This Storm by James Ellroy, Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré, The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, The Dinner Guest by B.P. Walter, The Appeal by Janice Hallett
The winter provides the opportunity to catch up on some would-be classics, not least when they appear in the paperback form that eases bath-time slumbers among the suds. The star of the show in terms of engrossing was James Ellroy’s This Storm (Penguin, 2019, £8.99), the sequel to the similarly readable Perfidia. Set immediately after, This Storm has a less muddled plot, and one that will resonate with those who enjoy conspiracy theories, in this case the co-operation during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of senior Communists and Nazis to provide a postwar “totalitarian alliance” whichever side wins, one directed against leadership by American democracy and drawing in Mexican Fascists and American criminals and Fascists.
“The Fifth Column is everywhere but rarely achieves coherence”; and this is a story of incessant backstabbing, corruption by and of all, deceit, drugs, alcohol, lurid and plentiful sex and an intercutting of real characters, such as Otto Klemperer, those from other stories and newbies. Dudley Smith of the LAPD, an Ellroy staple, is back and as conspiratorial as ever, while there are some good new characters. This is an LA far more lurid than the Berlin of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir series, but similarly good in grasping the opportunity of wartime for producing a really good story.
The blurb described the book as “Unputdownable”, which was not my experience
Similarly using the Cold War, Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré (Penguin, 2019, £8.99) is a less ambitious work, but mercifully short in contrast to some of his books. Agent Running is not of the quality of Ellroy’s writing, the characterisation is somewhat two-dimensional, and the dialogue has its limitations. The Observer comment on the blurb described the book as “Unputdownable”, which was not my experience; I found the first half particularly uninviting. There are some observations of note, as of a Registry Office — “a large woman in a green uniform with a major general’s epaulettes is sorting wedding groups in line ahead”, and “The man’s fucked up everything he’s touched in life, so he’ll be in great demand. Probably got a safe parliamentary seat waiting for him right now”, but most of the pages pass with no memory for phrases.
The politics are Le Carré’s usual diatribes, but up to a new level, with a hatred of Brexit, Trump and Johnson leading to a ridiculous plot, bar from Le Carré offering the footnote that such hatred of Britain can be exploited by the Russians to their own ends. The sense of Britain as totally broken is much to the fore, with the break being moral, institutional and in the key elements of trust and honour. As is the norm in such stories, the protagonist has the last, there is a happy-ending and a lot of whisky is drunk, but this is a book that can be missed.
Le Carré’s reputation was always rather overblown. Like the differently talented Fleming, he benefited from screen presentations. As a detective novelist, Le Carré was good, but he proved unable to sustain his early promise in espionage fiction and even then lacked the punch and energy of Deighton. Le Carré’s later novels were both too long and repetitive in his prejudices. At least this one is short.
Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club (Penguin, 2021, £8.99) has been a great success. The whimsical plot, feel-good factor and benign setting, all help, as do the very short chapters and frequent changes of pace and tone that produce an overall easy-to-read character. You are clearly not supposed to find the plot credible, and, indeed, it becomes steadily more ridiculous, which may not be what the reviews meant when they referred to it as funny. Elly Griffiths’s The Postscript Murders (2020) is a better version of the same cast, setting and type of detective novel, and has a far less ridiculous plot; but The Thursday Murder Club is a pleasant help if you want something that is easy-to-read.
The Dinner Guest by B.P. Walter (HarperCollins, 2021, £8.99) did not grab me, and I could not finish it, but I hope others find this account of the tensions of affluent London more interesting. I did not find the language gripping, but maybe the author will borrow his own phrases: “I tried to slam my book shut in protest at his condescending tone, but it didn’t really have the desired effect, since it was an old and flimsy paperback.”
Janice Hallett’s The Appeal (Viper, 2021, £8.99) is a brilliant debut, a novel told essentially through emails which provide a much faster pace, as well as a more effective use of multiple perspectives. Their contradictions emerge clearly, while the gaps deserve attention. The plot — a task of finding the truth of a complex case that has already led to a conviction, with the emails essentially the evidence for the latter, but offering also evidence of a different truth, provides a highly successful way to approach this vignette of the tensions of English society, not least as played out through an amateur theatrical company. The characteristics and interactions of the individuals involved are ably presented. It took me a few pages to get into this, but, once used to the format and the concentration required, I found this a highly-stimulating read and a well-plotted story. Hallett deserves congratulation, and I look forward to her next book. Much better than the Osman but requires more work.
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