The Quiet Gentleman – Georgette Heyer

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Gervase Frant, sixth Earl of St Erth, returns to Stanyon, his family home in Lincolnshire, a year after the death of his father & after several years as a soldier on the Continent. The unregarded son of his father’s first, unhappy, marriage, his return is disconcerting for his stepmother, the Dowager Countess, & especially for her son, Martin. Martin has been the spoiled darling of both his parents, treated almost as the heir, & the reappearance of his half-brother is a source of jealousy. The estate has been stewarded by a cousin, Theo Frant, a steady hand who has kept in touch with Gervase. Miss Drusilla Morville, the daughter of a local gentry family, is visiting Stanyon as the guest of the Dowager while her parents are on their travels.

Gervase’s quiet good manners soon recommend him to the Dowager & the rest of the household. All except Martin, whose resentment is plain. When Gervase rescues the beautiful young heiress, Marianne Bolderwood, after she is thrown from her horse, Martin’s jealousy is aroused. Marianne’s easy, flirtatious manners have led Martin to believe that she returns his love although she is too innocent to realise it. When Gervase’s friend Lord Ulverston arrives, the attraction between him & Marianne is obvious to everyone but Martin. He tries to force his attentions on Marianne at a ball at Stanyon by proposing to her & then tries to force Ulverston to fight a duel.

More seriously, Gervase is the victim of several “accidents” which could be something more sinister. Martin forgets to warn his brother of a rickety bridge & a rope pulled deliberately across the road trips his horse. When Gervase is shot while out driving, & Martin disappears, everything seems to be pointing in the direction of a jealous young man with murderous intent. But is this really the answer? Gervase is determined to avoid scandal but can he believe that Martin was not involved?

I love Georgette Heyer. Of course, there’s also romance as well as intrigue in this sparkling story. Drusilla Morville is a quiet, elegant young woman from an intellectual family who has an easy, companionable friendship with the whole family. She’s on the spot when Gervase is thrown from his horse & takes on the burden of nursing him after he’s shot. Her impeccable manners & competence impress Gervase but Drusilla will not allow herself to think of anything but friendship with a rich nobleman, her parents’ landlord to boot, who will surely marry an heiress. Gervase’s initial impression of Drusilla on his first evening at home,

” And who, pray, is that little squab of a female? Was she invited for my entertainment?Don’t tell me she is an heiress! I could not – no, I really could not be expected to pay my addresses to anyone with so little countenance or conversation!”

‘Drusilla! No, no, nothing of that sort!” smiled Theo. “I fancy my aunt thinks she would make a very suitable wife for me!”

“My poor Theo!”

soon changes as they become acquainted & he realises that she has plenty of humour & conversation as well as quiet good sense. She even discusses Mary Wollstonecraft’s life & work with Gervase quite matter of factly which I loved. Drusilla is one of Heyer’s older heroines & much more interesting to me than flighty Marianne Bolderwood with her beauty & her train of suitors. I also adored the Dowager Countess with her Lady Catherine-like pronouncements & her complete self-absorption. The mystery of the attacks on Gervase is absorbing, I loved the descriptions of the estate, the house & the countryside & altogether, this is now one of my favourite Heyer novels. My enjoyment was enhanced by listening to the audio book read by Cornelius Garrett, one of my favourite narrators. I like to listen to an audio book for 15 mins or so before I go to sleep but some nights I was desperately trying to stay awake for just a few minutes more to find out what would happen. I’ve listened to several Heyers on audio & enjoyed them all. I still have Frederica, read by Clifford Norgate in my Audible library but the next one I want to read is Venetia as I want to listen to the Backlisted podcast which you can listen to here or wherever you get your podcasts.

It was a real treat to read The Quiet Gentleman for the 1951 Club. Thanks Simon & Karen for the opportunity to read a book that had been in the tbl (to be listened) list for too long.

 

One, Two, Buckle my Shoe – Agatha Christie

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Hercule Poirot visits his dentist, Mr Morley, reluctantly. It’s just a check up but he’s apprehensive. The visit goes smoothly, nothing out of the ordinary happens except that as Poirot is leaving, he sees a middle-aged woman arrive at the surgery. As she steps from her taxi, she catches her shoe & the buckle is torn off. Poirot politely picks up the buckle & hands it to her. He is amazed to hear from Chief Inspector Japp that, just hours after Poirot’s visit, Mr Morley has been found shot dead & it appears to be suicide.

