“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Friday, March 3, 2017
Le Carré, interrogating his own memory, doesn’t exactly confine himself to name, rank and serial number in The Pigeon Tunnel (Penguin Viking), but seasoned fans may be disappointed by the lack of new revelations (with eight of the 38 chapters previously published in newspapers, journals and magazines, there is much that may also be familiar). Last year’s biography of le Carré by Adam Sisman was a much more informative affair, particularly on le Carré’s career as a spy, although it’s only fair to point out, as the subtitle suggests, that this book wasn’t conceived as a conventional memoir. “These are true stories told from memory,” he tells us early on, “to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to the creative writer? […] To the creative writer, fact is raw material, not his taskmaster but his instrument, and his job is to make it sing.”
Indeed, much of this book is taken up with this idea of transforming raw material – some of the most absorbing chapters are those where le Carré allows readers a glimpse into the formative stages of his books, taking them on the journeys he embarked on himself for the purpose of research. The stand-out chapters in this regard are those he titles ‘The Theatre of the Real’, recounting his experience of travelling to the Middle East before writing The Little Drummer Girl, during which he danced with Yasser Arafat, then the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, visited an Israeli military prison in the Negev Desert, and agonised over the political direction the novel should take.
Yasser Arafat isn’t the only famous name to pop up in these pages – the chapter on le Carré drinking with Richard Burton on the Dublin set of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is darkly hilarious, while the chapter titled ‘Alec Guinness’ is a touching tribute to the actor who played George Smiley in the BBC’s classic 1979 adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Where The Pigeon Tunnel truly scores, however, is when le Carré moves in the latter stages from the public to the personal, to write about his fraught relationship with Ronnie Cornwell, “conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father,” a man who “rubbed shoulders with the Kray Twins” and may well have been physically violent with the young David (whose mother, Olive, ran away from Ronnie when David was a child). At his father’s funeral, le Carré tells us, he was comforted by a stalwart member of ‘Ronnie’s Court’: “We was all bent, son. But your dad was very, very bent indeed.”
Again, some of the material may already be familiar to le Carré’s fans (particularly those who have read the novels A Perfect Spy and Single and Single), but there’s a poignant quality to some of the later chapters here, as the author struggles to come to terms with his father’s legacy: “Graham Greene tells us that childhood is the credit balance of the writer. By that measure at least, I was born a millionaire.”
It is certainly not a comprehensive account, but The Pigeon Tunnel is consistently entertaining as David Cornwell / John le Carré attempts to make sense of a life simultaneously lived out in public and in the shadows. “As a maker of fictions,” says the old spy and veteran puppet-master, “I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists.” ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.
Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Previously the winner of the Hawthornden Prize and the Lannan Literary Award, Tim Pears has built his reputation on novels that employ the family dynamic to explore social issues. The Horseman, his ninth novel and the first in a proposed trilogy, situates the Sercombe family in an apparently idyllic and self-contained world in which the horrors of WWI are unimaginable and history-making events (Home Rule, the miners’ strikes, ‘the Vandals and Goths’ of the suffragette movement) are little more than vague rumours. Rural Devon is a place where ‘things’ll carry on one way or another,’ as Albert Sercombe reassures his wife, but Leo’s fall from grace, precipitated by the passion for horses he shares with the haughty young Charlotte Prideaux, is the inevitable consequence of Leo transgressing against the social structure of his time and place.
While the bare bones of the plot are evocative of Hardy, The Horseman is a novel in which plot is little more than a skeletal structure that allows Tim Pears to flesh out a vibrant, vividly detailed Devon. Leo, our guide, has a gift for observation, and is a rudimentary philosopher to boot. Thus, when he watches a hare approach him across a field, Leo is drawn to the conclusion that, “each species of animal had its own peculiarities of vision. This world we surveyed was not was it was but as it was seen, in many different guises.”
The story proceeds by way of chapters divided into the months of the year, each month devoted to an important event on the farm: the ploughing, the sowing and reaping, the threshing; foals being born, pigs slaughtered. Unsentimental in tone, the story is richly descriptive as Pears sketches in the detail of a community’s symbiotic relationship to the land, as man imposes his will on chaotic nature: “No two fields among them were of like size or configuration. No tracks ran straight but dipped and wove around the tumps and hummocks of land. […] Streams meandered in no discernible direction, cutting deep narrow gullies here, trickling over gravel beds there. Erratic walkways crisscrossed the estate. The boy’s father Albert told him that when God created this corner of the world He’d just helped himself to a well-earned tipple.”
Pears is at his best, however, in charting Leo’s abiding love for horses, an instinctive devotion handed down from generation to generation. “He gazed upon the sets of waggon harness […] Plough strings, cart saddles, cobble trees and swingletrees, each hung on wooden pegs in its allotted place. These were the icons of beauty to the boy.” As young as he is, Leo is sure of his destiny: “He knew that he would work with horses all his life […]. He doubted whether one life was long enough to know all there was to know of horses.” The timeless nature of man’s relationship with the horse is confirmed when Leo watches his father “ride the mower … like one of those Canaanites who lived in the valley land and had chariots of iron.” When Leo finally races a full-grown horse, he is transported: “The boy did not know that such exhilaration existed, save for in the last days when young men shall see visions ...”
Seeded with deliciously archaic fragments of language (‘dawcock’, ‘zart’, ‘guddled’, ‘gatfer’), The Horseman is itself an exhilarating vision, a bittersweet elegy for the innocent certainties of an agrarian world before the industrialised horrors of the 20th century come crashing down. ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Times.
Monday, February 27, 2017
The day’s events begin at 10am, with the crime contingent onstage from 2pm-3pm. For details of all the day’s events, including how to book your tickets, clickety-click here …
Sunday, February 26, 2017
‘Hello? Is this thing on? Can anyone hear me?’
Apologies for the radio silence in recent weeks, folks, but – as mentioned below – I’m up to the proverbial oxters in a new book, which is proceeding with all the measured calm of a herd of parched pachyderms scenting a waterhole in the deepest Kalahari. Anyhoo, I break said silence in order to mention that I’ll be hosting a crime fiction workshop at the Irish Writers’ Centre on March 11th, titled ‘Mystery and Suspense with Declan Burke’, with the details as follows:
Starts: Saturday 11th, March 2017
Time: 10.30am – 4.30pm
Duration: 1 day
Cost: €80/€70 Members
All great crime fiction stems from the fact that character is mystery. From whodunits to psychological thrillers, via private eyes and police procedurals, we’ll uncover the crucial elements that make for a memorable crime/mystery novel. Embracing plot, character, style, language, setting, tone and the authorial voice, this course employs classic and contemporary crime writing to illustrate the way forward for authors seeking to hone their craft and maximise the impact of their writing.
Declan Burke is an award-winning author of six novels, and the editor / co-editor of two non-fiction titles on crime writing. He is the editor of the short story anthology Trouble is Our Business (New Island).
For all the details, clickety-click here …