Review: A Murder of Quality by John Le Carré

From the outside looking in Britain may seem a quaint, traditional, and overly polite nation that pleasantly punches above its weight. Others may see an increasingly isolated nation with delusions of grandeur in a post-imperial malaise.

Among the institutions that frame the national mindset, such as the Royal Family, the place of ‘public schools’ is central. Only about 7% of Britons are educated in public schools. They are not ‘public’ schools as such. They are private; attended and staffed by the elite of the nation. Their graduates go on to dominate the political, business and cultural landscape and merciless reproduce themselves and their advantages at great cost to meritocracy, diversity, sane politics and cultural vibrancy.

The inevitability of their leadership is such that a large part of the rest of the population are convinced that this is the natural order of things.

Le Carré was an offspring of these institutions and he hated it. John Le Carre

A Murder of Quality tells the tale of a schoolmaster’s wife, Stella Rode. A woman who lacked the social graces that Carne expects and attracted enmity because of it. Carne stands here as a model for Eton or Harrow or any of the other public schools like them. Stella Rode stood out because she was from up north, and she peeled apples the wrong way, and she was considered vulgar during tea with the other ladies. She was ‘earthy.’ This affront is compounded by the fact they know that she knows and she in no way wanted to change.

However, Stella seemed to know that she was going to die; in fact she seemed to have sent a letter informing a magazine editor that her husband wanted her dead. It’s the editor who contacts an old friend from the intelligence services to investigate. That old friend happens to be the irrepressible George Smiley.

Smiley, shy and retiring while inquisitive and observant, is the perfect conduit for us to meet the varied snobbish, brash and insular denizens of Carne. He moves among them with simultaneous ease and unease, socially acceptable but intellectually distant from the carping and pettiness.

Le Carré seamlessly weaves biting social commentary through this mysterious whodunnit. To say that things aren’t as they appear is an understatement. Le Carré is an expert at plotting and here, only his second novel mind, he is so assured you would assume this novel appeared later in his canon.

Le Carré might not like the ‘Carne’ of A Murder of Quality, he by all accounts doesn’t like the ‘public school’ system at all, but he knows it very well. Its a pleasure to watch him cast a cynical eye over a cast of characters very much informed by his experiences on the breeding grounds of the elite. The story, though perhaps suffering from over-cleverness towards it denouement, again displays Le Carré’s ability to build intrigue without fireworks and complexity with clarity.

 

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Review: A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

New York used to be a failing city. It was the polar opposite of what many New Yorkers today feel is a overpriced, sanitised tourist trap. Harlem, in particular, was seen as a hellhole. Not to be approached by whites for fear of the black menace that lurks within. Addicts, pimps, pushers, muggers, hookers and shooters prowled the streets. It wasn’t safe.

So it made sense when Himes got the advance for a crime book in France to use this setting and create the primal mix of black noir and pulp fiction that is A Rage in Harlem. The name was enough to titillate his French audience.

Chester Himes older

Himes knew his story was slightly overheated. But this was genre writing, this is how genre was written and he knew what his mainly white audience wanted and he gave it to them with both barrels.

More importantly however, this is how art was made. This is how the white hot heat of A Rage in Harlem was created. It’s how Chester Himes created art out of the story of a gullible man, Jackson, a New York transplant from the deep south, who finds himself in the middle of a dangerous long con. A scheme to make counterfeit money has gone wrong and with that, all of his savings, his girlfriend and her trunk of gold. The propulsive story zips along as we encounter incredible characters such as Goldy, Jackson’s twin brother, who spends his days dressed as a nun soliciting donations for a non-existent church.

The book was understandably originally released as ,For Love of Imabelle, and it is for the love of Imabelle that Jackson goes on dizzying quest to regain his losses while avoiding the police and keeping his cross dressing mother superior brother, Goldy, from deceiving him as well.Chester Himes Reading A BookAlso, it is here where we are introduced to Himes’ hard-as-nails cop-pairing of ‘Coffin’ Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. As you can imagine from their names they don’t follow the rules and this story sets up their characters well: they become a central part of Himes’ series of crime novels that followed.

Macabre humour runs side be side with social comment. Lurid violence punctuates scenes of clipped street banter at an exhilarating pace. Himes’s voice is so influential because of this mix. Blaxploitation begins here, Tarantino does too. They live in Himes.

To begin reading Chester Himes is to fall in love with a tragically underappreciated strand of crime literature. A Rage in Harlem is great place to start with a master of the American crime fiction.

 

 

Review: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Nordic Noir has gripped western crime writing for over two decades. One of its undoubted masters is Henning Mankell. His Kurt Wallander series is canon and Faceless Killers is an incredible beginning to it.

We learn early on that Kurt Wallander’s life is falling apart. His wife has left him and his errant daughter drifts in and out of his life. His father is skirting the edge of senility, while Kurt harbours an increasingly problematic drink intake and insomnia. Quietly, but knowingly, we demand such a character flaws and strife from our modern detectives.

Mankell, in his composed fashion, weaves his character into the social make-up of his country and makes comment upon it in a way that is not trite in any way.

Henning Mankell

Faceless Killers begins with the discovery of the shocking murder in rural Ystad. An elderly couple have been tortured, beaten and stabbed. While the elderly wife has been left battered and tied to a chair nursing the last embers of life, her husband lies dead with multiple stab wounds and his nose cut off.

