The Honourable Schoolboy

The Honourable Schoolboy is a John Le Carré tale from the dark underside of the West’s Cold War spy operations.

Cover of The Honourable Schoolboy: gold text on black.
Gold text suggests the gold seam of The Honourable Schoolboy 

After his unmasking of British secret service chief Bill Haydon as a 30-year Russian agent, told in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley was appointed its caretaker.

Exploring investigations that Haydon surpressed, Smiley sends Jerry Westerby, a.k.a., “the honorable schoolboy,” to Hong Kong where he learns the owner of a trust fund to which the Russians have been covertly a “gold seam” is millionaire Drake Ko.

Ko has never touched the fund, which amounts to a half-million dollars.

Smiley wants to know what the Russian are buying.

To find out, Westerby follows some very unsavory characters in Cambodia, Thailand, and in Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army captures it.

As in the other le Carré novels about the Circus, Schoolboy holds stories nested inside one another like a wedding gift of mixing bowls.

There’s plenty of action, but the toughest work is done men and women poring over documents looking for patterns and anomalies and asking, “Why?”

The novel requires similar close attention from readers just to keep up with the twists of the story.

The Honourable Schoolboy
by John le Carré
Knopf, 1977. 533 p.
1977 bestseller #4. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Touch Not the Cat

The mistress of atmospherics, Mary Stewart, set Touch Not the Cat on a decaying estate—complete with a moat and a maze—held in trust for the elder of two identical twins.

cat figure in mosaic tile is on dust jacket of Touch Not the Cat
This mosaic tile cat should not be touched.

When Ashley Court’s owner is killed by a hit-and-run driver, his 22-year-old daughter, returns to England to settle the estate.

The manor house is being rented by American tycoon’s family, but Bryony’s father gave her an adjacent cottage that’s not part of the trust in which she can live.

He also passed down to Bryony “the Gift”—telepathic ability— handed down the generations ever since it led to an Ashley ancestor being burned at the stake.

Bryony has been communicating telepathically with a relative she thinks of as her “phantom lover,” but she has not yet discovered which of the Ashley men he is.

I’m not sure how Stewart’s characters got from the end of the penultimate chapter to beginning of the final one, but she certainly paced the novel well and kept my interest.

Stewart’s characters are just well enough developed for her to move them through the maze—both figurative and literal—of the story.

Plot, not personalities, is the draw in this semi-spooky thriller.

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Morrow, 1976. 336 p.
1976 bestseller #9. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Sleeping Murder: The last of Miss Marple

Sleeping Murder is the last of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries, and like Curtain it was prepared for posthumous publication.

All-text front dust jacket of Sleeping Murder
There’s nothing on this cover to keep readers awake.

In Sleeping Murder, a young couple from New Zealand, Gwenda and Giles Reed, both the only remaining members of their families, have come to settle in England.

The Victorian villa they buy in a small seaside town feels strangely familiar to Gwenda. She learns she and her father had lived in the house very briefly as a small child.

Then Gwenda has a terrifying vision of a woman lying strangled at the foot of the stairway.

Because of the family connection, Gwenda and Giles begin poking into the history of the house.

Miss Marple, visiting friends in the village, urges them to “let sleeping murders lie” but they persist.

Readers familiar with Christie’s Miss Marple will know how the silver-haired sleuth puts tea and scones together and to come up with the obvious solution.

Readers who don’t know Miss Marple may wish to make her acquaintance via one of the 14 earlier cozy mysteries featuring her, beginning with The Murder at the Vicarage, published in 1930.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Dodd, Mead. ©1976, 242 p.
1976 bestseller #2. My grade: B

Curtain: Poirot’s last case

In Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot mystery, novelist Agatha Christie takes Poirot back to the setting of the 1920 novel that began the series: Styles Court.

That’s a mustache under  the Curtain.

As then, Poirot is joined by Captain Hastings. Unlike then, Poirot is now old, deformed by arthritis, using a wheelchair.

Styles Court is now a guest house. Poirot has persuaded Hasting’s daughter, Judith, and the Franklins, who are her boss and his wife, to come to Styles Court.

There are other people staying at the house, Poirot and Hastings have never met.

Poirot has asked Hastings to come to help him investigate the guests and prevent a murder which he is sure is going to be committed.

Poirot has already identified five seemingly unrelated murder cases in which no one doubted who the murderer was. Yet Poirot believes the person responsible for all five of the murders was someone else—a person who is at Styles Court.

