‘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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‘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 2018 Man Booker Prize (which was won by Anna Burns and Milkman). 

‘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


‘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.

‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

What is the sequence of the journey I am on? What are its rules? Just a couple of questions asked early in Amis’ narrative by narrator Tod Friendly. The answer soon becomes apparent for the comfortable medical retiree living in the north-east of the US. 

That sequence is a life heading backwards. The narrative opens with Friendly surrounded by doctors at the moment of his death. This is the beginning of Time’s Arrowand the relatively short novel takes its reader through a disorienting reverse chronology. It’s Friendly’s consciousness or hindsight that tells the tale – unable to change the past but simply observe or occasionally comment.

That reversed version of reality sees people become younger (to the point where they return to the womb and cease to exist); relationships start with huge arguments, end with passion and are followed by a period of nothingness or cool distance; meals at restaurants begin with a payment; doctors create harm; taxi drivers are paid at the outset and provide such a service that time is spent at the end of the journey waving farewell. 

The telling of the story of Tod Friendly in such a manner is disconcerting – particularly as it soon becomes apparent that this is not his name and there’s a secret to his past to be kept just that – secret. But with its reverse chronology, Time’s Arrowsoon reveals Dr Odilo Unverdorben and his odious past in the Nazi death camps of the Third Reich.

The main problem with Time’s Arrowis that as a conceit, it simply becomes repetitive. A good-looking German doctor, having fled the concentration camps to escape to the US via Lisbon where he becomes a relatively successful medic but something of a failure in any long-term relationships with women. That’s the essential storyline. It’s surprisingly slight. But, told in reverse chronology, the cleverness, well told, the knowledge that street cleaners drop rubbish before good citizens collect it, becomes a gimmick and a clever writing exercise. And then there’s the experiments on Jews in the concentration camps that result in improvement in health prior to being sent home. Uncomfortable reading…

Time’s Arrowis Martin Amis’ only Booker Prize shortlisted novel and lost out to the 1991 winner, Ben Okri, and The Famished Road.

‘Possession: A Romance’ by AS Byatt

possessionMassive and complex AS Byatt’s multi-awarding novel may be, but this overwrought piece of pretentiousness left me perfervid and polysyllabically frustrated (I can do it too!).

The writing was on the wall almost 30 years ago when I first purchased the book – it has stayed on the bookshelf since then. Now a yellowed, vintage copy (appropriate – a large part of Possession: Romance is entrenched in 19thcentury poetry and letters), pages and pages of varied fonts, indented prose, academic musings incorporating footnotes into the main body of the novel alongside stereotypical characterisation and humour that falls flat results in a fetid indulgence of epic proportions.

I long gave up on the exploits of the nerdy, academic researcher, Roland Michell, wanting to make a name for himself in the world of 19thcentury English literature and the poetry of Randolph Henry Ash. Naturally his boss, James Blackadder at Prince Albert College in London, is mean spirited and threatened by all and sundry – but in particular the wealthy American, Mortimer Cropper, patron of the Newsome Foundation in Arizona. That upstart is also interested in Ash – and is purchasing all paraphernalia even vaguely related to the poet, including all research papers, original writings and letters.

So right from the off we have academic confrontation and competition – made even more profane when Roland keeps quiet about his discovery of a potential connection between Ash and Christabel LaMotte, a scorned lesbian poet long forgotten until recently championed by feminist academics. Cue more stereotypes of lesbians and feminists that can be added to brash Americans and batty, socially awkward academics as Roland heads of to the Women Studies Centre in the north of England where he meets LaMotte expert, Maud Bailey.

Professional rivalry ensues in the tedious literary detective story that unfolds from their research at the final home of Christabel LaMotte.

Possession: Romance is a series of writings and genres from different periods: epic poems, diaries, letters, lists, academic papers, contemporary prose. But it’s simply too self-consciously clever and sits alongside stereotyped characters and clichéd events and plot development. Byatt herself takes an academic approach to biography whether in fiction or semi-fiction. You may not be able to fault the research and command of language but, as a novel, this is an impenetrable, self-promoting, self-indulgent entrapment. Literary with a capital ‘L’.

Possession: Romance was awarded the 1990 Booker Prize.

‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy

satinislandAn unexpectedly accessible and engaging cerebral read, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is a state-of-the-world stream of consciousness as corporate anthropologist, U., navigates his way through contemporary life and his role in the multi-national, multi-government epoch-defining Koob Sasson Project.

Tasked by Peyman, his boss, with the writing of the book to define the age, U. spends his time in a sporadic oscillation between global and localised catastrophes (oil spills, Lagos traffic jams) and page five news about a dead parachutist – along with the occasional sexual encounter with Madison, a woman he met at a conference in Budapest. His purpose is to accumulate information from which the identification of a codex can possibly be developed – so that he can write that defining tome.

Satin Island is no domestic narrative of the mundane and the every day – it’s about airports and overseas conferences (London, New York, Paris, Seattle, Turin, Vienna), data analysis and expounding theories of human and corporate behaviour. It’s about disappearing into screens, power point presentations and decoding the world.

But what prevents Satin Island from slipping into a miasma of intellectual and theoretical inaccessibility is the wry humour and lightness of touch by Tom McCarthy. Contemplative and challenging it may be as U. scrutinises everything around him in what is essentially a novel without a plot. Madison features occasionally, as does Petr, a friend dying from cancer – but that’s the limit to the human-interest story. The remainder of the relatively short novel is about connection and events, a Chaos theory for the 21stcentury that will enable U. to write that book.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize, Tom McCarthy lost out to Marlon James, the first Jamaican author to win the award, and A Brief History of Seven Killings.

‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ by J.G.Farrell

siegeofkrishnapurTo the north of Calcutta, (the fictional) town of Krishnapur and its British garrison is laid under siege by rebelling sepoys during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Essentially the retelling of the (true) siege of Lucknow, Farrell’s engrossing novel is based partly on contemporary accounts, diaries and letters of the British residents themselves.

Imperialism is placed under the microscope as a complacent community, with the exception of our hero, Mr Hopkins (the Collector), ignore all danger signs. Hopkins is a rarity in that he is a man devoted to progress and contemporary culture. Yet even his values and ideas about civilisation, religion, community – even the essence of Englishness itself – come crashing down around his ears amidst the terrible privations, disease, inhumanity and death during the months under siege in almost unbearable heat.

As Indians encamp in their hundreds on the far banks of the dry river bed to watch the spectacle, the folly and illusions of colonialism are driven home. Cholera cares not for the British class system and, after several months of water rationing, personal hygiene may not be high on the priority list. Food is so scarce that the capture and satisfying crunch of a beetle elicits jealous rage and, of little value, silver cutlery ends up being sequestered for (effective) canon ammunition.

The Siege of Krishnapur, through humour, cutting wit and more than a little moral high ground (the now discredited phrenology, for example, looms large throughout), draws out the drama of events as the characters are subjected to changes in rules almost unfathomable to the privileged many.

Farrell himself (who died tragically at the age of 44 in a fishing accident) said that he wanted to show “yesterday reflected in today’s consciousness” – and his incisive prose and biting wit suggests that he more than achieved this. Occasionally, however, Farrell slips into preaching, particularly when it comes to the discussions and arguments about religion. But a minor caveat for a book that looks not to why the rebellion happened from the Indian perspective, but from the perspective of the ingrained, misplaced superiority of the colonialists.

JG Farrell was awarded the 1973 Booker Prize – and The Siege of Krishnapur is regarded by many critics as the best of all the winning novels.

‘Headlong’ by Michael Frayn

headlongMichael Frayn is a successful novelist and playwright equally at home with farces, comedies and profoundly serious dramas. Throughout, he explores the extreme lunacies of life and the thin dividing-line between order and chaos.

Headlong is a ‘classic’ Frayn, incorporating a farcical narrative where a young academic and wannabe art historian believes he has stumbled across a missing Bruegel masterpiece with scholarly investigation and art history. And like so many farces of wrong doors, missed opportunities, inappropriate clinches, dropped trousers and general absurdity (Frayn wrote Noises Off after all), Headlong is a frustrating, bumbling, infuriating novel.

Martin and Kate Clay, with baby Tilda in tow, head for their country home (a damp, slightly squalid cottage some three hours drive from London) for a year’s sojourn of research and writing (both are university lecturers). On arrival, they discover their neighbour, Tony Churt awaiting them. Never having spoken to any of the local residents, the part-time country folk are surprised by an invitation to dinner at Upwood, the very dreary, run-down Churt manor house. Evidently looking for quick cash, Churt introduces Martin in particular to the family Giordano in the hope of advice on an under-the-counter, avoiding-inheritance-tax deal. But among many other paintings in the freezing house, Martin is convinced he has spotted a Bruegel.

