The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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A Murder of Quality

I don’t particularly like English mysteries. Mostly because they’re so formulaic. Not unlike playing a game of Clue. First, you show the crime, but in an enigmatic way so that no one really knows how or by whom it was committed. Then, you present the inspector and your list of suspects, carefully delineating each of their motives for wanting the deceased out of the way. Finally, you spin the subsequent events, using flashbacks when necessary to fill in missing details, until the inspector gets his man or woman. None of it really matters because the crime is generally committed in a place and in such a way that it’s totally improbable. You have to enjoy the guessing game to like the genre.

In 1962, before writing his famous spy novels, John le Carré wrote A Murder of Quality, which was turned into a made-for-television movie in 1991 by Thames Television. Le Carré followed the formula with precision, only embellishing on it by adding those themes that interested him throughout his career—homosexuality, the English public school system, the Empire’s decay, men beaten down by their philandering wives, and a hero who uses his mole-like appearance to his benefit. The novel is eminently forgettable, but the television film rises above the ordinary because it stars Denholm Eliot as George Smiley.

Maybe this novel was Le Carré’s way of fleshing out the Smiley character before he really needed him in his later spy thrillers. Smiley is a fascinating character. He’s self-effacing to the point where most people take him for a quite ordinary, harmless person. He’s intensely loyal and honest, but his devious, superior mind is always working, much as god’s might, beyond the scope of ordinary mortal’s. He is patient, can withstand a blow from anyone and not be diverted from his path, and always wins in the end. In a way, he’s not very English. Totally unlike the blathering fools who populated the upper classes at the time, and distinctly different from the rest of us who never see beyond the facade of life until some genius gives us a glimpse of another reality. In my mind, Le Carré’s real gift was not his ingeniously plotted spy novels, nor his wonderfully baroque writing style (at its best), but the odd and interesting characters he created, with Smiley being foremost among them.

March 25, 2010   Comments Off on A Murder of Quality

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Redux

By the time he wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1974, John le Carré was at the peak of his powers. There was no one like him, nor I fear will there ever be again. Although I’ve read the novel (my hardbound Knopf edition) more than once and seen the BBC series with Alex Guinness as Smiley at least twice, I am still fascinated with his languid, sophisticated English voice. It is as we are talking over several bottles of claret in the early hours of the morning, and, like Charles Marlow, Conrad’s famous narrator, he’s telling some unsettling tale from his personal experience. It’s not that I care a great deal. More that I’m surprised at the workings of this strange English world he describes. I wholly believe in Jim Prideaux as a character, in Guillam and Alleline, even Esterhase and Bill Haydon, but Geroge Smiley? There I’m not really sure. He could never be an American. He’s too smart and careful, too self-effacing, too subtle in his strategy and tactics, altogether too much of a nerd. But that voice convinces me. It tells me that Smiley is real, his exploits are real, and that he needs nothing more than his superior intellect to bring down the dreaded Karla. And I believe, as le Carré wants me to believe, that the Cold War comes down to this—two men facing off in a master chess match with the world in the balance, and that, in the end, it’s the Brit who’s the smarter.

December 23, 2009   Comments Off on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Redux

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I recently finished watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for the second time, having first seen the BBC series on PBS several years ago. It features Arthur Hopcraft’s flawless adaptation of John le Carré’s famous novel, and a star-studded cast, including the incomparable Alex Guinness as Smiley, the consummate, middle class, English spy. The story is gripping and the acting is always first rate, but it is the metaphor of keeping and exposing secrets that I find so absorbing. The results are almost always disastrous to those involved (as we’re now seeing in our torture program.) No one captured this better than le Carré.

By the way, I say “captured” in the past tense, because le Carré novels, which were once so carefully plotted, now resemble tales told by high school students. How sad it is to watch a great man fail at something he was once the master of. But who can blame him? How can you be critical of yourself when all you’ve ever known is success?

May 7, 2009   Comments Off on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy