Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review of A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carre (1968, Heinemann)

Leo Harting, second secretary in the British embassy in Bonn, has gone missing and he’s taken forty three top secret files with him.  The embassy is already in a flap given tensions with the German civil service and politicians about negotiations in Brussels for British entry to the European Union and British involvement in post-war German affairs.  An anti-British rally is scheduled and security and tensions are high.  The last thing senior officials need is Alan Turner, a hard-nosed spycatcher who doesn’t care for class-divisions or subtle diplomatic relations.  Turner starts uncovering information that nobody seems to want revealed and resistance to his presence grows.  As his investigation progresses he senses that this is no ordinary defection, but forces are conspiring to deny him the truth.

John Le Carre is in fine form in A Small Town in Germany, a tale charting the hunt for Leo Harting, a pre-war refugee to Britain who has worked his way up through the ranks of the post-war British army and then inveigled his way into a career in British embassy in Bonn before disappearing with forty three top secret files that could cause serious political ructions if they came to light.  Sent to find Harting and the files is Alan Turner, a security officer who is direct, rude, bloody-minded, and working class, who seems to delight in treading on the toes of the senior, upper-class embassy staff.  Le Carre uses Harting’s disappearance and Turner’s investigation to examine a whole series of themes including Britain’s role in post-war Germany, European diplomacy and hypocrisy, the workings of the British foreign services and its classed-riddled structure, German post-war politics, and the thorny relationship between truth, justice, political relations and the ‘greater good’.  The characterisation and the interactions between characters are excellent as Turner slowly forces uncomfortable truths into the open.  In terms of the telling, the tale has a somewhat ponderous start and sometimes drifted into oblique literary asides, however the overall effect is a thoughtful, layered tale, full of subtle digs and twist and turns that has a very nice denouement - it is a thriller with a small t, a battle of wits rather than a swashbuckling, action-adventure.  Overall, a superior spy tale.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

One of the best writers of our lifetime.