‘A Murder of Quality’ by John le Carré

The second novel from le Carré; the second featuring George Smiley. Only having resigned from the Secret Service at the end of Call for the Dead, Smiley finds himself on this occasion involved in murder most foul.

The violent murder of Stella Rode, the wife of a junior master at the redoubtable Carne School, educator of royalty for centuries, upsets the privileged veneer of the ancient establishment. Grammar school educated, the Rodes were not readily accepted by the staff of a school imbued with protocol and social place. Class snobbery in extremis was the norm.

As with his first book, le Carré explores this British post-Second World War class system through Smiley, a man who can as readily dress for dinner as have a pint in the local pub with a police detective.

A Murder of Quality is somewhat pedestrian, its dated narrative and obvious constructs flat. But there are flashes of the le Carré to come that lifts his second novel out of the Agatha Christie mould. It’s an easy enough diversion, an old-fashioned detective mystery that owes most of its interest to the fact it’s the second George Smiley novel: a curio that would have otherwise slipped into insignificance.

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‘Aquaman’

A visual feast of underwater delights as Jason Momoa (Justice League, Conan the Barbarian) makes the role of Aquaman his own.

On discovering from Princess Mera (Amber Heard – Justice League, Magic Mike XXL) he is heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, Aquaman must step in to stop his half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson – The Conjuring, Hard Candy), going to war with the surface polluters.

DC Comics has generally struggled in the superhero stakes against Marvel, but with more than a hint of Avatar in its visuals and a director (James Wan – Saw, Fast & Furious 7) better known for horror films, Aquaman has pace and narrative that results in an enjoyable popcorn movie.

Rating: 66%

‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor

A young teenage girl, on holiday with her parents, disappears and the villagers are called upon to join the search. ‘They gathered in the car park in the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do. It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked. The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw… A mist hung low across the moor and the ground was frozen hard.’ 

So begins Jon McGregor’s haunting novel of grace and beauty as time passes, the girl remains missing and the village returns to its everyday. Reservoir 13 charts that everyday, a portrait of the life in the village and its surrounds – a farming community struggling with change as the kids look to leave and families are hit hard by the impact of supermarkets and big business in the next valley. 

But McGregor’s magical novel is not an episodic soap opera. Yes – characters in the village come and go; plans for the Christmas pantomime and New Year’s fireworks are discussed; the foxes and badgers in the coppice mate and raise their young. But in his fluid prose and long, unbroken paragraphs full of life and detail, McGregor gives voice to an array of moments, a sequencing of narrative events that merge into magical and evocative storytelling. ‘Nelson’s barking shifted up a pitch and the door shook as he clattered against it, and then Mr Wilson opened up with a smile. By the packhorse bridge a heron paced through the mud at the river’s edge, head bobbing, feet lifted awkwardly high. The weather on the hills was fine for September, and the scoured stacks of gritstone that made up Black Bull Rocks were warm to the touch. In a hollow deep between the stones, James and Lynsey had found a comfortable spot and were making up for lost time.’

But always, never very far away, is the enigma of the missing girl and the expectation of her discovery. The rhythms of village life and nature beyond unfold – the cows need milking, the sheep lost on the moors found, the Harvest Festival display arranged. Time is invested: babies are born, the butcher loses first his business quickly followed by his wife, the primary school Principal retires, the female vicar leaves to take up a position in Manchester and is not replaced. But around every corner and through every closed doorway (or off-limits cave), the expectation is the discovery of Rebecca’s body.

Reservoir 13 is not a murder mystery; it is a meditation on time and a reflection on the art of storytelling and narrative traditions. Ingenious.

Whilst the winner of the 2017 Costa Book Award, Reservoir 13 inexplicably failed to make the shortlist of the 2017 Man Booker Prize (which was won by George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo). 

‘Restoration’ by Rose Tremain

‘Erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful and sad’ – so is the self-description at the beginning of Restoration by our seventeenth century hero, Robert Merivel. But Tremain herself admits that Merivel is as much a product of the 1980s (when the novel was written) as it is of the 1660s (when the novel is set).

Tremain talks of the climate of selfishness and material greed that began to prevail in the UK in the Thatcher years (and which has such contemporary currency with the ongoing Brexit saga). Restoration was her fictional response – set in the time of King Charles II and the frippery of the court, where personal gain and excess was positively encouraged (and generally rewarded) whilst the vast majority of the population continued their lives in penury and drudgery.

Robert Merivel is a dissolute medical student when an accident of fate leads him to the court. His sense of fun and humour wins favour with the king – to the point Charles bestows upon him a title (Sir Robert) and a house (Bidnold) in the county of Norfolk. But there’s a catch. Robert must not only marry Celia, the king’s favourite (and youngest) mistress, but he must never touch her. With the luxuries of a generous stipend, Bidnold itself and a preference for experienced, Rubenesque women (and the fact Celia will continue to live closer to London than Norfolk), Merivel readily accepts the conditional gift – and so begins a year of pure, unadulterated, indulgent luxury, ‘to hang the walls [of Bichnold] with ruched vermilion taffeta and Peking scrolls, to upholster my chairs in scarlet and carmine and gold’ and dress in the excess style of court – colour, flounces, wigs, facepowder. 

