Crime Corner: A good romjul read

Brought to you by Jerry Holt

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The Spy who Came in from the Cold, a 1963 Cold War novel, is a crime fiction classic and makes for a perfect romjul read.

The period between Christmas and New Year’s, called romjul in Norway, is a great time for reading, and what is better than some good crime fiction! In this episode of “Crime Corner,” Jerry Holt pays tribute to the late John le Carré, a crime writer who has had a profound impact on his own work as well as all crime fiction, including the authors of Nordic Noir.

“As he passed the car, he saw out of the corner of his eye four children in the back waving and laughing, and the stupid, frightened face of the father at the wheel …. He managed to pull off the road into a lay-by, staring at the hurtling stream of giant lorries. He had a vision of the little car caught among them, pounded and smashed, until there was nothing left, nothing but the frenetic whine of klaxons and the blue lights slashing; and the bodies of the children, torn, like…. murdered refugees on the road across the dunes.”

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré

I was 21 years old when I first read that passage, living in Oklahoma City and already experiencing the coming upheaval that America was about to barely survive, social change happening around us all like the cracking of an ancient ice floe. I had just marched in the first anti-segregation march (under the leadership of Oklahoma City’s own version of Martin Luther King Jr., a wonderful woman named Clara Luper). I had just seen on television President John F. Kennedy shot dead and, two days later, the same thing happened to his accused assassin. All this and by Christmas of that startling year, the Beatles arrived on the scene. I was in graduate school and had been reading my way through William Faulkner, who was doing a fine job of convincing me that I would never be 1/10th the writer he was. And then came John le Carré.

John le Carré

Photo: krimidoedle / dia
John le Carré continues to influence crime fiction writers, including those of the Nordic noir.

I had never read anything like that passage, not even in Faulkner. That starkly beautiful prose had been written by a man who was only 32 at the time and whose actual name was David Cornwall. In that passage, he described a vehicle accident in which the passenger car of a family with four small children is crushed on a highway between two trucks. Though le Carré was far too good a writer to hammer us with its symbolism, we get it immediately because the protagonist who observes this carnage is one Alec Leamas, a disillusioned British spy who has seen it all and who now equates the trucks with capitalism and communism. “It’s the innocents that get slaughtered,” Leamas says of war—all war. This kind of acute observation, of course, would not elude the scrutiny of Scandinavian writers: the self-serving tampering of those in authority has also been figured strongly into the work of Gunnar Staalesen, Jo Nesbø, and Stig Larsson.

After producing stellar genre fiction for some 60 years, le Carré left us just a year ago at the age of 89 but was hardworking enough to posthumously present us with his final novel, Silverview. It is a brief undertaking written, as always, in the most crisp and insightful way you are likely to ever read. It is so effortless. I always admired the way le Carré was able to flawlessly flow between past and present tense without missing a narrative beat. It is an autumnal tale that shows us where old spies go to die—a subject the elderly le Carré must have embraced after his early career as an agent for the famed MI5. His spy this time out, one Edward Avon, has been very successful at his trade over the years. Avon presents himself as a bumbling book fancier and ineffectual husband to the new friend he made—young Julian Lawnsley, who is only in his 30s but whose ill-gotten trading gains have allowed him to use the money for a retirement book ship in East Anglia. Here Avon also lives, in musty Silverview, with his cancer-ridder wife, Deborah, and sometimes a daughter, who Julian will be drawn to. The best hook in the narrative is that both Avon and wife are longtime spies—Deborah herself so effective at her work—the Middle East is her beat–that she is a true legend in a business. 

How exactly DO such shadowy figures die in peace? This is the true subtext of Silverview, and it is one that must have been much on le Carré’s mind as he searched for ways to go “gentle into that good night.” There are parallels, after all. How does an artist—specifically a writer—enter his (or her) house justified? Or, put another way, can we really believe our own obituaries?

Cornwall/le Carré certainly could. His novels had their pulses on the world for over half a century. And though I appreciate Silverview—in some ways, cherish—I suppose I will always wish that le Carré’s last novel had been the superb A Most Wanted Man, from 2008. This story is based on actual events, always the case in the best of le Carré. 

A Chechen Man, Issa, arrives in Hamburg, Germany, illegally, looking for sanctuary and ultimately pledging his fortunes to Annabel, a female social worker and an existentially weary German intelligence officer named Bachmann, who sets up the handover of Issa. This is not going to end well, since the entire operation is going be to be betrayed by the American CIA.the spy who came in from the cold

In effect, this is full circle for le Carré: as surely as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold would end with Alec Leamas being betrayed by his own organization, so does A Most Wanted Man end with Bachmann who, like Leamas, is not that far from a man with a conscience, ends up utterly abandoned, just as Issa was. Bleak never got bleaker, but le Carré is of course speaking from real life experience.

I feel that it should also be said that between 1965 and 2008 le Carré should be thanked by setting the stage for two of film’s finest performances. Director Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, in 1965, gave Richard Burton, as Alec Leamas, one of his greatest screen opportunities, and, wow, did he seize it. Burton’s seamed and exhausted countenance, not to mention that incredible voice—perhaps the greatest in acting history—could not have been better for le Carré’s understated prose. 

And in 2008, the great Philip Seymour Hoffman brought the same presence to A Most Wanted Man, directed compassionately by Anton Corbijn. If you love the burnt-out spy narrative and consider, as I do, the James Bond franchise to be the ultimate fantasy, schedule a double-feature evening of these two films. The novels were a key part of my own political education—and the films do them haggard, lonely justice.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.