John le Carré remains a true perennial and an astonishing success story. Some 55 years from his debut, he is still a best-selling author and adaptations of his work, like the BBC mini-series of The Night Manager, are big ratings winners and critical favourites too. This spurred me and a friend of mine (lets call him ‘Giles Ladd’) to search through the le Carré back catalogue for one of his books that neither of us had read. We came up with Little Drummer Girl, which is set in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
I offer this review for Bev’s 2016 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt and Patti Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at her fab Pattinase blog.
“Who the hell are you? What do you feel inside all of those barbed-wire entanglements?”
This book was an instant bestseller, with a huge print run, a big movie sale and paperback rights sold to the US for $1 million. Coming off the success of the Smiley vs Karla trilogy, it originally began as another book about the Circus but quickly grew into something more topical and politically engaged. The protagonist is Charlie, a talented British actress in her late 20s with a rebellious streak, low self-esteem issues and a revolutionary background.
… she still found time to marvel inside herself at the paradoxes of a man who could dance with so many of his own conflicting shadows, and still stand up.
To me she sounds a lot like Vanessa Redgrave circa 1967 though the setting is the early 1980s – the inspiration was actually the author’s own half-sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell. Charlie (actually a diminutive for Charmian) becomes the pawn in a very complex game being played by Kurtz (one of many Conrad references pointing to Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent), a senior Mossad agent (known to others as Schulmann, Spielberg or Raphael) looking to destroy a PLO operative known as Khalil, who has been directing a bombing campaign against prominent Jews in Europe.
Briefly, they smiled, but not at each other.
This proves to be an extraordinarily elaborate plan, the ultimate aim being to place Charlie as a double agent within Khalil’s cell, which uses young European women to deliver their bombs. Kurtz dispatches his agent Joseph (aka Michel, aka Becker) to follow Charlie on her tour of the provinces in a production of Shaw’s St Joan, and then follow her when she goes on holiday to Greece. He starts a romance and then kidnaps her so Kurtz can break down her defences, and get her to work for them as just the kind of person the PLO cell would recruit. This is where the novel becomes truly fascinating and most successful artistically, playing a subtle and ingenious game with the reader that matches Kurtz’ own machinations.
“Kiss the gun”
Actors, acting and spycraft’s variety of guises, secret identities and motives are used to create a remarkably rich and impressive sense of irony, as lie is built upon lie, matching an actor’s craft with that used by an agent to create a false identity. While the story has a proper beginning, middle and end, we never lose sight of the human dimension, and the losses on both sides of the conflict. Some attacked the book for being too critical of Israeli tactics, some for being too limited in its view of the Palestinian struggle, but as always the author stays away from a reactionary reading of any complex situation, always being critical of the establishment and the party line. Voices are heard from both sides, often in oblique and refreshing ways as various ‘actors’ try out their parts – and we are also left in no doubt of the problematic role and legacy of the British as the old colonial masters. The result is a fine, long, and politically complex work that repays close reading but which is also a very satisfying thriller.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘shadowy figure’ category for the terrific penguin cover on a mysterious lone theatre patron:
This was a fine one, Sergio, I agree completely about that! And your review reminds me of le Carré’s skill at subtle shades of character and plot. It takes a lot of skill to do that well, and stay within the context of a thriller, but le Carré does it brilliantly. And this particular story is a good ‘un. Have you seen George Roy Hill’s 1984 screen adaptation?
Thanks Margot – no, not seen the film. Kinski and Keaton seems like rather odd casting as Kutz and Charlie though!
It’s been an age since I read any le Carré, and this title is also one that’s new to me. You make it sound very appealing and the fact I’ve not touched any espionage books for a while gives it an added bit of attraction for me.
I think it is a really good novel first and a decent spy story second – it is substantial in every way and well worth your time chum (but it is also over 500 pages …)
Working my way through a 400+ page Bryant and May tale as we speak, so maybe a little down the line then. 🙂
I really do mean to take a crack at that series – had the first 2 books in the series on my shelf for years!
I’m only on the second one myself – entertaining characters, Carr-influenced premise, worth a look anyway.
Sounds very good, Sergio. I was glad to see your review because I did not know much about this book by Le Carre. Eventually I will read them all.
Thanks Tracy – well, I obviously don’t think you should miss this one but I also tend to prefer the non Smiley books, and I though I should ‘fess up to that!
I will make sure this one is on my book sale list. I only have two Smiley books left to read, and The Secret Pilgrim is not high on my priorities. So I will be moving on to non-Smiley books soon. I did read A Perfect Spy (not reviewed yet) recently… Mathew Paust sent me a copy. One of my favorites of his books so far.
I agree PERFECT SPT is a great book and certainly his most overtly autobiographical
Sergio, I have this book and it awaits reading. I have read couple of le Carré’s novels and one of the first things that struck me was his narrative — he conveys the impression of being on the scene or location and reporting what he sees, like a war correspondent. I find that appealing about his writing.
Thanks Prashant – this one is probably has the benefit of being a bit more psychologically penetrating, like one of my other favourites of his, The Constant Gardner.
I liked The Constant Gardner” too, and the movie as well. I thought Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes were perfect for the two lead characters.
I quite agree Prashant, I thought they brought great humanity to such difficult roles, her existing in flashbacks and he so withdrawn emotionally, and yet by the end you really, really care. And the disreputable practices of Big Pharma is such an important subject! Have you seen The Russia House? Almost as good as the book in my view.
No, Sergio. I have not read or seen THE RUSSIA HOUSE. I’ll probably get to the movie before the book.
I think you would really like it chum
LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL is one of my favorite le Carre novels. The movie is underrated. Like Prashant, I liked THE CONSTANT GARDENER, too (both book and movie). THE NIGHT MANAGER follows the template of LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL.
I still need to catch up with Manager – thanks George.
This one just didn’t grab me at all, I stopped reading after about 80 pages. The Karla books are his best, I think.
The set up in this novel is unusually long Richard, I quite agree, though I think you and I come to his work from slightly different directions 🙂
Excellent review, Sergio. I can’t remember if I read the book, but I’m pretty sure I bought it as a book-club selection when it first came out. It might even be in one of the several boxes of books I’ve not opened after the last two or three moves. But now I want to read it, and best for me is to download it on my Kindle app.
Good going Matt! Apparently it is awaiting a reprint on paper in the UK, which surprised my mate ‘Giles’ (a cover name) when he was looking to locate a copy – never have to worry about that when it come to e-versions …
I’ve only ever read one John Le Carre book, Sergio, and that was recently. ‘A MURDER OF QUALITY’ was more my kind of book, I think, since it was a pretty straightforward mystery. Tracy had read it (BITTER TEA AND MYSTERY) and recommended it a few weeks ago. Very enjoyable. I’ve never read any of the spy novels, but I like your enthusiasm. Maybe I’ll get around to reading what Le Carre was most known for.
Thanks Yvette – admittedly QUALITY is his one and only true excursion into traditional detective story but the first Smiley, CALL FOR THE DEAD is also very close and underrated still.
I’ll look for it, thanks!
Hope you really enjoy it chum
I haven’t read this one, and never fancied it – I have a very scattershot approach to reading Le Carre, don’t read them in order, don’t mind the gaps. I wonder if I should go back and pick this one up….
Well, you know how I feel about it … )
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