- Call for the Dead by le Carre
- A Murder of Quality by le Carre
- The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by le Carre
- A Most Wanted Man by le Carre
- The Otter, the Spotted Frog, and the Great Flood by Gerald Hausman and Ramon Shiloh
And now The Cuckoo's Calling by
Robert Galbraith J.K. Rowling.
I didn't purposefully set up the British duo of le Carre and Rowling, but their crimes of social disorder are perfect companions. You may know le Carre from Spy Who..., which was the first of his books to be made into a film, subsequently followed by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tailor of Panama, and The Constant Gardener, which was my first exposure to the author although I didn't know it at the time, and a movie I instantly fell in love with. If you love Rachel Weisz you'd probably like it, too.
I knew the name "John le Carre" well enough, but he's the kind of author who was probably better known in the culture during his heyday than later. His George Smiley, featured in the first three books on the above list as well as a few others, was the antithesis of James Bond, his literary contemporary, and of course Bond went on to far greater popular exposure, whereas you probably don't recognize Smiley's name at all, and even think it sounds kind of comical for a spy. But read just one of these books and you'll take him seriously, I bet. Smiley was a product of the real world. He was the very embodiment of the mundane and horrifying truths of the Cold War.
And le Carre tells a darn good mystery. I don't read mysteries often. That's a whole genre I think might get a little tiresome, because the rules are so hard to subvert successfully (although my man Bolano did exactly that throughout his career, part of what made him so great). His stories are rife with British social mores, so much so that Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality are almost as much about that as the brilliant deductions of Smiley. But then he's also a master of staging the scene for an entire generation, and Spy Who...was said to be the touchstone of the Berlin Wall that was erected at pretty much the same time as its publication. In the 9/11 era, le Carre revisits many of the same relationships that emerged after WWII in an entirely new context for Most Wanted Man, and may also explain the two brothers from as recent an event as the Boston Marathon bombing.
That makes him an incredibly relevant writer.
Rowling is turning into one as well, and not just for having written the blockbuster Harry Potter series. In her first standalone novel, The Casual Vacancy, she had already demonstrated an uncanny ability to spin a new version on the common theme of a signal death (in Harry's case, two), a trend that continues in Cuckoo's Calling. Again, I couldn't have known this, but the result this time is so similar to le Carre that it strikes me as entirely appropriate that they exist on a similar wavelength. Both are incredibly British, for one. And for another, they know what the British around them are really like, and they're not afraid to write about it. That did Mr. Dickens quite well a hundred and a half years earlier. With each new story Rowling demonstrates the ability to view the same event from a different vantage point, first from the perspective of children and then from a whole community's and now and perhaps most directly from the person who's called to investigate the whole affair. Where to next? I'll certainly be reading.
Check out more Cephalopod Coffeehouse selections starting with squishy founder, A Squid.