About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The New Night Manager T.V. Series

Last night Sharon and I had a chance to watch the first episode of the current adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré being broadcast on the BBC. Ordinarily if I was going to write about a mini-series I would wait until it was complete but I decided to write about the opening episode to close out my two weeks of posts involving John Le Carré.

I was impressed by the first episode. It caught and held my attention.

From the moment Tom Hiddleston appeared on the screen he met my mental image of Jonathan Pine from the book. Hiddleston is tall enough, weathered enough, lean enough, handsome enough.

I thought it very clever to move the opening scenes in Cairo from the early 1990’s to the 2011 Arab Spring Revolution and the protests wracking Cairo. Indeed, it gave a clearer reason for Dickie Roper to be selling arms in Egypt. They could be used against the protesters.

I thought Aure Atika was convincingly sultry for Freddie Hamid’s older mistress, Sophie Alekan. Her secrets betrayed by Pine she forgave him but he could not forgive himself.

As in the book word of the proposed arms deal was leaked in London to Roper by one of the traditional British Intelligence agencies.

In the book the small new intelligence agency seeking to take down Roper was headed by Leonard Burr. In the series it is run by a woman, Angela Burr, played by Oliva Colman. It was interesting to see the shift in leadership a generation after the book was written. I saw no problems with the change in gender. In characterization I thought Colman looked properly rumpled. The Burr of the book is hardly a fashionable man.

The T.V. confrontation between Pine and Sebastian Ogilvy in which Ogilvy denigrates Sophie and dismisses any obligation of the British government towards her was more effective than the book as we saw the emotions playing out in Pine.

As the story moves to Switzerland setting the luxury hotel in Zermatt rather than Zurich was immaterial to me. In both locations the rich are carefully pampered.

Hugh Laurie as Richard “Dickie” Onslow Roper appropriately swept into the hotel with his entourage. He did not precisely fit my mental view of Roper. From the book I had envisaged Roper as a bigger, more robust man, with a booming voice.

I did take me a few minutes to move away from remembering Laurie as Dr. House. Thankfully in the role of Roper he does not use a cane.

In watching the episode I did accept Laurie as Roper. Laurie is clearly in command. He has the touch of world weariness I remember from the book. He does well at playing Roper’s role as a philanthropist while dealing in arms. He is equally of the right age.

The age difference between Roper and his girlfriend, Jeds Marshall, hits more strongly when you see them side by side rather than reading about them.

Elizabeth Debicki as Jeds is suitably lanky, lovely and languid. For some reason I imagined her as a brunette with hair flowing down her back. Jed’s short blonde hairdo works well on Debicki. At 6’ 2 1/4” she has the height I expected from the book.

What is most impressive about the casting is that the “bad” guys are average to good looking rather than bad by appearance alone.

I thought the script well written. The characters have distinct voices and speak intelligently. I was not surprised that le Carré was involved with David Farr in the writing of the series.

You can see developing through the first episode Pine’s commitment to doing right and his desire to stop Roper, called the “worst man in the world”, by Sophie. He will be an easy recruitment by British Intelligence in the next episode.

Most interesting to me was that le Carré’s sons, Simon and Stephen Cornwell are executive producers of the production.

My Australian blogging friend, Bernadette at her fine blog Reactions to Reading, occasionally compares a book with its adaption on screen. It is not always clear which is the better.

I am greatly looking forward to the rest of the mini-series. I have found the changes from the book to be well done and I am excited to see what further changes are ahead. If the remaining episodes are as good as the first it is going to be a great mini-series and be very profitable even though it is the most expensive mini-series in BBC history.
Le Carré, John – (2000) - Single & Single; (2001) - The Constant Gardner (Second best fiction of 2001); (2005) - Absolute Friends (Best fiction in 2005); (2008) - Mission Song; (2009) – A Most Wanted Man; (2016) - A Quartet of John Le Carré; (2016) - The Night Manager and The Writing of and Reaction to The Night Manager

Sisman, Adam - (2016) - John Le Carré and John Le Carré as Real Life Spy 

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Writing of and Reaction to The Night Manager

While reading The Night Manager by John Le Carré and then writing my review I avoided reading the section of the biography by Adam Sisman that dealt with The Night Manager. When I was done I went back to learn about how the book was written and received in 1993.

