A Legacy of Spies

The other year, in preparation for a novel I hoped would have more intrigue and action than I was used to writing, I decided to break with my comfort zone and read a few spy novels to deconstruct the genre and see how the action was set up and paced. I’d read a James Bond novel once and was less than impressed; the movies I loved so much were horribly dull novels, and the book-Bond looked much more like Truman Capote than any pretty-boy actor.

I didn’t want to waste time, so I Googled “best spy novels”, and one of the top two on almost every list was John LeCarré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so that was the one I read first.

The lists were right. The book was brilliant, and I couldn’t put it down. After that I rushed out to watch the 2012 BBC film version, an incredible cast including Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, and more – which was still excellent, though some people prefer the 1979 mini-series adaption with Alec Guinness (that’s Obi Wan Kenobi to some of you). The strangest part was that, while reading the book, I had already cast Toby Jones in one of the roles in my head  –  but as Peter Guillam, though, not Percy Alleline as he was in the film.

Why so good? Well, see – like Ian Fleming, John LeCarré (real name: David Cornwell; spies aren’t allowed to use their real names to publish novels) was an actual British spy in World War II, so he knows the ins and outs and tiny little details of how the game is played, layers upon layers of secrets and trades and double-dealings. He’s lived it first hand, and that makes all the believable difference. He began writing novels in 1961 (Call for the Dead), but it wasn’t until his third novel in 1963, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, that he hit the best-seller list and wound up quitting MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) to pursue writing full time.

While all of us sit here and think, why would you quit being an awesome spy to write books?

But LeCarré certainly is good at it, with more than 24 novels to his name, almost all of them best-sellers. Several have been made into successful film adaptions, including The Constant Gardener (2005), starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton, and the recent delicious adaption of The Night Manager (2016), starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, a book that reads more like a James Bond adaption than a Bond novel does.

Unable to sit still in retirement, LeCarré, now 86, has pumped out yet another novel last year, A Legacy of Spies, a conclusion of sorts for George Smiley’s people, his ex-agent who keeps coming back. Pulling his best-loved characters from so many of his novels, LeCarré manages to weave them together with new characters in present-day, finding new depths and bringing new truths to light, even after 50 years. LeCarré shows that time has not diminished him nor his characters, and if you think you know how it will end, like all of his works, it’s pretty well guaranteed you don’t.

Give le Carré a try. If you like mystery, espionage, intrigue, and unraveling puzzles with characters who won’t let you go, then you’ll love his work. If you haven’t tried him, he’s a wonderful place to begin to explore the genre. For modern novels, he’s rather clean, without a lot of graphic violence or sex or language, perhaps making the stories even more remarkable. Start with Legacy of Spies and work backward, or start at the beginning and work forward. If you prefer to watch rather than read, there are more than ten films, five television adaptions, and four radio plays to keep you entertained. You’ll be so glad you did.

Young Adult Spy Novels That Adults Can Enjoy Too

spystormDo you have a young adult reader that loves detective and spy novels but has moved past The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and N.E.R.D.S.? Perhaps you love young adult fiction and a great spy novel. Well, whatever the case, here are some of the best spy and espionage books to be had in the young adult section of our library. Did I miss one of your favorites? Please mention it in the comments so that others can enjoy it as well!

1. Stormbreaker (Alex Rider, #1) by Anthony Horowitz
After the death of the uncle who had been his guardian, fourteen-year-old Alex Rider is coerced to continue his uncle’s dangerous work for Britain’s intelligence agency, MI6.spygallager

2. I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You (Gallagher Girls, #1) by Ally Carter
As a sophomore at a secret spy school and the daughter of a former CIA operative, Cammie is sheltered from “normal teenage life” until she meets a local boy while on a class surveillance mission.

3. H.I.V.E. Higher Institute of Villainous Education (H.I.V.E., #1) by Mark Walden
Swept away to a hidden academy for training budding evil geniuses, Otto, a brilliant orphan, Wing, a sensitive warrior, Laura, a shy computer specialist, and Shelby, an infamous jewel thief, plot to beat the odds and escape the prison known as H.I.V.E.

4. The Prisoner of Cell 25 (Michael Vey, #1)  by Richard Paul Evans
spycell25Michael Vey, a fourteen-year old who has Tourette’s syndrome and special electric powers, finds there are others like him, and must rely on his powers to save himself and the others from a diabolical group seeking to control them.

5. Independence Hall (I, Q, #1) by Roland Smith
Teenagers Q (Quest) and Angela go on tour with married rockers Blaze and Roger and, while in Philadelphia, become submerged in a world of danger when they discover the identity of Angela’s real mother, who is a former Secret Service agent.

6. Code Name Verity (Code Name Verity, #1) by Elizabeth Wein
In 1943, a British fighter plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France and the survivor tells a tale of friendship, war, espionage and great courage as she relates what she must do to survive while keeping secret all that she can.

spypalaceAs always, I have trouble stopping with just a few. There are just so many great books out there. So, if you have already read the books on my short list, here are some more recommendations; Palace of Spies (Palace of Spies, #1) by Sarah Zettel, Spy Camp by Stuart Gibbs, All Fall Down (Embassy Row, #1) by Ally Carter, The Lab (Agent Six of Hearts #1) by Jack Heath, The Recruit (Cherub, #1) by Robert Muchamore, Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School, #1) by Gail Carriger, Alibi Junior High by Greg Logsted, Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy (Dukovskaya #1) by Elizabeth Kiem, Two Lies and a Spy (Two Lies and a Spy, #1) by Kat Carlton, Also Known As (Also Known As, #1) by Robin Benway, A Spy in the House (The Agency, #1) by Y.S. Lee, Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, #1) by Robin LaFevers, Sekret (Sekret, #1) by Lindsay Smith, Fledgling (Jason Steed, #1) by Mark A. Cooper, SilverFin (Young Bond, #1)  by Charlie Higson, and Spy High Mission One by A.J. Butcher.

