Last week, I was floundering. I had just finished rereading The Hobbit, which is such a magnificent, sweet, fun adventure tale that it needed something comparable to ease me back to down to the mortal world of books that are still entertaining, even if they don’t shatter your world and rebuild it anew. It didn’t help that the new trailer for the Hobbit movie hit the day before I finished reading the book. After that, how can you go back to reading anything less epic?
Eventually, I settled on Our Kind of Traitor, by John Le Carre. My first impulse is to say it’s like Tolkien for adults, but that’s not true, as the two authors have next to nothing in common, other than that they are both British and both amazing authors.
John Le Carre doesn’t write fantasy, he writes gritty, spy stories of the stale beer variety. No gadgets and snappy one liners. No fancy tuxedos or alluring but dangerous women who end up int he heroes bed anyway. Nothing is shaken instead of stirred. These are thrillers with a minimalist tone, a real politik eye, and a sense of beautifully tragic nobility. And they are amazing.
Le Carre’s prose is diamond sharp. He somehow manages to be evocative and imbue color and character with just a simple turn of phrase or prosaic description. I don’t know how he does it. There’s not a single extra word anywhere, and yet he evokes an entire world in the way a character enters the room, or plays a tennis match. It’s brilliant, and as a writer, gives me something to aspire to.
And his plots are fantastic little clockworks that effortlessly fall into place, making perfect sense, even as scenes move back and forth in time and place and montage together like a prose film playing in your mind.
The thing is, I’ve now read a selection of Le Carre from across his oeuvre, spanning 20 books and 45 years. And the prose is as clear and precise in Our Kind of Traitor, which came out in 2010, as it is in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1966). That sort of consistant craft is soemthing for any author to aspire to.