In his research on the international arms trade of that time he looked to the most famous writer on the subject, Anthony Sampson, whose book, The Arms Bazaar, raised world consciousness of the merchants of death.

Le Carré’s dedication to his craft is illustrated by the opening sentence of the book. He drafted 16 different versions before settling on:

On a snow-swept January evening of 1991, Jonathan Pine, the English night manager of the Hotel Meister in Zurich, forsook his office behind the reception desk and, in the grip of feelings he had not known before, took up his position in the lobby as a prelude to extending his hotel’s welcome to a distinguished late arrival.

As with most authors Le Carré has drawn upon his own life in his characters. In The Night Manager the roles of women in the life of his hero, Jonathan Pine, are essentially the same as Le Carré’s experience as recounted by Sisman who includes short quotes from The Night Manager:

Like David, Pine has undergone ‘a locked-up childhood’, one devoid of women: ‘the friends and sisters of his youth he had never had, the mother he had never known, the woman he should never have married, and the woman he should have loved and not betrayed’.

There was great anticipation of the book especially in the United States where Le Carré’s previous three books had all been No. 1 bestsellers. Le Carré was paid a $5,000,000 advance for the American rights to The Night Manager.

It turned out to be a disappointment for the publisher reaching only No. 3 on the bestseller lists. Only for an author with the great successes of Le Carré could No. 3 be unsatisfactory. There were sales of over 350,000 hardcover copies and 1,000,000 paperback copies.  The unhappiness for the publisher was that, despite the immense sales, the book lost money. The advance had been too large.

In Great Britain The Night Manager was briefly No. 1 before being overtaken by Jeffery Archer’s book, Honour Among Thieves. Still 600,000 paperback copies were sold in 3 months.

The rankings in America and Great Britain reflect my conclusion about the book. It was a very good but not great book.

Every critic noted that Le Carré had made a foray into the new world of intelligence with the end of the Cold War.

Some critics, especially in England, disliked the love story of Jeds and Pine. One described her as a fantasy woman. I am puzzled by their reaction. What self-respecting major international arms dealer would not have as his girlfriend a beautiful young woman of limited intellectual achievements? The superrich can afford fantasy.

I was not upset with the relationship of Jeds and Pine. It just was not an important part of the story for me. I did not even mention their relationship in my review. As a reader I was focused on Pine’s efforts to spy on Dickie Roper and the huge arms deal. In retrospect, what I find most interesting about the love affair is that they did not immediately begin a sexual relationship. Even 23 years ago that would have been expected in the average thriller.

With regard to critics Sisman quotes from David Remick, in the New York Review of Books:

At moments The Night Manager seemed to Remick like a James Bond novel written by a superior Ian Fleming, ‘a Goldfinger for grownups’.

I consider Remick’s comment a cheap shot. Beyond having a wealthy businessman as the bad guy The Night Manager has no relation to Goldfinger. It is a sophisticated and complex story.

The New York Times thought the book brilliant with a flawed ending.

There was one old spy who loved the book. Former American President, George H.W. Bush, wrote a letter to Le Carré:

I just wanted you to know the pleasure you have given this retired Prez, the retired CIA guy’.
 Le Carré, John – (2000) - Single & Single; (2001) - The Constant Gardner (Second best fiction of 2001); (2005) - Absolute Friends (Best fiction in 2005); (2008) - Mission Song; (2009) – A Most Wanted Man; (2016) - A Quartet of John Le Carré; (2016) - The Night Manager

Sisman, Adam - (2016) - John Le Carré  and John Le Carré as Real Life Spy

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Night Manager by John Le Carré

The Night Manager by John Le Carré – While reading the biography of Le Carré I realized it had been several years since I had read any of his books. In the biography each of his 23 books is discussed in some detail. Wanting to both read one of his books I had not read and see how my reaction compared to the reviews when it was published I avoided reading in the biography about The Night Manager which had been sitting on a shelf above my computer for some years. My next post will look at how Le Carré wrote the book and reaction to the book. To achieve my goals for these posts they will, contrary to my custom, have multiple spoilers. 

