Posts Tagged ‘espionage novel’

Notes towards a taxonomy of the novels of John le Carré

October 18, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Oct. 18, 2016

The British author John le Carré has written 23 novels, according to Wikipedia, of which I’ve read about two-thirds. If one were to draw a Venn diagram of le Carré’s oeuvre, there would be two main “bubbles,” or categories: Those in which the protagonist is a professional spy and those in which she or he is not.

An example of the former would be all of the so-called George Smiley novels, of which Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is perhaps best known: Smiley devotes his entire career to British intelligence. An example of the latter would be many of le Carré’s other books, such as two of my favorite novels by him: 1993’s The Night Manager, in which a hotel manager is drafted for an operation targeting illicit international arms dealers, and 2001’s The Constant Gardener, in which an ordinary British diplomat begins to uncover shady doings by a multinational company after the death of his unfaithful wife.

Several other le Carré books feature amateurs who dally in espionage. There’s The Russia House (1989), wherein a British publisher becomes a courier for a spy ring; The Little Drummer Girl (1983), in which a radical English actress is recruited to locate a Palestinian terrorist; and Our Kind of Traitor (2010), in which a professional London couple decides to help a Russian money launderer and his family defect to England.

And what, you may ask, of the overlapping between the two bubbles? This area is dedicated to two kinds of novels. One type has multiple leading characters, some of whom are professional spies and some of whom are not; the other, a leading character whose status is nebulous or transitional.

In The Tailor of Panama, there are two main characters: The eponymous tailor and the duplicitous British spy who recruits him. Obviously, this homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana belongs to the first type, as does A Most Wanted Man, with its multiple characters, some intelligence professionals and others (more or less) ordinary individuals. A Perfect Spy tracks its main character, Magnus Pym, from childhood through a key episode in his adulthood; this book, of course, belongs to the second type.

I’ll touch upon this le Carré taxonomy later this week…

Advertisements

Encounter with the author as a young man: Spying and romance mingle in Ian McEwan’s understated ‘Sweet Tooth’

March 13, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 13, 2015

Sweet Tooth, the 2012 novel by British authorIan McEwan, is a tale of social upheaval, literature, betrayal and romance.

The novel’s first paragraph sets the stage in brisk fashion:

My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.

These sentences are somewhat misleading. (This is a spy novel, after all.) Frome never journeys anyplace more distant or exotic than Brighton, a coastal town about 50 miles south of London, the only foreigner she encounters is an American who’s invited to present a lecture at MI5’s offices, and she never meets anyone more hostile than a jealous co-worker. Even so, Frome finds herself in a certain kind of emotional peril when she becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue thanks to her past and present lovers.

Read the rest of this entry »

Like father, like son? Identity is inextricably tied to parentage in Nick Harkaway’s ‘Angelmaker’

December 18, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 18, 2014

Absent parents loom large in the fictional realm. A key component of the original Star Wars trilogy is Luke Skywalker’s gradual discovery of the particulars of his parentage (especially the villainy of his father, the genocidal Darth Vader) and Luke’s struggle to develop his supernatural powers without being consumed by his own dark, angry impulses. The rebellious nature of the alternative timeline’s James Tiberius Kirk is shaped in large part by the absence of his father, George, whom director J.J. Abrams killed off in the opening sequence of the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Likewise, the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man makes the research and relationships of Richard Parker, father of the orphaned web-slinging Peter Parker, a key plot point in both of the series’s first two outings.

I’d wager that matters of parentage are even more prominent in British fiction. After all, the United Kingdom has been ruled for centuries by a hereditary monarchy, with power passing (at least in theory) from one generation of royalty to the next.

A major storyline in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy involves Aragorn assuming the position of king of Gondor that, according to genetics and custom, is rightfully his. My recollection of the books is hazy, but in Peter Jackson’s wonderful movie adaptation, when the audience initially encounters this character, he goes by the name of Strider and appears to be a well-trained woodsman accustomed to operating on his own — hardly the résumé of the standard fantasy prince.

Read the rest of this entry »

Le Carré’s ‘Most Wanted Man’ reinforces the unbearable hardness of being

December 11, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 11, 2012

Le Carré’s 20th book, A Most Wanted Man, came out in 2008. I have had it for years. But I put it down at least once, finding myself unable to get past the opening pages.

Some days ago, I embarked anew upon this book, which I understand is being made into a movie. And it wasn’t long before I fell in love with A Most Wanted Man.

That’s what I wrote the other week in this post about three books that I started reading but could not bear to finish. (Not so incidentally: Le Carré’s first name is John. It’s a pen name, as you’ll soon see.)

Well, the other day, I finished it. First, two more excerpts from the post; then, additional impressions based on my full reading of the novel.  Read the rest of this entry »

Books in limbo: Encounters with three novels

December 3, 2012

Author’s note: The week after I originally posted this item, I added two words to the second paragraph for clarity’s sake. The added words, which follow Gary Oldman’s name, are boldfaced. Thank you for reading, digital eyeballs! MEM

***

I have before me two novels by John le Carré, an author whom I love. I have in mind a third novel by Tom Perrotta, an author whose work I’ve greatly enjoyed.

Le Carré (real name is David Cornwell) is a British author, born in 1931, who worked during his 20s and part of his 30s as a teacher and as a diplomat with ties to British intelligence. He is probably best known for his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, about the hunt for a traitor at the highest levels of the British espiocracy. It was adapted as a television miniseries starring Alec Guinness in 1989 and as a feature film starring Gary Oldman in 2011. Le Carré’s had many other best-selling novels, several of which have also been made into movies.

Perrotta is an American writer, born in 1961, whose ethnic background I’ve seen described as Albanian-American and Italian-American. He has taught creative writing. He’s probably best known as the author of the 1998 novel Election, about a high school campaign, which was made the following year into a popular film starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. (The book was inspired by the three-way presidential campaign among Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in 1992.) Another of Perrotta’s novels, Little Children, was released as a film in 2006.

So what could these three novels by these two very different men possibly have in common? Let me answer that question in a roundabout way. Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: