In The Little Drummer Girl, John Le Carré abandons George Smiley’s British gloom for a world of international terrorism.
Le Carré fashions a tale about a Palestinian responsible for deaths of Jews throughout Europe. The Israelis know him by the coil of surplus wire left with his crude bombs and by the professionalism with which he eludes detection.
They have no idea who he is, but they have a plan to find out.
The Israelis offer a young English actress called Charlie the role of her life.
The Israelis invent a character for her: the role of a dead terrorist’s lover. They drill her in the facts they know of him and the story they have concocted.
Her job is to get inside the terrorist organization and bring its leader to the Israelis.
Charlie has not only to play her character, but once she’s involved, she has to play other roles, the psychological equivalent of portraying a Russian nesting doll.
The “nestedness” of Charlie’s character requires close attention from readers. Sometimes Charlie isn’t sure which character she’s playing.
Le Carré lightens the load with apt, sometimes even hilarious, character descriptions, but never lets readers forget that terrorists and anti-terrorists each kill people.
The Little Drummer Girl by John Le Carré
Knopf. 1983. [Book Club ed.] 429 p.
1983 bestseller #4. My grade: A-
The Royal Box is a murder mystery with an epilogue that seems added to let the story end on a upbeat note.
Frances Parkinson Keyes provides a cast of characters in order of appearance. The book jacket provides an account of the love affair in 1926 that led to the murder-by-cyanide in 1951. The fact that both those reader aids were thought necessary in a work of popular fiction shows how complicated the novel is.
The poisoned man is Baldwin Castle, newly appointed ambassador to an oil-rich Middle Eastern nation. Years before, after being jilted by an English aristocrat, he’d had an affair with actress Janice Lester.
He left her pregnant.
When Castle and his new, second wife pass through London, they are entertained with a theater party in the Royal Box at the theater where Janice Lester is starring.
The guests include the woman who Castle thought jilted him; the ambassador of the country to which Castle has been assigned; Janice, her husband, and their adopted son who is really Castle’s and Janice’s son.
A dry-as-dust policeman figures out who done it.
And Keyes makes sure everyone’s life ends more happily than Baldwin Castle’s did.
The Royal Box
By Frances Parkinson Keyes
New York: Julian Messner, 1954
1954 bestseller #4
My grade: C
The Miracle of the Bellsis a standard religious novel to which Russell Janney has added a dollop of humor. The humor increases the novel’s appeal but can’t disguise its poor quality.
Press agent William “Spats” Dunnigan had met Olga when she was an innocent waif determined to be a star. He felt sorry for her and made sure she had a job to keep her in groceries. When opportunity arose, he catapulted Olga from stand-in to staring role.
Shortly after the film shoot ended, Olga died from lung damage suffered as a child. While explaining to the town priest that Olga wanted the church bells rung for her funeral, Spats gets an idea. He’ll have all the bells in Coaltown rung for four days before the funeral, turning it into a promotion for the film studio.
Spats not only achieves his publicity objectives, but also turns the town upside down. It’s a miracle! But there’s no reason to think Spats is a better man because of it.
If Russell Janney weren’t so clever with his odd characters and funny lines, the novel would fall flat. For substance, readers will have to look elsewhere. The Miracle of the Bellsoffers nothing but fun.
The Miracle of the Bells
By Russell Janney
Prentice Hall, 1946
#1 bestseller in 1947
My grade: C+