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Books: Crime Fiction

Triple Deception

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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Masters of the genre tell tales of espionage and revenge


A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré | The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz | The Rooster Bar  by John Grisham

WE ARE DRAWN to spy novels because of the skullduggery, the deception, and the eventual sense that perfect order has been restored to the world once our man triumphs over the evil empire. That happens in our youth. But when we are older, we realise that there is no perfect order. Not even a fair order. This becomes even truer for state security services after the Cold War ended, and the enemy is no longer identifiable with a country. Or worse, the enemy is within and among us rather than out there in the Siberian steppes. One realises that in playing the spy game one will hurt, that one will get hurt, that one will lose the sense of right and wrong within a system where the end justifies the means. Of course, you can wallow in a sea of relativism, but if fairness is important to you, you might carve out a few rules that you try not to break. You may reflect on your life’s work and point to the moment when you made those rules amidst the chaos of loss.

All this may sound obscure, but when you read John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies, it makes sense. Le Carré, now 87, is at the peak of his storytelling prowess. “I always wrote about people groaning under the moral weight of the Cold War and begging to get out,” John le Carré told the New York Times after the Berlin Wall came down. “I’m absolutely delighted to be presented with a new pack of cards.” He dealt with the fresh pack effortlessly, spinning stories out of the war on terror and the justifications given by American operatives for torture, the war on the drug trade, and the use of human guinea pigs in the developing world by the pharmaceutical industry. While these were enjoyable, there was a distinct element of a CNN-type news- reporting in the sub-text of the books.

Not so in A Legacy of Spies, which takes us back to the plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold involving the killing of agent Alec Leamas in late 1950s Berlin to protect a valuable source in East Germany. This is a much more reflective read—we move back and forth between the Cold War era and the present and the protagonists are our old mates—Smiley’s people.

One of Smiley’s people, Peter Guillam, is hauled out of retirement and brought back to London for questioning by the young Turks-lawyers in MI6 about a set of incidents that resulted in the death of his friend and fellow spy (Alec Leamas), and of the spy’s girlfriend. These are memories Guillam would prefer not to revisit, but the new order in MI6 is on a rabbinical quest for the ‘truth’. Peter, who wants to reveal all, struggles against a life-long habit of lying, inculcated in him by Control and Smiley. So here we have it, John Le Carré’s masterly telling of the tale where we readers too are taken down dead ends by Peter, and then we are brought onto more promising avenues that may lead to the truth.

What a tour de force! Peter Guillam is an engaging protagonist with no moral dogma, who reflects on a past where good and evil are not so simply separated, and where love is marked by deceit. The upshot of the story is that we are transported back to a Cold War era where a person can be a double or triple agent, where everything ‘seems to be’ but ‘nothing is’ as Control, the man running the show, says. Peter wonders— what is it all for. And adds, like a Miss World contestant, ‘for world peace’? ‘Yes, yes, of course,’ says Smiley.

The spy’s dilemma is summed up by another character, the defence lawyer Peter hires, who says, ‘The trouble with you spies, nothing personal, is that none of you know the truth from your elbows. Which does make it hard to defend you.’ But it makes for a delicious read. Go out and buy this book, curl up in a cosy armchair, and devour it on a cold winter afternoon.

From Britain, we now sail across the seas to Sweden. The Girl who Takes an Eye for an Eye is billed as the fifth in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series that began with a Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth Salander is the a technology savvy, antisocial, obsessive superheroine who takes on the system and the powerful and corrupt men who wreak violence on her, and emerges triumphant. This is in the earlier books. In this one, she is in prison despite having saved a young boy’s life. After all her traumas inflicted by her guardian, her father and brothers in the previous books, in this one, she is not a victim.

Michael Blomkvist treks to the prison every week, and for his efforts to get her out, receives a tip about a woman with a blazing birthmark on her neck who could be Salander’s mother. Salander, in true comic book superheroine style, does not want to leave the prison until she has rescued another inmate, a young Muslim Bangladeshi girl, Fazia, who has been convicted of killing her brother. Though David Lagercrantz is a good writer who is able to tell a story without the horrific gore that characterised Larsson’s tales, the book is really not about Salander, who is never in any real danger. She is a supergirl who can take care of things simply by tapping into the computer, and using her fighting skill, even in a maximum security prison. In an interview, Lagercrantz says that the prison was a necessity to start the plot: “the perfect milieu where power and weakness unfolds in the most flagrant way.” He also said he was fed up with crime novels that had too much violence: “I can’t really do it. It’s unnecessary.” I agree.

The problem is that there are too many storylines. We mull over the justice system in Sweden, a social eugenics programme with a mad scientist who may be connected to Salander, the societal pressures on migrants and religions, and the absence of state protection for women like Fazia. By the end, Salander is almost peripheral to this story. Though Salander is a wraith, Blomkvist is a more fleshed out character than he is in the Larsson books. Lagercrantz admits in an interview that he could not mess with Lisbeth’s character, but with Blomkvist, he felt a greater sense of freedom.

If one had to pick the most powerful storyline, it would be the one about honour killings and terrorism. Having ghost- written an autobiography, I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, about the Swedish footballer who is the son of a Muslim Bosnian father and a Catholic Croatian mother, it is not surprising that Fazia’s story emerges in a powerful way in the book. Nor is the skill with which Lagercrantz weaves in present-day concerns raging in Europe after terror attacks by radicalised nationals like Fazia’s brothers. We don’t get a sense of how and why it happened, and this mimics the real-life bewilderment that surrounds the genesis of these radicals born into middle-class homes in Europe. If you ignore the fact that Salander’s origins will still, by and large, remain a mystery in this book (though it was billed as revealing sensational details about her childhood), you will find it a pacy read, delving into meaty issues and taking us to a satisfying end, with a teaser thrown in about Salander’s origins.

The Rooster Bar is another ‘weak avenge their wrongs’, ‘victims arise’ story from John Grisham. After the dull Camino Island, Grisham is back to his old stomping ground—a scheme hatched by three law students who get gypped by their c-grade law school, which had dangled promises but has left them with loans to the government and no job prospects. In their third year at Foggy Bottom law school, Mark, Todd and Zola learn the bitter truth—it is almost impossible to land a job, let alone a high-paying one after graduating from an obscure law school. They drop out, assume false names and practice law at the DC municipal court, meeting their clients in an office cum residence above Rooster Bar. Before they are caught, they concoct a convoluted way to punish the billionaire who is the schemer behind the law school racket.

Grisham tells rather than shows, but here, unlike in Camino Island, the reader is invested in the story and is rooting for the trio who have their own back stories, emerging from the mean streets and struggling up to some level of middle-class respectability. For those of you who are lured by obscure law schools in America with promises of a scintillating future, beware. Grisham based the story on a report in The Atlantic on ‘The Law School Scam’ about for-profit law schools.

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