Smiley may have debriefed him, but we never get to hear any of it. Further, Smiley ends up getting to Karla through Karla's daughter, not because of Karla's fanaticism, or because of some mis-step that Karla made in a plan against the West. Lastly, it's not even clear what this victory means -- by the end of novel, the Circus is still in disarray, and it's not clear that this will put it back on the right track.

Len Deighton's Berlin Game is treading the same ground as le Carre's work, in having a spy novel that's as much about office politics as about world politics. He's not as good as le Carre's peak period, but neither is le Carre any more (see my discussion of A Most Wanted Man.) Berlin Game is about Bernard Samson, an agent now past his prime, who used to work out of Berlin. When one of their sources in East Berlin wants to cross over to the West, Bernie is sent in to persuade him to stay, while trying to watch out for a KGB mole in the deparment.

I enjoyed this book, but very much because of the last 1/3 or so, maybe even last 1/4. Up until there, the book errs on the side of realism, and we're treated to endless scenes of Bernie worrying if his wife is unfaithful, if he's going to get a promotion, complaining about dinner parties, and so on. Realism is great, but Bernie's not such a likable character that we want to spend that kind of time with him. By the end of the book, though, he has a number of illusions about himself punctured, so I think I'll give the next book in the trilogy a shot.

A quick note that I read Her Majesty's Dragon, but I don't have much to say about it. I think it'd be hugely appealing to fans of dragons (so I've recommended it to Moshe) and fans of Napoleonic wars historical fiction, but I don't fall into either category. Also, the dialogue was annoying -- not quite right, but not really modern either. I'd love to run into another writer like Susanna Clark, who really seems to get the dialog right (to my untrained ear, at least).

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