Upon starting the book I was immediately struck by Le Carré’s vivid and detailed descriptions of locations. I had not appreciated before reading the biography how he traveled to the places about which he was writing to experience them in a detail not possible by photographs, videos and words. Unlike most of his books The Night Manager is mainly set in the Caribbean, Central and South America. 

As always Le Carré has a compelling main character. Few authors can draw that character in but one paragraph:

Jonathan Pine, orphaned only son of a cancer-ridden German beauty and a British sergeant of infantry killed in one of his country’s many postcolonial wars, graduate of a rainy archipelago of orphanages, foster homes, half-mothers, cadet units and training camps, sometime army wolf-child with a special unit in even rainier Northern Ireland, caterer, chef, itinerant hotelier, perpetual escapee from emotional entanglements, volunteer, collector of other people’s languages, self-exiled creature of the night and sailor without a destination, sat in his sanitary Swiss office behind reception, smoking his third unusual cigarette and pondering the sage words of the hotel’s revered founder that hung framed alongside his imposing sepia photograph.

He is working at the Hotel Meister Palace in Zurich one of the elite hotels of the world. As night manager he is the unobtrusive figure in charge during the quiet dark hours. He is suave and capable.

Previously he had worked in hotel administration in Cairo where he had been entrusted with an envelope of secret information on weapons for sale by Sophie, the older beautiful mistress of an Egyptian playboy. Jonathan betrays her by sharing the information, which could affect regional stability, with a British intelligence officer. Sophie is killed and Jonathan left with a punishing guilt.

Into the Hotel Meiser sweeps Richard “Dickie” Onslow Roper and his entourage including the young and beautiful Jeds.

Roper was the international arms dealer behind the arms deal that resulted in Sophie’s death. Based in the Bahamas he roams the world making deals but his role, obscured by so many levels of intermediaries, can never be proven.

While his façade is unruffled Jonathan is driven by seeing Roper to contact a different of British intelligence. He is recruited to undertake a penetration of Roper’s operations.

An elaborate background is created and lived by Jonathan. It includes time in Cornwall. After learning from the biography that the Cornish coast has been Le Carre’s home for decades I understand why the portrayal of life in Cornwall was so convincing.

At the proper moment a spectacular entry is created for Jonathan.

Written in 1993 the Cold War has recently ended. Roper is no longer involved in selling weapons to the many groups around the world willing to take up arms in support of the global ambitions of America or the U.S.S.R.

With the flexibility of the amoral Roper has turned his attentions to making a massive deal that would supply modern weaponry to the drug cartels of Colombia. In return, payment will be made in cocaine.

Yet there is disharmony within the intelligence agencies of America and Britain over the covert operation. Their intrigues are a constant unknown backdrop to Jonathan’s efforts.

It is a thriller that is unashamedly complex.  It is less opaque than some of Le Carré’s plots. What stands out is how rare it is to have a contemporary thriller that challenges a reader.

As with some  of Le Carré’s books the book drags through the middle and could have been shortened. Once the threads start coming together the pace accelerates, even pounding to the conclusion.

The Night Manager differs from current thrillers in that it has complex, even likeable at times, bad guys

The ending is as close as Le Carré gets to Hollywood but he cannot go all the way. The bad guys do not get their just desserts but there is no aching end for the hero. His survival was quite a surprise to me. I was dreading another bleak Le Carré conclusion. I admit I was glad as did not want Jonathan killed. It also reflects my concern for the character ahead of the success of evil. It was a very good but not great book. I am off to see how it was created and received.

Le Carré, John – (2000) - Single & Single; (2001) - The Constant Gardner (Second best fiction of 2001); (2005) - Absolute Friends (Best fiction in 2005); (2008) - Mission Song; (2009) – A Most Wanted Man; (2016) - A Quartet of John Le Carré

Sisman, Adam - (2016) - John Le Carré 
 and John Le Carré as Real Life Spy

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Quartet of John Le Carré

Having just read John Le Carré by Adam Sisman I have looked back at the short reviews I wrote of the four Le Carré thrillers I read between 2001 and 2009. Below the reviews I have added comments inspired by reading the biography.

