[See also previous and subsequent posts in this series.]
CAREER OF EVIL — ROBERT GALBRAITH
As we all now know, Robert Galbraith is the detective-novel pseudonym of J. K. Rowling. I read Career of Evil, the third book in the Cormoran Strike series, not because I wanted to read Rowling particularly, but because the book is heavily influenced by the songs of Blue Öyster Cult — a band that I love.
But I got more than I bargained for. Rowling-as-Galbraith is a compelling author: not a much better prose stylist than Rowling-as-Rowling, but with the same knack for narrative that makes you want to read on. With a much smaller cast than the Harry Potter books, Rowling is able to put more work into each individual, and as a result the eponymous detective and his sidekick Robin Ellacott are more believably drawn than Harry and friends. This, despite Strike’s maybe overdone set of quirks. The supporting characters don’t get the same treatment, of course, and are much more two dimensional. But that works out OK, since they are mostly there as a gallery of potential murderers, enablers and incompetent law-enforcers.
So I thoroughly enjoyed Career of Evil, and it’s given me a new respect for Rowling. But there was a surprising consequence of reading this. The lyrics of the Blue Öyster Cult songs, dealing with death and chaos, are used by the murderer to sow fear and confusion: for example, a dismembered foot arrives in the post accompanied by a note with the lyrics “A harvest of limbs / Of arms and of legs” from the song Quicklime Girl. And as such incidents built up, I was left wondering whether, and to what degree, such lyrics really do normalise evil, or at least desensitise us to it. It’s easy to say — and I do — that bands like BÖC don’t mean anything by this imagery, that it’s nothing more than song fodder. And no doubt that is indeed what they intend. But do all the fans get that? And how much does authorial intent even count for?
THE CUCKOO’S CALLING — ROBERT GALBRAITH
Having found the third Cormoran Strike book so compelling, I went back to the first, published back when no-one knew who Robert Galbraith was. Again I was drawn quickly and efficiently into the story, and devoured it. It doesn’t stick in my memory as strongly as Career of Evil did, but then it didn’t have the artificial boost of the Blue Öyster Cult songs so I won’t hold that against it.
ANNE OF GREEN GABLES — L. M. MONTGOMERY
I’ve had really good experiences reading classic children’s literature: Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and Wendy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Would Green Gables live up to this standard? Yes, absolutely! It’s a truly beautiful book, rich in tiny little capsule observations of human nature, and gently showing profound changes in several people over a span of some years. Anne herself is easy to love, for all her imperfections — impossible not to love, really. An amazing amount happens in such a short book, and every emotion is involved. Superb. I have no doubt I will re-read it again multiple times.
ANNE OF AVONLEA — L. M. MONTGOMERY
Having enjoyed Green Gables so much, I read on to the several sequels, which are of exponentially decreasing value. This is the first, describing Anne’s years teaching at the Avonlea school. I enjoyed it a lot, but it’s not left much behind in my memory. It certainly doesn’t have the aching loveliness of the original book.
TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY — JOHN LE CARRÉ
Le Carré is another author whose work I am making my way through. I started a few years ago with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which I thought was absolutely superb — taut, sparse, dynamic, precise. And very moving despite, or maybe because of, the sparseness of the prose. Having loved it so much, I back-filled his two earlier novels (Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality) and then started to make my way through the rest in chronological order.
Le Carré’s books are not easy reading. They require concentration. If you stop paying attention, you can easily forget key details, and lose track of who is who. But they’re very well worth the effort. They paint bleak pictures of a world of international intelligence where no-one is quite sure who to trust, and where everything is done on a shoestring budget, subject to internal political manoeuvering; and where what is done with the best of intentions may quite possibly prove futile or actively destructive. And through those perfectly painted worlds, he threads stories that make us care.
I’d got slightly stuck in my Le Carré trawl, because his sixth novel, The Naive and Sentimental Lover, is … odd. It’s supposed to be a comedy of sorts, but it doesn’t entirely work on that level. The strange power dynamics in the relationships that it depicts are too disturbing. I finished it, but with some sense of fulfilling a duty, and then took a bit of a break from Le Carré before coming to this, his seventh novel.
I’d classify it as one of his best, and now I feel stupid for not having read it some time ago. Reading it has also left me keen to watch the 1979 TV mini-series starring Alec Guinness, and then the 2011 film starring Gary Oldman.
But because it relies to some degree on what has gone before, I would not necessarily recommend Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as the best entry-point for someone coming to Le Carré for the first time. The best introduction is probably still The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which is more self-contained (and only half the length).
ANNE OF THE ISLAND — L. M. MONTGOMERY
Diminishing returns set in as we follow Anne through her years at college. Still quite charming, but nothing very significant to recommend it.
MURDER IS EASY — AGATHA CHRISTIE
A series of deaths in a small village have gone unmarked, except by one old lady who thinks they are connected: all murders, all committed by the same person. But she herself is killed before she can convey her suspicions to Scotland Yard. It is left to Luke Fitzwilliam, who she had met and chatted with in the train to London, to go down to the village and investigate. This is a rare example of an Agatha Christie where I guessed the murderer well before the end, so that was satisfying. Otherwise, all that can really be said about this book is that if you enjoy Agatha Christie mysteries, you will enjoy this.
ANNE’S HOUSE OF DREAMS — L. M. MONTGOMERY
This is where I get off. By this stage, Anne — married, and in the process of having children — is not really recognisable as the scrappy orphan of the first book, and there is is nothing very interesting about her. Most of the story is about her neighbours, and it’s not particularly credible. There are more books in the series, but I don’t plan to read them.