Whodunnit? This is the question of crime fiction, and in the able hands of Henning Mankell, is intriguing enough.

Is this the new Sweden? This is the question that elevates Mankell above the standard fare of crime fiction.

The brutality of the crime is something new to the detective but also an enigmatic clue has meant that the crime has become bound up with an issue that has gripped Europe for decades, namely;

Foreigners.

Immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers.

The identity of Sweden, whether it is being lost, what that identity even is and whether change is for the better or worse are all touched upon by Mankell. Countries across Europe, more or less hysterically, are asking themselves the same questions. They have taken to blaming ‘foreigners‘ for the social and economic woes inherent to their political and economic systems. Sweden is no different.

Henning Mankell provides a masterful plot in . We read this being thorougly disgusted by the crime and skillfully kept fascinated by every twist and turn in this procedural thriller, without quite knowing whether Wallander can handle it or any other aspect of his life. But also without knowing whether Wallander’s town of Ystad and wider Swedish society will be able to handle the implications of the horrific crime. A fantastic novel.

Have you enjoyed any Henning Mankell’s works? Let me know below.

 

 

 

Book Review: Call For The Dead by John Le Carré

When approaching the body of work of a master such as John Le Carré you can search out the widely lauded creations of the author or, if you have the stamina for it, you can seek out the lesser known works and build a full picture of his career. It was in the spirit of the latter that I sought out Call For The Dead.

Call For The Dead was John Le Carré’s was first published novel in 1961. In it he introduces us to his ‘short, fat’ secret agent George Smiley who unfortunately appears ‘to spend a lot of money on bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.’ This is not James Bond. Smiley is unsexual, unattractive, unassuming and in parts of this book and later novels, unliked.

Call For The Dead sees Smiley carry out routine questioning of civil servant Samuel Fennan, who despite being found innocent of any wrongdoing, ends up dead in an apparent suicide.

It falls upon Smiley to investigate what his boss, Maston, would prefer to be an open and shut case to appease government overseers. However, suspicions arise after Smiley visits Fennan’s grieving wife, who receives a mysterious phone call that the dead man ordered. Why would a dead man order a phone call for the next morning before committing suicide? How innocent was Samuel Fennan? Are East German intelligence more involved than previously thought?

Le Carré is a genius of intricate plotting. A former intelligence officer himself, he is also has a great understanding of the peculiarities of British bureaucracy. Middle-aged men shield hostility under a veneer of politeness, while harbouring an unhealthy obsession with where they ‘schooled’. These are the prep-school, public school, Oxford/Cambridge, class of the British elite. Sentimentality, cynicism, patriotism, snobbery, betrayal and ruthlessness are indelible traits of this class of people and no writer has been able to explicate them as well as Le Carré.

As a standalone tale, Call For The Dead is thrilling. Le Carré’s skills in plotting and characterisation are so strong its hard to believe that this is where it all began and it can hold it’s own against his later works like, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ or ‘The Little Drummer Girl.’

In Le Carré’s case it is well worth taking time with each of his works. Begin at the beginning, begin where Smiley begins and where one of the most important writers of the 20th Century begins with Call For The Dead.

What works of Le Carré have resonated with you?

 

 

 

Raymond Chandler Gives a Damn.

The Big Sleep (1939)

I thought I’d begin by writing about The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s journey into the depths of seedy LA. This of course a classic. There’s nothing more classical than Philip Marlowe: he serves as the model for our culture’s stereotypical hard-bitten, cynical private eye with a love of strong liquor and undying belief in the slap-across-the-face as the best wake up technique for women.

Has it aged? Yes.

Do some of the cultural assumptions of the time seep through the page? Yes?

Does the The Big Sleep’s central premise of pornography pics stuffed in books and used for blackmail seem, now, somewhat quaint? Yeah I guess.

So why read The Big Sleep?

The Big Sleep

Because it is one of the best, if not the best, detective book of all time. The dialogue zings off the page like a jazz solo, the plot is masterful in its construction, the mood is cynical but humorously so: Philip Marlowe is the private eye we root for while knowing he would hate us. Marlowe’s entanglement is a textbook case of the corrupting nature of wealth. It is also shows us how that corrupting nature has long tentacles, poisoning the well of law enforcement and the judiciary. This speaks to today’s world as it always has.

The Big Sleep may not be for everyone accustomed to the sheen of nordic noir and the modern trappings of mystery literature. But there is another reason why Chandler’s The Big Sleep should be on your reading list.

Raymond Chandler gives a damn.

I don’t mean that in the sense that the long dead writer is hovering over your shoulder as you decide upon your Amazon purchases, (although that would be pretty cool). No, Chandler gives a damn that his city is being corrupted by the rich, that the weak are being exploited and that there seems limited hope that this will change. And this is not just about creating a ‘mood.’

I don’t demand writers become engagé and march the streets like Sartre and Beauvoir. But I do want them to refrain from the mechanical writing the crime genre can suffer from, where stock characters are thrown up against each other without even a passing thought to the socioeconomic dynamics at play.  I become more engaged with when the writer is truly engaged with the world. Chandler was engaged with his world.

Do you want personal passion and social concern from your favourite crime writers or are you searching for escape from the world when you pick up a book to read?