40. – 90.) The Constant Gardner by John Le Carré - His best book in years. Justin Quayle’s investigation of his wife's death leads him around the world including Saskatchewan. The author has a sense of our winter as he creates a fictional (Saskatoon) Saskatchewan city. Often sad; always moving. It is a book that will not be quickly forgotten. Probable hardcover (probable only because of some recent novels). (Dec./01) (Second best fiction of 2001)

I found the Saskatchewan connection so unexpected in a book focused on Africa. I wondered at the time how Le Carré could write so knowledgeably about my province. Only after reading the biography did I learn of his research which included travels to the places in which he set his books. The biography does not say if he came to Saskatchewan. I remain impressed that he could be accurate about one of the minor settings in his books.
8. - 263.) Absolute Friends by John Le Carré – A brilliant stunning novel of Cold War and post-Iraq War espionage. Ted Mundy, Pakistani born Englishman, and Sasha are 1960’s radicals in Berlin who form a close friendship. Later Mundy becomes an English spy in order to bring Sasha’s information from East Germany to the West. Actually each is a double agent but ultimately both for the West. They fade into instant oblivion when the Wall comes down in 1989. Mundy has built a simple life in Munich when, after the Iraq War, he is drawn by Sasha into a venture to counter America’s official world view. A shocking explosive pounding conclusion raises the specter of disinformation and utter ruthlessness in America’s war on terrorism. Personal loyalty betrayed by official deception. Better than The Constant Gardner. (Feb. 20/05) (Best fiction in 2005)

I had not realized the level of critical backlash in America to Absolute Friends. It was generally considered a polemic reflecting an anti-American attitude of the author.

In the New York Times the reviewer Michiko Kakutani said it was “a clumsy, hectoring, conspiracy-minded message-novel meant to drive home the argument that American imperialism poses a grave danger to the world order”.

And here I thought of it as a brilliant book that was my favourite book in 2005. I have not changed my mind and remain content to be of the minority who thought it a great book.
45. - 455.) Mission Song by John Le Carré – Salvo, a Congolese zebra (white father and black mother) in London, is a skilled linguist and interpreter. He can speak a pack of languages starting with English, French and Swahili and including a variety from the Congo. The English Secret Service hires him to translate at a meeting between a new messianic leader for the Eastern Congo and representatives of three groups within the area. As Salvo is leaving London his marriage is dissolving and a new love affair commencing. At the conference Salvo skillfully handles his official translations and listening to secret recordings of private conversations. When he listens to some private conversations to which he should not have listened, he learns the official purpose of a grand reconciliation of the region under a charismatic leader is a façade for yet another grab at the valuable mineral resources. Salvo is an idealist who seeks to prevent yet another injustice perpetrated on his homeland by greedy foreigners. I feared as bleak and bitter an ending as the The Constant Gardner or Absolute Friends. Salvo is dealt with more discreetly by the Establishment. Salvo is another amazing character. Le Carre is such a master at creating fascinating characters. It was a good but not great book. (Oct. 28/08)

The biography also revealed to me that Le Carré was a linguist speaking English, German and French. His German skills reached the level of being a translator. It is thus no surprise why the book is so convincing about Salvo as an interpreter.

With its focus in Africa and Europe the book was better received in America.

In The San Francisco Chronicle it was viewed as “more relaxed” and “less strident” and that “Le Carré has regained his lighter touch”.
37. - 500.) A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré – Issa Karpov, half  Chechen / half Russian, barely makes his way to Hamburg after being imprisoned and tortured in Russia and Turkey. Issa denies he has been a Islamist radical. With the aid of a Turkish family he manages to find Annabel Richter, a lawyer devoted to helping immigrants seeking to stay in Germany. She is haunted by the deportation of another young Russian and will not let it happen again. She realizes Issa is no ordinary fugitive as he has particulars for a bank account in Brue Freres, a private bank, run by Englishman Tommy Brue. It was an account established by Issa’s corrupt father in the end days of the USSR. It is a Lippanzer account – a black account which turns white just as the horses change colour when they age. Richter seeks to find a way to keep Issa in Germany and let him fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor. At the same time the multiple German competing intelligence agencies have their eye on Issa and want to use him for their own ends. The interested agencies expand to include those of England and the U.S. I almost hate to read Le Carré’s books. The recent works have been so grim in their endings. As I read this book I dreaded what was going to happen to Issa. The cruelty of Western intelligence in battling Islamic terrorism is frightening especially if you are non-Caucasian and non-Western. If the book’s casual willingness to cast aside laws is correct there is a depressing lack of difference between Western democracies and the dictatorships of the rest of the world. There is no humanity, only competition among the intelligence agencies. I am not sure I am up to reading another Le Carre book. He does have the great talent shared by P.D. James of creating amazing characters. I know I will not forget Issa. It was a book to remember for my 500th book of the decade. (Sept. 17/09)