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Susan’s Picks from 2014

I feel terrible for only squeezing in 27 books this year, a new low for me, but considering I wrote or edited three books in between, I don’t feel so bad. I am an unforgivable nerd, wallowing in science, history, psychology, and biography to the point I read almost no fiction at all anymore. I feel bad when people ask me to recommend something and I have no clue what to offer because the last really good book I read was on the histology of Ebola, or they’re looking for romance recommendations and my idea of a great romance is the novelization of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here are the best and worst I read this year, not counting a reread of Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, which I love so much I gave out ten copies at Christmas:

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Jacket.aspxThe Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox. Fox covers the work by Michael Ventris, who eventually untangled the mystery of the early Greek/Mycenean Linear B glyphs, but spends much of the book discussing Alice Kober’s work, so much of it uncredited yet without which Ventris would not have succeeded. When Kober – who spent the majority of her life working on the syllabary – dies just a year before the pieces fall into place, you want to cry for her. If you love a good detective novel – this is a true story that shook the history world. (I warned you about the nerdism).

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Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff. An incredible book about the decay of Detroit, a city so far gone America has forgotten it exists, while the people still try to survive in a place without – well, anything. No jobs, no police, no grocery stores, and most recently, no water. Made me incredibly angry to see America left to rot like this.

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WJacket.aspxho Discovered America? by Gavin Menzies. Ever read a book that makes you feel like you woke up on an alien world, that everything you were ever told about history was wrong? This book takes Thor Heyerdahl to a whole new level, pointing out overwhelming scientific evidence that Asian, African, and European peoples were routinely coming to America long before Columbus was born. Utterly fascinating. Even if Menzies is only 10% right, it still changes everything we know about history. Easy to read, and you won’t be able to put it down.

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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in Northern Korea, by Barbara Demick. This book is so touching and so sad, you cannot help but be moved by people who have so little control over their lives that even their food and clothing is doled out by the government, and if they say you will starve, then you starve, because they will not give you more. People risking death to swim to China, or pay for an underground railroad to South Korea, where they have extreme culture shock that defies the propaganda they have been fed for generations. Hate the leader, but love the people. I love Gavin Menzies, but I think this gets my vote for Best Book of the Year.

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deafI Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey Through the Science of Sound and Language, by Lydia Denworth. Denworth’s youngest son is born profoundly deaf; this is her story not only of trying to decide how to educate him (as a lip-reader, a signer, or hearing w/ a cochlear implant). Interspersed with her journey is the science behind hearing and language, and the history of deafness, and it is utterly fascinating how much hearing and learning are interconnected, and why many deaf people never read beyond a fourth-grade level.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John LeCarré. I needed to read a couple of spy novels as research for a book I was writing. Every list I looked at said this was the best. I have no doubt they are right. A spy novel that will keep you guessing until the very end, it makes James Bond look like a pampered fool. Very British, but very, very good.

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boyWorst book I read this year? There were a couple of stinkers, but I think the worst I read was The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood, by Roger Rosenblatt. I don’t care how many awards he’s gotten. I almost never abandon a book half-way through, but I just couldn’t finish this. It has a boy, and he’s in New York, but the rest is just a single run-on sentence of chapterless rambling. You know how your brain wanders foggy from topic to topic when you’re lying in bed half asleep? That’s this book. I read some clunkers, but I made it to the end of them. This one I couldn’t get past 50 pages. No, thank you.

 

What did you like/dislike this year?

Eye on the Spy: Happy Birthday, Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Happy birthday to Ian Fleming, born May 28, 1908!

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Fleming is the author behind the James Bond series of thrillers, but did you know he also wrote the children’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? He also wrote several non-fiction books, some of which, like The Diamond Smugglers, arose from his background research for his stories, in this case, Diamonds are Forever.

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Fleming was not necessarily the inspiration for James Bond, but he had more than enough experience to rely on for creating his character. Educated not only at English prep schools but in Munich and Geneva as well, he was pulled into the British Naval Intelligence during World War II. He worked on several secret missions – including one code-named Operation Goldeneye, the name he would give to his home in Jamaica.

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Fleming’s 1950’s, post-war design of Bond was to have a dull, every-man character that events seemed to the-10-highest-grossing-james-bond-films-of-all-timehappen to. He stole the name James Bond from the author of an ornithology manual he owned, a name he thought was as dull and plain and ordinary as could be. It wasn’t even until the second film that he began to give Bond a nationality and sense of humor. His books have had mixed reviews over the years, yet sold more than 30 million copies before his death. Two were published posthumously – Man With the Golden Gun and Octopussy and the Living Daylights. He ranks number fourteen on the list of “50 Greatest British Authors since 1945.” Fleming was a notoriously heavy smoker and drinker, and died of a heart attack at age 56.

Although he wrote only twelve novels and 10 short stories, his stories have inspired more than 23 major films spanning fifty years. Their total adjusted gross is more than $10 billion, placing them behind only the Harry Potter series as most profitable film series in history. Fleming, however, left little family to benefit from his fortune. He had a daughter who died at birth, and his son Caspar, for whom he wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (also a classic film), died in 1975 at the age of 23. His widow, Ann, died in 1981.

 

For a dull, middle-aged nobody, James Bond continues to entertain us for more than 50 years, 25 films, and 7 actors and inspire generations of authors and fans. In addition to his original novels and films, there are several licensed tie-in series, such as Charlie Higson’s “Young Bond” children’s novels.

Who is your favorite Bond?

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