This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor

FICTION

Breathe 

Dominick Donald (Hodder and Staughton: £8.99; e-book £4.99)

Dominick Donald’s impressive, remarkably confident debut Breathe takes us back to the early 50s, and to a fully-imagined post-war London – the bomb sites, the poverty, the rationing, the cold – in which probationer cop Dick Bourton, a veteran of the Korean War, is convinced that a serial killer is stalking the Great Smog of December 1952, which itself killed thousands of people. Fiction is skilfully interwoven with fact, as Bourton’s pursuit of his target crosses with the real-life story of Reg Christie, the infamous Rillington Place murderer. Meantime, he awaits – with a mixture of excitement and trepidation – the arrival of his mysterious foreign fiancée Anna, a woman he barely knows, who has multiple secrets of her own. 

Breathe is astutely plotted, with a rich cast of characters, in particular the stolid but perceptive Bourton. Where it really scores, though, is in its compelling and entirely successful evocation of dank, seedy, early-50s London: at one point, having been reading it on the train, I was somewhat startled to emerge into daylight, rather than a pea-souper. I enjoyed it immensely, and I’m keen to see what Donald comes up with next.

Jeeves and the King of Clubs 

Ben Schott (Arrow: £8.99; e-book: £7.99)

While considering how to start this review, I fell to discussing the book with my wife. Astonishingly, I heard myself saying that it got a bit silly. Well, of course it did, fool! It’s a Jeeves and Wooster book, another in the increasingly long line of homages to P G (“Plum”) Wodehouse, authorised by his estate. This is by Ben Schott, better known for Schott’s Miscellany and Schott’s Almanacs. I hadn’t previously encountered him as a novelist, but he makes more than a decent fist of recreating the madcap world of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and his cast of cheerful chums.

Some are familiar. Madeline Bassett, for example, who steadfastly believes that four leaf clovers are leprechauns’ parasols and that rainbows are sky bridges for unicorns, or Florence Craye, who has a profile that certainly propelled, if not a thousand ships, then a punt or two down the Cherwell, but has a mind like a steel trap. Other are new. 

I was going to write that they all seem realistic. What I meant was that, with disbelief successfully suspended, they fit in to Wooster world. We are introduced to Montague Matthews, pining for the love of Florence Craye, and holding down three jobs, as bottle washer, sandwich board wearer and faux Cockney maître d’ at a club of dubious virtue. Our first meeting with him is at a riotous dinner at the Athenaeum Club (the Drones being closed for its annual wash and brush-up). He sidles up to Bertie bearing two glasses of Madeira.

“I’d seen this ovine look before and steeled myself to take the hardest of lines. Moolah or matrimony, Monty?” 

From there Bertie slips into the world of theatrical angels, assists Aunt Dahlia in her scheme to overthrow Lea & Perrins as doyenne of Worcester sauce, and helps thwart attempts by dastardly Sir Gilbert Skinner to lay hands on Uncle Tom’s prized silver tantalus. So far, so standard: but there’s more.

Lord McAuslan and his niece Iona, tall, dark and constructed along the aerodynamic lines of a sports car, enlist the help of Bertie, Jeeves and the Junior Ganymede Club in a matter of national security. All of these things happen in the space of a week or so. With such a straightforward plot, there really is nothing left to say. I did feel that Mr Schott endowed his Bertie with a few more little grey cells than normal, but that’s the most minor of quibbles. If you love Wodehouse, you’ll love this book. Bravo, and toodle pip, Ben Schott. 

Agent Running in the Field 

John Le Carré (Viking: £20; e-book: £9.99)

Fifty six years have passed since John Le Carré became a worldwide success following the publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He is now 88. All those early books written under the cloud of the Cold War and in the shadow of the Berlin Wall seem like period pieces now, historical texts even. Like all good artists, Le Carré moved on. Dodgy business became his backdrop in books such as The Night Manager. Dodgy lawyers didn’t avoid his sights either, such as the eponymous money launderer in Single & Single. His range was far and wide, and never less than meticulously researched. It is probably fair to say, however, that many continued to hanker after the old tales of the intelligence services, with The Circus pitted against Moscow Centre, Smiley v Karla.

In this novel, Le Carré has managed a remarkable fusion, uniting all of his strands. Nat is something of a veteran. Twenty five years a member of the Secret Intelligence Service, better known to most of us as MI6, he anticipates being put out to grass at the age of 47. Much of his free time is occupied with physical fitness – still undisputed champion of his badminton club. Life changes forever when Ed, a stranger, appears in the sports club to challenge the prince in his own lair. Ed’s opposition to Brexit, those who support it, and Donald Trump, verges on the fanatical. Bar chat, of course, to which Nat listens with good humoured professional detachment. He himself has been spared redundancy, moving to a shadowy and inconsequential part of the Service, known as The Haven. No one expects much, but that wouldn’t have made for much of a novel.