It was A Most Wanted Man that ultimately kept me from reading another Le Carré novel for 7 years. While I had coped with his visions of brutal intelligence communities around the world in earlier books I found myself too discouraged by A Most Wanted Man. It was not an excessive amount of violence in terms of bodies that depressed me. Le Carré does not fill his books with bodies. I stopped reading his books as I did not want to accept that the current world of intelligence agencies was as vicious as he portrayed. Le Carré’s world was too bleak for me. I decided to read another after I read the biography. I wanted to see if my reaction to Le Carré had changed. I had an unread Le Carré book, The Night Manager, above the computer. It was actually written before the above books. My next posts will review and discuss the book.
Le Carré, John – (2000) - Single & Single; (2001) - The Constant Gardner (Second best fiction of 2001); (2005) - Absolute Friends (Best fiction in 2005); (2008) - Mission Song; (2009) – A Most Wanted Man

Sisman, Adam - (2016) - John Le Carré 
 and John Le Carré as Real Life Spy

Friday, February 19, 2016

John Le Carré as Real Life Spy

David Cornwell posing as a spy
for Life magazine
In reading John Le Carré by Adam Sisman I was most intrigued by the sections of the book setting out David Cornwell’s participation in British espionage. While I had vague knowledge he had been involved with British intelligence I had not known how extensive and how long he had been involved.

His involvement began when he was a member of the British Army during his National Service. During that period he spent time in Austria. It was shortly after WW II with large numbers of refugee claimants. He was assigned to question these refugees to ascertain if they were legitimate refugees. He found the work very boring.

His work in that area brings to mind the large numbers of refugee claimants from areas east of the EU being processed in Europe. While Cornwell may have been bored I am certain past and present claimants find it an agonizing process.

During his time in Austria he was asked to join a real intelligence officer in meeting a spy. The process became a farce when in the restaurant chosen for the meeting a gun Cornwell had concealed in his pants slid down his leg and on to the floor. It is a lively anecdote but Sisman raises real doubts about its authenticity. As with most people, Cornwell’s recollection of past personal events is often flawed.

After finishing his stint in the army he went to university in Oxford. I was startled to learn that as a university student he spied on fellow students and wrote reports on the leftist (communist) activities of friends.

I was left uncomfortable with his personal spying at university. Sisman also has discomfort. You think of students spying on students as an infringement of personal rights. Yet was Cornwell putting love of country over love of friends?

England was just coming to appreciate in the early 1950’s how deeply Soviet Intelligence had penetrated British intelligence through the recruitment of students in Cambridge during the 1930’s. Whether it was the Cambridge Five or Six the Russians had been very successful.

As well we now live in an age where Islamic extremists are seeking out the young. I am not sure what should be the limits on internal spying in the Western World.

Cornwell had a flirtation with the Russian Embassy hoping to be recruited so he could spy on the Russians. It is unknown why the Russians broke off contact with Cornwell.

With regard to who the Soviets sought out for spies:

It is worth noting that David possessed at least some of the characteristics that the KGB recruiter Arnold Deutsch had identified in Philby, Maclean and others, and had listed as attributes of a successful spy – an inherent class resentfulness, a predilection for secretiveness and a yearning to belong.

In the late 1950’s Cornwell worked for MI5. One of his tasks was to interview potential senior civil servants and government scientists about Communist connections. He was reported to be very good in his interviewing.