With Poirot confined to a wheelchair, it’s up to Hastings to do the legwork.

Poirot fans will appreciate this unexpected end to the 55-year series.

For those who don’t know him, Curtain is not a good introduction to the little Belgian with the mustache.

Curtain by Agatha Christie
Dodd, Mead [1975] 1st ed. 238 p.
1975 bestseller #3. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Seven-Percent Solution: 100% fun

Sherlock with his pipe,hat, and tweed coat
Detail from David K. Stone’s cover illustration for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a twentieth century addendum to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, written by Dr. Watson with “editing” by Nicholas Meyer.

After he marries, Watson doesn’t see much of Holmes. One evening in April, 1891, when Watson’s wife is away, Holmes drops in, looking ill, behaving oddly, talking wildly.

Watson rightly suspects Holmes is addicted to cocaine.

Hearing that a Dr. Sigmund Freud in Vienna might be able to help, Watson invents a tale that lures Holmes to Vienna where Freud breaks Holmes of his addiction.

Holmes and Watson go along when Freud consults on a case of an attempted suicide.

Under hypnosis, the woman says she’s Nancy Slater Von Leinsdorf, wife of the recently deceased munitions king, Baron Von Leinsdorf. Holmes deduces she’s been held captive by the Baron’s no-good son and heir.

Under suspicion, the dastardly new Baron grabs his stepmother, shoves her in a trunk, and takes off by train for Germany.

Holmes foresees millions killed if the new Baron isn’t prevented from selling arms to Germany, so he Watson, and Freud commission a special train and steam off in hot pursuit.

It’s all delightful fun, even for those who are not Sherlock Holmes fans.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution:
Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of
John H. Watson, M.D.
By Nicholas Meyer
W. W. Norton ©1974 [paper] 221 p.
1974 bestseller #9. My Grade: B+.

Cover illustration by David K. Stone on plastic-encased library copy of The Seven-Percent-Solution did not photograph well. As the saying goes, the book is better.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Cold-War relic

There's 1 red figure and 1 black figure among gray crowd on the cover of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The man in the glasses is George Smiley.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a novel about ex-spymaster George Smiley’s efforts to uncover the double agent responsible for virtual collapse of the British Intelligence Service in the Cold War era.

Smiley had been forced out of the Circus, the British spy agency at which he’d been Control’s number 2, when a group of four young men rose to leadership and Control himself died.

When the novel opens, Smiley has been called out of retirement to find out which of the four is the double agent. His isn’t a cloak-and-dagger job, but a tedious search for patterns in data.

The excitement in the novel, which the film version probably captures far better than print, is provided mainly through characters’ recollections of what happened years before.

Tinker swings between then and now, telling about characters with multiple names and identities, which made me long for one of the whiteboards seen in police procedurals with photos and brief descriptions of the characters.

In his introduction to the 1991 paperback edition, John le Carré tells of the difficulties he had plotting Tinker and his sense that the story was already regarded as historical fiction.

Today it feels about as dated as When Knighthood Was in Flower.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
Penguin Books [paper] © 1974, 381 p.
1974 bestseller #4. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Secret Woman: Implausible diversion

Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman is an old-fashioned mystery story arising from the Victorian aristocrats’ need for a male heir carry on the line.

Dust jacket of The Secret Woman
Book Club Edition dust jacket

The leading lady is Anna Brett, a orphan in the care of an eccentric maiden aunt who buys but rarely sells antique furniture in an English seaport dominated by the Crediton shipping firm.

When her aunt dies under mysterious circumstances, leaving an-all-but bankrupt business, Anna gets a job as governess Castle Crediton. She owes her job to Chantel Loman who had come to nurse Aunt Charlotte and became Anna’s confidant.

It’s Chantel who sees Anna has fallen hard for the Crediton’s bastard son, Captain Redvers Stretton, about whom dark things are hinted.

Chantel, who had become nurse to Captain Stretton’s disturbed wife, seems more interested in Rex Crediton, the acknowledged son and heir to the family’s fortune.

Lady Crediton plans for Rex to marry the daughter of a competing firm, effectively merging the two.

The Secret Woman contains only nice, appropriately Victorian upper-class murders: no blood in sight, no police on the premises.

Holt keeps the story moving so readers don’t think too hard about the multiple implausibilities in the story until after they’ve finished the tale.

The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt
Doubleday, ©1970, Book Club Edition, 374 p.
1970 bestseller #8. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni