Sunday, March 29, 2009

On The Nightstand

by John Le Carré

Whenever I find a new book that really moves me, I like to dig up everything the author has ever written and read it all in one big gulp. Witness my recent marathon of Gregory Mcdonald's Fletch and Flynn books.

In the last couple of years, I've discovered a lot of new (to me) authors that have really captured my imagination: Christopher Fowler, Kim Newman, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, and Kelly Link, among others.

Finding new writers I enjoy on that level is one of the real joys in my life, and digging up all their books to read is a major hobby of mine. Without it, I feel listless and out of sorts. And since it's been a while since I've discovered someone new, I've been spending some time looking back and rereading some of my favorite authors and enjoying rediscovering how much I like them.

First up... John Le Carré. I read a lot of Le Carré when I was growing up. My dad used to read them and I would 'borrow' -- i.e. steal -- his copies when he wasn't looking. After seeing the excellent BBC adaptation of Le Carré's TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY on PBS, I was entranced by its unlikely protagonist -- George Smiley -- and wanted to read more about him. And to this day, Smiley remains one of my favorite fictional characters, right up there with the Doctor, Paul Atreides, Rumpole of the Bailey, and Repairman Jack.

Smiley's first appearance -- CALL FOR THE DEAD -- is more of a cozy mystery story than the complex International espionage tales of Le Carré's later Smiley novels. And there's a use of language in the first few Smiley books that really grabs me. It's hard to describe without getting pretty deep in the weeds of writing technique, but suffice it to say there's a sense of melancholy in CALL FOR THE DEAD and MURDER OF QUALITY (the next book in the series) that I really respond to.

A few years ago, I gave back the copies I'd swiped from my father and picked up newer paperback editions of the Smiley books. One of the benefits of these new editions are the short introductions by Le Carré where he talks about writing the book (something I'm always fascinated to hear from writers). Many of those short pieces are as engaging as the books themselves, which is saying something.

And while Le Carré's post-Cold War books have been interesting and enjoyable (THE TAILOR OF PANAMA is an excellent example), they haven't capture my imagination the way these Smiley books still do. If anything, I find CALL FOR THE DEAD -- and George Smiley himself -- more interesting now that I'm a bit older than I did as a teenager.

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