Later he was an agent runner meeting agents like he had been in university.

Unhappy at MI5 Cornwell applied to join MI6:

He told Michael Overton-Fox that MI5 was ‘a dead-end sort of place’. By contrast MI6 seemed smarter, more larcenous and more glamourous. The people were funnier, naughtier and raunchier than their counterparts at MI5.

 After being trained to be a “real” spy he was posted to Bonn, West Germany where he travelled Germany:

His task was to investigate and detect potential Nazi cells or organizations, and to recruit German sleepers who would join any such groupings in order to provide information on them.

His work proved unproductive as there were no significant Nazi groups to be found.

I do expect there are intelligence agents all across Europe today carrying out the same task with regard to Islamic radicals.

His work with MI6 ended after the immense success of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

With such an extensive background in the intelligence world Cornwell was well prepared when he entered into the writing of spy fiction.

Le Carre, John – (2000) - Single & Single; (2001) - The Constant Gardner (Second best fiction of 2001); (2005) - Absolute Friends (Best fiction in 2005); (2008) - Mission Song; (2009) – A Most Wanted Man

Sisman, Adam - (2016) - John Le Carré

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

John Le Carré by Adam Sisman

John Le Carré by Adam Sisman – It has been some time since I read a biography of an author. I am not always anxious to learn the personal story of authors as I have found their lives can interfere with as much as enhance the reading of their books. Since my sons gave me the biography of John Le Carré for Christmas the decision was made for me with regard to David Cornwell and it was time to read of the most prominent spy writer of the last 50 years. Over the next few posts I will be discussing the biography, Cornwell’s life especially on how he became an author and his spying experience, my thoughts on several of John Le Carré’s books I read before the biography and The Night Manager which I read after the biography.

Cornwell was born in 1931 to Ronald and Olive Cornwell. It was a dysfunctional family. Each parent had a negative impact on his life.

His father was unfaithful to his wife and a dishonest businessman with permanent amnesia over his transgressions.  He was sent to jail several times. His earliest prison terms were for forgery and false pretences. Ronald’s cheery personality masked his life long practice of deceit in business and his personal life. He was a character if you did not have him for a father. Ronald proudly proclaimed that he had never read a book.

Olive came from a family of strict Non-Conformists, Baptists. She derided Ronald for being from a class below her. Unable to cope with Ronald she left him for another man and abandoned Cornwell and his older brother.  Cornwell was 5 years old.

Ronald dealt with the situation by sending the boys to boarding school. I can imagine the loneliness of the boys. I went to boarding school at 15 and it was as lonely a time as I have experienced as I adjusted to life away from home. Ronald was an appalling father by that action alone.

Fortunately I never had the beatings that were suffered by the Cornwell brothers and all other students. He has bitterly resented the beatings all his life.

After reading about his childhood I could understand how Cornwell might spent a lot of his youth living in his imagination.

Encouraged by a teacher he was writing “lurid short stories” at 13 years of age.

At Sherborne School the Cornwell boys were encouraged to live by the principles of “service, fortitude, self-denial, fair play and courage”. With his father’s unprincipled life in contrast Cornwell was extremely conflicted.

While at Sherborne he won a prize for a long free verse poem.

Cornwell showed an aptitude for languages and was fascinated by German. He eventually reached such proficiency in German that he served as a translator.

In the midst of his chaotic family life Cornwell was a gifted performer. Sisman wrote of him being able to control the circumstances around him as a performer.

He is also a talented artist and considered a career in art. In a book filled with many details about Cornwell’s life Sisman did not explore why Cornwell did not pursue life as an artist.

After attending Oxford he taught for a few years. At 26, while teaching at Eton, he started writing a murder mystery set in a “fictional” public school. Years later it became A Murder of Quality.

Asked to compile a German reader he offered the publisher, Bodley Head, a short story “about a pavement artist who one afternoon produced a masterpiece in pastels on the paving stones in Trafalgar Square, outside the National Gallery; and then the rain came, and washed it away”. The story was rejected.