Poirot is suspicious. Mr Morley seemed perfectly normal & untroubled & there seems no motive for suicide until one of his patients, Mr Amberiotis, dies suddenly of an overdose of the anaesthetic drug administered by Mr Morley. Was it remorse at making such a terrible mistake that led to the dentist committing suicide? Then, another patient, Miss Sainsbury Seale (she of the buckled shoes), disappears after a visit from Poirot & Japp. Poirot’s investigations will involve everyone who was in Mr Morley’s house that day – Alfred, the page boy who can’t remember anyone’s name correctly; his assistant, Gladys Nevill, who should have been at work that day but was mysteriously called away to visit a sick aunt who is perfectly healthy; Gladys’s unsatisfactory young man, Frank Carter; Howard Raikes, a young American who left the surgery waiting room without keeping his appointment; Mr Morley’s partner, the alcoholic Irishman Reilly; Mr Morley’s sister, Georgina, & her maid, Agnes, in the flat above the surgery; financier Alistair Blunt (whose niece, Jane, is in love with Raikes) & the mysterious Mr Barnes who hints to Poirot about espionage. What could connect this disparate group of people & why was Mr Morley murdered?

This is a classic Christie plot with red herrings galore & some quite subtle misdirection. I had always thought of Christie as quite a bloodless writer (in the sense of not dwelling on the physical details of her corpses) but there’s a very gruesome scene where a decomposing body is found that was startling. There’s also humour in the reaction of people to Poirot & the way he takes advantage of their rudeness or dismissal of him as a “bloody foreigner”.

I haven’t read any Agatha Christie for years. I read all her novels when I was a teenager – like many people, her books were my introduction to detective fiction. There have been a couple of recent blog posts about audio books (on Christine Poulson’s blog & here at Bridget’s blog A New Look Through Old Eyes) the comments have been full of great recommendations. Christine mentioned Hugh Fraser’s narration of the Poirot audio books &, as I always enjoyed his portrayal of Captain Hastings in the David Suchet series, I thought I’d try a Christie again after many years.

I loved it. It was the perfect bedtime audio book & I thought Hugh Fraser did a great job. I especially liked his Inspector Japp, he did an excellent imitation of Philip Jackson who played Japp in the series. His Poirot was very subtle, the accent not too overpowering. I’ve put some more Christies into my Audible wishlist. I know that her golden period is considered to be the 1930s-1950s & I’ve avoided any where I can remember the solutions. I’ve chosen After the Funeral, The Hollow, Taken at the Flood, Dumb Witness, The ABC Murders  & Hickory Dickory Dock. Any other classic Christies I should try? I’ve just checked my Poirot DVDs & I have the Suchet version of One, Two, Buckle my Shoe so I may have to have a look & see if they made any major changes to the plot. Lovely way to spend the afternoon. By the way, does anyone have a favourite narrator for the Miss Marple books? I see that most of them are read by Joan Hickson or Stephanie Cole, both of whom I imagine would be perfect. I’ve just listened to Stephanie Cole reading the sample of Sleeping Murder & she has Gwenda’s New Zealand accent just right so that’s a good sign. Then, there’s The Moving Finger read by Richard E Grant, another favourite voice.

Literary Ramblings

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I have a complaint but I’m not sure where to direct it – the gods of the weather maybe. March has begun – where is autumn? We’re in the middle of a predicted fortnight of very warm humid weather with no rain in sight. Summer was better than expected – no extreme hot days or heatwaves, quite a bit of rain – but it should be over now! There, rant over. Unfortunately my hopeful autumn poem on Sunday has had no effect. Maybe the weather is the reason for my blogging slump. Again, instead of a considered review, I’m just going to share a couple of mini reviews & a progress report. At least Phoebe has the right idea. Maybe she’s trying to encourage me to choose one of my unread Slightly Foxed editions next? The new issue of Slightly Foxed dropped into my letter box on Friday &, as always, I’m looking forward to reading it.

I’d also just like to mention two bloggers that have recently returned to the blogosphere after a break. I’d only just discovered The Quince Tree when Sue decided to focus more on Instagram. However, she’s returned to the blog recently with posts on nut butter, marmalade & Sue Gee (posts on food & books predominate as you can see). I especially like Sue’s reading lists on Spring or just a collection of middlebrow favourites. Penny at Scottish Vegan Homemaker blogs infrequently but it’s always lovely to catch up with what she’s been reading, cooking & doing. Since her last blog post Penny has graduated with a BA (Hons) in Humanities, said goodbye to a dear pet, become an enthusiastic convert to bullet journaling, celebrated a major birthday & been reading Jan Struther.

richardsonclarissaI mentioned here that I’m reading Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. It’s an epistolary novel & I’m reading it on the dates the letters were written in the novel. The days also match up which is fun. 100 pages in & Clarissa is under immense pressure from her family to marry the odious Mr Solmes. Even her fond & sympathetic mother has been bullied into submission by her husband & son. Clarissa’s long letters to her friend, Anna Howe, record every twist & turn of the measures taken by the family to push her into this marriage. It highlights just how powerless a woman could be, even a woman like Clarissa who has inherited property from her grandfather. As ever, when reading epistolary novels, I wonder where the characters find the time to write in such detail but that’s the fun of suspending disbelief & pretending that I’m receiving these letters in the post or, as here, by the machinations of servants leaving them in a hen house to be collected by another servant.