But reliant on favours and whims, it cannot last and Merivel finds himself cast out, without income, without home: and, as his marriage arrangements are public knowledge, something of a fool. But he is determined to win back the King’s favour.

To do so requires Merivel to dig deep, to attach himself to the dour Quaker livelihood of Pearce, his friend from Cambridge days, and the mental hospital deep in the windswept Fens. Pearce has undertaken his commitment to the patients in ‘despair at the greed and selfishness of our age which he believed was like a disease or plague, to which hardly any were immune.’

Sounds familiar. 

Considering Rose Tremain is regarded as one of the UK’s most significant authors, Restoration is, surprisingly, her only book to make a Booker Prize shortlist (in 1989). She lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day


‘Boy Erased’

Adapted for the screen by director Joel Edgerton (The Gift), Boy Erased is a poignant and heartfelt family drama as Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the SeaLady Bird), the son of a Baptist preacher, is forced to attend a church sponsored gay conversion therapy program.

Aided by superb performances from Hedges and Nicole Kidman (Lion, Moulin Rouge) and Russell Crowe (Gladiator, The Nice Guys) as his conflicted parents, Boy Erased is a confronting true story of a 19 year-old college student struggling to find himself whilst everything around him crumbles.

Respectful to his subject (including the parents), Edgerton treads possibly a little to cautiously in the telling of what is, essentially, abuse. But, like the recent The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Boy Erased remains a damning indictment of the program.

Rating: 70%

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

In spite of acclaim for her celebrity biographies, the irascible Lee Israel is best known for her fraudulent writing of some 400 letters by dead writers and celebrities to help pay the rent on her New York dive. 

Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) explores the psychology of loneliness as an impoverished and out-of-fashion Israel finds solace in rudeness and alcohol.

As Lee, a nuanced Melissa McCarthy (Spy, Bridesmaids) is a revelation – all bitterness, vulnerability and caustic wit. The chemistry between her and Richard E Grant (Withnail & I, Logan), user, partner-in-crime and drinking buddy, is sublime joy.

Rating: 78%

‘Roma’

In limited commercial release, Netflix’s Golden Lion winner at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, Roma, is a delectable (black and white) year in the  life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s – with the focus firmly centred on the maid, newcomer Yalitza Aparicio.

Engagingly episodic, the restraint shown by writer/director Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men) results is an achingly beautiful film that unfolds in seemingly real-time. Roma is an evocation of nostalgia and time past – a memoire of (mostly) minor events as adults and children live their everyday.

Already in receipt of numerous awards and nominations for the Golden Globes, Roma is also likely to feature in numerous Oscar categories.

Rating: 87%

‘Call for the Dead’ by John le Carré

One of the greatest spy novelists of all time (some would argue the greatest spy novelist), John le Carré first introduced George Smiley in this 1961 novella.

Call for the Dead is a relatively minor work as a recently divorced Smiley investigates the death of senior civil servant, Samuel Fennan. According to the top brass, suicide is the cause, but Smiley is unconvinced. There’s just too many East German connections sniffing around.

It is the introduction of Smiley – the foil to an overly public, glamorous  James Bond – that makes Call for the Dead an important, of-its-time, read. Short, overweight, balding and wearer of thick lensed glasses, Smiley has, according to his superiors,  “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.” He is a true career intelligence officer (unlike Bond) but, in 1960 and Call for the Dead, he is working at a menial level, security-clearing civil servants.

It develops into a suspenseful conceit of espionage and deceit, a realism-based thriller that is minor in its narrative and plotting but which, of course, leads le Carré and Smiley into the classics of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

‘Lean on Pete’

Quiet, sensitive, compassionate – director Andrew Haigh’s (45 Years, Weekend) latest is a wistful evocation of displacement and desperation.

A drifting lifestyle (from Wyoming to Portland) according to where contract work for his father is available, 15 year-old Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World, King Jack) has no school and fills his days according to his whims. A chance meet with horse-trainer Steve Buscemi (Fargo, The Death of Stalin) leads to casual work and the befriending of the horse, Lean on Pete.

But when Pete is due to be sold off, Charlie has other ideas. And so begins an unfolding narrative that takes us to the heart of this hard-edged state-of-a-nation  observation with a raw, painfully honest performance from Plummer. 

Rating: 79%

‘A Kid Like Jake’

A Kid Like Jake is an affectionate, poignant story of parents Claire Danes (Stardust, TV’s Homeland) and Jim Parsons (Hidden Figures, TV’s The Big Bang Theory) coming to terms with the fact their son identifies as transgender.

In its dialogue heavy narrative, director Silas Howard’s film betrays its stage play origin – further emphasised by essentially a cast of five plus Jake. Adapted from his own play, Daniel Pearle chooses to focus on the parents and guidance from the Principal at Jake’s school (Olivia Spencer – The Help, Hidden Figures) about difference and diversity rather than the politics of transgender.

The result is sympathetic and humane but a little too light and feel-good fluffy considering the gravity of its subject: a palatable telling to a large audience. But important nevertheless.

Rating : 58%