A few years later while working at MI 5 he started writing a spy novel:

‘I began writing because I was going mad with boredom,’ he would later declare: ‘not the apathetic, listless kind of boredom that doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, but the screaming, frenetic sort that races round in circles looking for real work and finding none.’

It became his first book, Call for the Dead.

The origins of Le Carré as a pseudonym have been lost. Cornwell speaks French well and carré means square in French. In reflection Cornwell indicated:

‘I thought that to break up a name and give it a slightly foreign look would have the effect of printing it in people’s memories.’

When his third book The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became a best seller he became a full time author.

In the book Sisman does not ignore Cornwell’s warts. He can be a prickly friend. He is truly thin skinned about reviews critical of his books. His greatest issues have been with regard to his relationships with women.

It would be best not to read the biography if you have not read the books as the plots are fully discussed.

The book is well written.

I learned a lot about Cornwell but I regret that Sisman had but passing references to Cornwell’s children and essentially nothing about his grandchildren. Where there were long sections about his relationships with Cornwell’s parents Sisman did not deal with Cornwell’s ongoing family relationships.

More frustrating is that beyond a few pages Cornwell’s personal life after 55 is absent from the book. Having reached 60 plus in my life I think a writer’s senior years are as interesting as his younger years.

I expect it will be the signature biography of David Cornwell for at least a generation.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Comparing Serial Killers in Three Totalitarian States

Bernie Gunther, in The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr, pursues a serial killer in pre-World War II Nazi Germany. I thought of other mysteries involving the investigations of serial killers in dictatorships. It was interesting to compare the fictional approach of Nazi Germany to a serial murderer to the fictional approaches of Stalinist Russia in Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith and contemporary Communist China in Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong.

In The Pale Criminal it is accepted that there is a serial killer. The similarities in the deaths of teenage girls in Berlin are recognized by the Berlin police and the Nazi leadership.

In the U.S.S.R. of the early 1950’s there is a refusal to acknowledge a serial killer can exist in the socialist state killing young boy after young boy in different towns.

In the Communist China of the 1990’s the Party leadership is left with little option for the killer clothes his victims in the classic Red Mandarin dress. Before the economic liberalization the book suggests serial killers were kept secret. However, in the new economy media must support itself and crime, especially garish crime sells well.

The dramatic costuming of the victims creates a media frenzy. The population is utterly absorbed by the murders.

For the Nazis it is important to catch the real killer. Reinhard Heydrich, among the most ideological of the top leaders, explains to Bernie that they must find the killer as family is at the heart of the Nazi state.

In Russia the State is not concerned if the real killer is caught. As long as someone is caught the mirage of the perfect socialist state is maintained. Local authorities, under intense pressure from central authorities, select, almost at random, a local “undesireable” to be charged,  convicted and executed.

For Communist China as with the other regimes the presence of a serial killer is an affront to the honour of the Party and leadership demands the police find the killer.

In both Germany and Russia the news of the serial killers is kept secret. As bodies mount in each country word is spreading of young people being killed but the state’s crushing grip on media prevents widespread public disclosure.

As set out above the situation is different in Communist China where the state’s iron grip on the media no longer extends to non-political crime coverage.

In Nazi Germany and Communist China extensive resources are committed to the investigations reflecting the determination of the estate to swiftly find the serial killer.

It is Kafkaesque in Russia where the investigation takes place despite the State. The Communist leadership sees an investigation as questioning the system. Leo Demidov and his wife Raisa risk their lives to chase the killers.

In the sensitive investigations Bernie Gunther in Germany and Chief Inspector Chen in China are adroit at managing their relationships with high ranking authorities interested in the investigations. It is not enough to be a good investigator. They must also be skilled politicians.

On the other hand Leo and Raisa are not adept at dealing with the authorities. Still they would have had to go after the Russian killer by subterfuge in any event because of the official denial there is a serial killer.

Without giving any spoilers I found it intriguing that in each of the books the motivations of the killers stemmed from a connection with the ideology of the governing dictatorship. The respective leaderships were right to be concerned that the serial killers were challenging the State by their actions.

It is hard to say you enjoy a book about a serial killer. I was glad that I read each of these books and appreciated how the authors worked their serial killer into the political philosophy of the totalitarian state in which they resided.