Couldn’t Put It Down

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

by John Le Carré
Coward-McCann, 256 pp., $4.50

Von Ryan’s Express

by David Westheimer
Doubleday, 327 pp., $4.95

Three Beds in Manhattan

by George Simenon
Doubleday, 190 pp., $3.95

Gad, sir, they don’t write adventure stories these days like they used to; probably they never did. But everyone has his fond memories of thrillers—splendid specimens of sub-literature, where the good guys were systematically stacked up against the bad guys, where the decor was exotic not to say outré, and the plentiful girls just promiscuous enough to supply exotic last-minute rewards for the battered but miraculously rejuvenated hero. The ministry of terror—Boris, the sinister, cold-visaged killer, creeps catlike down the midnight corridors of the Orient Express toward the compartment where Emmie-Lou clutches the coded message to her palpitating high-ridged bosom! Roger, cool as a cucumber in the mountain hideout of the enemy, while sinister gorillas whimper with eagerness to tear him limb from limb, lights a cigarette, and says casually to aged, one-eyed Ivanov Dubrovnik: “True enough, my dear fellow, you have me. But I won’t do you much good, unless you have the mysterious brown parcel. And only I, as it happens, can lead you to it.” Talk about sang-froid!

Happy days, tender memories—best not renewed or revisited; for with only a slight twist of perspective, the tinsel droops, the terror reveals itself as stagy, and the hokum sticks out like stuffing from a chair the cat has been clawing. Incredible as it seems, John Buchan now looks cornier than Eric Ambler, who is no less corny than Ian Fleming, who in turn will have no trouble being cornier than the next guy. Possible, is it not, that this sort of book is a continuing victim of technology?—for it was written in the mood of, and is best appreciated on, a long train trip, or preferably an ocean voyage. Ah, the sunny decks of the old Ile after a light lunch in one’s deck chair (half a cold chicken, croissants, salad, Camembert, fruit, and some of the Graves supérieur)—when one’s discriminations were exercised on a choice between sleep, conversation, shuffleboard, and a thriller. Spacious days—from which the books, surviving, descending, recaptured, disappoint us with their withered and dusty air, their creaking joints. What right have they to be gaffers like us?

Contemporary redactions of the old good-guys-versus-bad-guys story are rarely so tough and able as John Le Carré’s well-heralded whizzer, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The author whose square pseudonym masks a first-rate narrative architect, has provided us with a tightly plotted, non-episodic, controlled action, worked out with few theatrical flamboyances, no picturesque rhetoric, and very little political folderol. In a novel about the so-called cold war, these omissions alone occasion considerable relief. On Mr. Le Carré’s showing, the world of the professional spy is cold, gray, impersonal, and contrived; now and then, it gives way beneath one’s feet. The indigenes, who live by angling desperately for information they cannot assess, are almost schizoid mixtures of cynicism and loyalty. Practiced professional deceivers, they may be deceived even about the reasons for their deception …

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Letters

Problems of Translation March 19, 1964