The worst, Toby Esterhase once reminded George Smiley, is an old spy in a hurry. But reading spy novels quickly is the opposite of a bad thing.
Took a break from Buddenbrooks (150 pages left) to read John Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man, a film of which is playing now. David Denby wrote about Wanted Man this week in the New Yorker, as a prelude read to Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy, the book of Le Carre’s that others tell me is great but I can’t crack. Denby gave me hope; Wanted Man entertained me for eight hours.
A Most Wanted Man is set in Hamburg, features a great set up of characters and coincidences, and the whole thing goes by like a long summer afternoon, not in the company of friends but in the company of people good at their work–in this case spy work. Gunther Bachmann, the guru of Wanted Man, is smart and wise, a leader of Hamburg’s tiny spy outfit, and he gives one of the great speeches in contemporary lit, all about the roll of spies in the post 9/11 world. Hamburg, few recall, played a major roll in that disaster.
Wanted Man isn’t first-rate Le Carre, not even close to his masterpiece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but if it can get me to A Perfect Spy, which has sat on my shelves for a decade unread, then good. Philip Roth called that book the best British post-war novel. High praise.