Cue initially fascinating research into the (little known) life of Pieter Bruegel and the politics of life in 16th century Protestant Netherlands under Spanish Catholic rule. Theory and counter theory abounds along with the following of historical lines that may prove the authenticity of a missing (or several) Bruegels from the series of works in The Seasons. Martin’s research also explores the ideology that, like so many paintings of the time, the works were iconographic in their messages – symbols of oppression by the ruling Spaniards. More and more convinced of his discovery, Clay looks to defraud the Churts.

But a convoluted plot evolves where Martin looks to find a ‘mysterious buyer’ for the Giordano (to the Curts, the centrepiece of their collection) and who will throw-in a few thousand pounds for three or four other works (including, of course, the Bruegel).

In the course of looking to validate his discovery and secure purchase (including hightailing it out of the mud-splattered valley to London driving an ancient Land Rover towing the Giordano wedged into a horse box before parking it illegally outside a Mayfair art gallery), Clay comes close to destroying his marriage, bankrupting the family, having an affair with Laura Churt, the glamorous wife of Tony, killing himself in a road accident and defrauding Sotheby’s.

Headlong is a story of prejudice (city culture and rustic ignorance) and miscommunication, a so-called comedy of misattribution (misunderstanding motives, whether in the English countryside or the oppressive imaginary landscapes of the 16th century) and missed opportunities (Clay constantly forgetting to check known recent auction prices for Giordano is the equivalent of the farce dramatist’s ‘wrong door’). It’s infuriating – and, after a while, a little too academic for its own good.

Favourite to win the 1999 Booker Prize, Michael Frayn lost out to J.M.Coetzee and Disgrace.

‘Empire of the Sun’ by J.G. Ballard

empiresunBased on his own childhood experiences, J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun is a compelling war torn story of deprivation and starvation as teenager Jim Graham looks to survive the Japanese Lunghao Airfield internment camp south of Shanghai.

A life of chauffeur-driven privilege in the International Settlement of the Chinese city is permanently changed by the Japanese entering the Second World War with the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour. That same morning, two Japanese warships scuttle American and British gunboats in dock and seize control of the Yangtze River. Confusion reigns: Jim loses contact with his parents and is left to fend for himself.

Roaming free for several months, Jim survives by breaking into the homes of wealthy Europeans, living off water from the soda syphons and cocktail biscuits. But a sense of exhaustion and fear sets in, resulting in his surrender to the Japanese.

Interned in Lunghao, Jim is exposed to the deprivation and cruelty of the Japanese guards. In his three years at the camp, he faces hunger, disease and death. But in his determination to survive, Jim ingratiates himself with prisoners and guards alike to gain food and gifts to later barter for food.

It’s in the detail that Ballard shines. The evocation of the teenage boy’s inner thoughts and confusion, his desperation to avoid slipping into a sense of uselessness along with a sexual awakening in his attraction to Mrs Jenkins: we see Jim grow. He admires the American prisoners and, strangely, identifies (in part) with the Japanese – the pilots in particular. It’s this dislocation of ‘loyalty’ (he has little respect for fellow Brits and the homeland he has never been too) and Jim’s dawning awareness that, as the end of the war approaches, it is likely safer in the camp. Resourceful and wily, having attached himself to other ‘survivors’ (Basie, Dr Ransome), Jim sees the danger that comes with the confusion of the end of the war – starving peasants, rogue Japanese, Chinese communists, bandit camp-survivors. An extraordinary number die after the final days of the war – so many that Jim wanders if World War Three has begun. The dead piled up by the side of roads, bloated corpses floating in the nearby irrigation canals, the sounds of Chinese peasants strangled by soldiers.

A new order is already beginning and the last vestiges of the Empire of the Sun, of the European Empires, of the Chinese Nationalism of Chiang Kai-shek are slowly dying out. Survivors battle survivors for food, booty, a passage to somewhere.

Ballard’s novel is an extraordinary achievement – a semi-fictionalisation of his own personal experiences (a teenage Ballard was interned in Lunghao with his parents and sister). From the pool parties of the International Settlement to deprivation and starvation, from the disregard of local Chinese workers to imprisonment and abuse, Ballard has created a haunting sense of time and place.

The Empire of the Sun was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but, much to the dismay of the literary world, lost out to Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.