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January book reviews

A spy thriller, travel writing, and tales of the past


A Legacy of Spies, by John Le Carré, Penguin Viking, £20; ISBN:978-0-241-30854-7

Once a spy, now quietly retired in Brittany, Peter Guillam battles his demons as he listens to the cattle and hens on his remote farmstead. He has been called to account by the British secret service for a mission that targeted the East German Stasi and caused the deaths of an agent, Alec Leamas (the spy who came in from the cold), and the woman Peter loved.

After a lifetime of learning how to deny plausibly, he must get to the bottom of an affair where he was not on the ‘need to know’ list; or, at least, not on the full version. 

This is classic Le Carré; at times baffling and beguiling but always ominously absorbing. It promises sleepless nights, perhaps for fear of forgetting the turns of the plot but also for the feeling that you do not want to miss what is just about to happen.

Despite the fall of the wall and the slight thawing in the cold war, Le Carré still makes his tinkers, tailors, soldiers and spies work – although the old spymaster, George Smiley, is conspicuous by his absence.

When he returns to London, Guillam is faced with the job that many a reader has faced; to unravel the plot of his own spy story, an unusual spy’s legacy.

Prussian Blue, Philip Kerr, Quercus, £7.99; ISBN:978-1-78429-651-3

The sight should have brought Bernie Gunther up with a start, as he walked into the Ruhl Hotel on the promenade in Nice and spotted two men, unmistakably East German, in the lobby.

As he heads to the top-floor restaurant his error makes him too late to duck out of a forced meeting with General Mielke, head of the Stasi. A strange mistake for a man who managed to keep a step ahead of the Gestapo and the Mafia. Mielke is a man who can eat lobster, chocolate and then pickled cucumber in successive bites “his tastebuds were every bit as corrupt as his morals”. He wants Gunther to kill a woman double agent.

Gunther would gladly see her dead – she slept with him then betrayed him – but will not pull the trigger or, as asked, dose her with thallium poison. But he is in danger and he takes the train north to France to do the deed in London... only to kill his Stasi ‘minder’ on the way and escape the train.

Now, hunted by both the Stasi, led by his former comrade Friedrich Korsch, and French police he has plenty of time to remember the last time he and Korsch worked together... solving a murder at Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in Bavaria.

Pre-war, post-war and in-between, this is both history and mystery as Gunther battles to find the best way to stay alive.

Travelling Light, Alastair Sawday, Little, Brown £20; ISBN:978-1-4087-0852-1

Thousands of travellers know his name; many times more know Alastair Sawday’s off-beat guides railing against hotel monoliths and pointing visitors to the beacons of local hospitality where table d’hôte is a lifestyle, not restaurant, choice.

He sees holidays and travelling as an escape and shares some of his favourite tales here. Do not expect a guide to the places, these are ‘look and feel’ tales from the front line of writing about travel. But, do expect that his favourite places are brought to life in a bright, enthralling way.

From his earliest days and his first book, French Bed & Breakfast, follow him on what is anything but the type of whirlwind tour that far too many travellers impose upon themselves. Whether it is plucking figs and collecting blackberries for breakfast or asking a Frenchman to sing and hearing Brassens he has delicious tastes. That plus an uncanny eye or ear for the unusual – and readers would do well to beware the sense of humour that introduces spoofs into each guidebook.

There is more here than France – Sawday has seen the world – but his love for the country shines through.

These Dividing Walls, Fran Cooper, Hodder & Stoughton £14.99; ISBN:978-1-473-64153-2

A story for every storey, No37 has its secrets and Mme Marin the gardienne wants to know them all: it is her only joy. Edward needs to get over the death of his sister but life is hard even in Paris.

Meeting Frédérique, the much more worldly wise aunt of a friend, teaches him about daily life in the building.

The smell of garlic browning in a pan is matched by the stench of hypocrisy and it boils over when a Muslim family are set to move into the empty third floor flat.

A Distant Mirror – The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman, Penguin £12.99; ISBN:978-0-241-97297-7

First published in 1978, the writer tells us that that decade and the 60s seemed a “period of similar disarray” to the 14th century, with its “crusades and chivalry, plunder and plague”.
Now, four decades later, it seems even more similar as she looks at a period of “economic chaos, social unrest, high prices, profiteering, depraved morals, social and religious hysteria” and recalls a historian’s verdict of it all as ‘a bad time for humanity’.

Telling of a time when half of the European population was wiped out by Black Death and, although as much a researcher and writer as a historian (Barbara Tuchman won the Pulitzer Prize twice), hers is a strong storytelling habit.

Capturing the rhythms of history and the pattern of daily life she looks at kings, knights and their ladies but also those too miserable to be remembered.

At nearly 700 pages it is a fact-packed trip into another era: using goat dung, rosemary and honey to treat gout, how craft guilds were created, Joan II’s battles with Charles of Navarre, the wedding of Isabella of England and Enguerrand de Coucy and a delicious aside, that “Theology being the work of males, original sin was traced to the female.”

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