How do you choose a novel to read? Sometimes I do it with great purpose. I’m working my way through the works of a particular writer, or somebody I know says hey have you read such and such by so and so and I pick it up, or I flip through a book and a few words reach out and grab me. This time we picked up a number of free books for the 27th Street Book Box at a time when I was ready to dive into a novel. One of them was a spy novel, The Russia House, the 1989 effort by John Le Carré. I set it aside for who knows what reason and loaded the rest in the little library out front.
I took a long time for me to read this book. It’s one of those novels that builds slowly as the characters are carefully developed. It’s billed as a thriller, but really it burns very slowly. It’s a spy novel and a love story and it would not be too difficult to describe the entire plot of the book in a paragraph or two. John Le Carré’s prose lacks the kind of cadence which defines most so-called thrillers. It’s lumpy and slow, frustratingly so at times. At the same time the characters ring true and the author has first person familiarity with the spy game.
Spying is waiting and spying is worrying. Spying is being yourself but more so. We’re told that repeatedly through this novel. That’s what we readers do. We bide our time, gathering bits of information, learning about the key characters, forming judgements, deciding who we can trust. We put the book down many times. How long is this chapter? NOTHING is happening. There are operators, who garner our respect, and there are bureaucrats, unreasonable figures holding various levels of power. The spy game is compared to a corporation on multiple occasions.
It’s the end of the Cold War and all sides are trying to figure out what that means in the spy business. Some information about Russian military capability comes to light through a disaffected scientist. This scientist involves a former lover to deliver a manuscript to a British publisher, someone he got drunk with once at a party. The information falls to the British “Service” and then to “Langley”. Is it real? Is it a plant? Can the publisher be recruited to become a spy? Can he be trusted? Can anybody be trusted? The publisher falls in love…or is it love? What’s real?
“For his immediate business Barley must use the grey men’s wiles. He must be himself but more so than he has ever been before. He must wait. He must worry. He must be a man reversed, inwardly reconciled, outwardly unfulfilled. He must live secretly on tiptoe, arch as a cat inside his head while he acts the Barley Blair they wish to see, their creature all the way.”
The Russia House is a good spy novel, if a somewhat frustrating one. At times I can really get into this kind of genre fiction, and appreciate the detail and careful pace. It’s currently available free in the 27th Street Book Box.