So, in passages which take you back to the Smiley days, there are clandestine trips to the Czech Republic; secret meetings with old contacts; encounters with old adversaries. There is dodgy business aplenty, some in oligarchs’ multi-million pound apartments, some, allegedly, much nearer home. Is the country turning a blind eye to money laundering on a massive scale? Is the Government wilfully blind to international corruption happening here? In Le Carré’s eyes an administration which can take us out of Europe and cosy up to the USA is capable of all that and more.

There is the nervous tension of a live intelligence operation – to say more would be a spoiler – and, of course, an ending of moral ambivalence. As ever, the writing is spare and exquisite. This is the most enjoyable Le Carré novel in years. Reaching your peak at 88? Here is inspiration for us all.

The Art of Dying 

Ambrose Parry (Canongate: £14.99; e-book £9.59)

This is the second offering by Christopher Brookmyer and his wife Dr Marisa Haetzman, under the pseudonym Ambrose Parry. A fine and engrossing offering it is too. Opening in Berlin, we catch glimpses of some of the unique development in medicine taking place at the Charité hospital. However, Dr Will Raven kills a man. On returning to Edinburgh we see Raven as he investigates a series of unexplained and unexpected deaths; we observe the concerns raised about the potency and medicinal use of chloroform; and finally, watch Dr James Young Simpson, for whom Raven is a protégé, heal the sick as he faces scandalous rumours that he caused the death of a physician's wife. All of this is set against a background where Raven's association with the dark underbelly of Edinburgh moneylenders and thugs resurfaces. This is a well plotted and beautifully written book. It is written as if in Victorian times, but is not a pastiche: it reads with authenticity. The predecessor The Way of All Flesh is on my Christmas wish list! One to savour.

 

HISTORY

Checkpoint Charlie 

Iain MacGregor (Constable: £20; e-book £10.99)

This year sees the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, when on 8 November 1989, Günther Schabowski, in the confusion of an otherwise routine and dull press conference fluffed his lines and inadvertently created the flood of citizens to the border who anticipated it being open. The plan had been to ease travel restrictions on citizens of the DDR against the backdrop of the Hungarian authorities opening their border with Austria. The best known border crossing is Checkpoint Charlie, situated at the junction of Zimmerstraße and Friedrichstraße: East Berlin (or the Hauptstadt as it was known in the East) on the north side and the American sector of West Berlin to the south. The wall was built to keep the people of East Germany in, despite being portrayed as the anti-fascist defence wall. 

Iain MacGregor, in this highly readable book, tells us in more detail the life led by those on both sides of the wall. The bibliography is extensive and wide ranging. What does this book add to the already extensive reporting on Berlin in the period 1961-1989? It offers much. MacGregor has spoken with a large number of people, including former East German Stasi collaborators, the former head of the UK military government in Berlin, and newspaper reporters on both sides of the wall. 

We know that the Stasi were omnipresent, but here we learn the first hand experience of those who found themselves compromised and required to choose between informing on friends, family and colleagues, or prison. We also observe the military government's interaction (with the exception of the Russian authorities) as the demonstrations, begun in Leipzig, turned into a state wide movement ultimately leading to the fateful press conference: the concern that all it would take for a bloodbath would be for a young, nervous East German border guard to fire his weapon (and don't forget Tiananmen had only occurred the previous summer). 

Reaching further back, we hear the first hand account of one young British officer, who in accompanying a convoy through East Germany found himself toe to toe with armed East German military and fearful that his next step might lead to World War 3. MacGregor narrates on original recollection the standoff of numerous Russian and Allied tanks at Checkpoint Charlie, when the Russian authorities declined access by the US Ambassador to East Berlin, as was his right. There is finally an insight into the tolerance given by both sides of the Iron Curtain, in respecting the free access each had to the other's territory for military observance and intelligence gathering, although with tragic consequences when one Allied officer was killed when he was found too close to an known restricted base. The role of Russia in East Germany is also illuminated, demonstrated by Allied soldiers refusing to cooperate with Russian soldiers as the four power agreement provided only for an East German military presence. Outstanding.

 

TRAVEL

Lotharingia: A Personal History of Europe's Lost Country 

Simon Winder (Picador: £20; e-book £9.99)

This is the third offering from Simon Winder's personal history series. In the first, Germania, he led us on a fascinating exploration of Germany. His second, Danubia, saw the history of the vast Habsburg Empire. In this book, he takes us back to Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire and that narrow tract of land which was divided and subdivided and which now forms parts of the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and northern Germany. In his witty, self deprecating style, he again leads us through a fascinating period of history, stopping en route at many a cathedral/museum: Aachen Cathedral is as stunning as described by Winder and holds the throne of Charlemagne. He also takes in Hildegard of Bingen, Speyer (that other great cathedral), Ghent, and Van Eyck's “Adoration of the Lamb”. There are endless diversions, stops and byways explored: a true cornucopia of cities to be visited and treasures to be seen. As with his other books, one finds oneself wanting more and to experience the clear joy these places have brought Winder. History and travel guide in one.

 

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