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I wanted to read some of Frederick Forsyth’s fiction after listening to his memoir, The Outsider. I chose The Odessa File, read by David Rintoul. This was Forsyth’s second novel & is a terrific thriller. Set in Germany in 1963 (it begins on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination), journalist Peter Miller attends a routine scene, the suicide of an elderly man. A police officer on the case gives Miller a diary found with the man’s possessions. Solomon Tauber was Jewish & had kept notes during his time as a prisoner in Riga during WWII which he later wrote up as a detailed diary. Miller is shocked by the diary as young Germans of his age have been told very little about the war & the crimes committed against the Jews. Reading the diary sets him off on a mission to track down Eduard Roschmann, the SS Commandant of the prison at Riga.

Miller’s search leads him to a Jewish group dedicated to tracking down the former SS officers still alive, many of them living in Germany with new identities. Miller masquerades as a former SS soldier who fears exposure to get close to Roschmann &, as he tracks down his quarry, becomes the object of interest to the men known as the Odessa, ex-SS men who help their former comrades escape justice. There are some incredibly tense scenes as Miller approaches the end of his quest & I loved the archival research he does & the steps of his investigation which take him from Germany to Switzerland & England. The pace slowed a bit in the scenes where Miller is trained in his ex-SS soldier disguise & sometimes Forsyth’s research is a bit too obvious & intrusive but overall, I enjoyed it very much &, as always, David Rintoul’s narration was excellent. I’m now back in the 4th century with Volume III of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire read by David Timson.

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The 16th century was the great age of powerful women in Europe. A monstrous regiment of women according to John Knox but a diverse group of women wielding power as Regents, Queen Consorts or Queen Regnants from Spain to Scotland, France to England & the Netherlands. Sarah Gristwood’s group portrait begins with Isabella of Castille in the 1470s & ends of Elizabeth I’s death in 1603. A book like this can be incredibly confusing with so many protagonists, many with the same or similar names (several Marys, Annes, Catherines, Margarets & a Marguerite). Gristwood does a good job of keeping the stories separate while showing the connections between the women. Many of them were related or acted as mentors for younger women. I found the stories of the less familiar women the most fascinating. I’ve read many books about the Tudors & Mary, Queen of Scots but I was interested to learn more about the women who were Regents of the Netherlands through the 16th century. The Hapsburg princess Margaret of Austria was married & widowed three times by her mid twenties. She became Regent of the Spanish Netherlands for her nephew, Charles V, & continued in the role as Charles’s focus on Spain led his ambitions in other directions. Margaret raised her niece, Mary of Hungary, who eventually succeeded her as Regent.Mary then raised her niece, Margaret of Parma, who became Regent in her turn for her half-brother, Philip II, in the 1550s. Although all three women ruled in the name of a male monarch, in reality they held sway over the territory with minimal interference from Spain.

Louise of Savoy rose from obscurity to exercise power through her son who became Francois I of France after successive kings died without heirs. She had a significant influence over his early reign & her example influenced her granddaughter, Jeanne d’Albret, who inherited her father’s kingdom of Navarre, strategically positioned between Spain & France. Jeanne was attracted to the Protestant religion & would become one of the leaders of the French Huguenots in the bitter religious wars of the later 16th century which culminated in the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day in 1572. The massacre took place on the occasion of the marriage of Jeanne’s son, Henri of Navarre to Margot, daughter of Catherine de Medici, the powerful Queen Mother of France.

I always enjoy Gristwood’s books. In her previous book, Blood Sisters, about the women of the Wars of the Roses, she used the metaphor of Fortune’s Wheel to describe the arc of the story. In Game of Queens, apart from the nod to Game of Thrones, chess & especially the role of the Queen in that game, is the dominant metaphor. The role of the queen in chess was changing during this period, giving the piece the power to move anywhere on the board & Gristwood sees this as a useful way to track the change from a period in which women exercised power on behalf of or in concert with a male ruler to the later 16th century when several women ruled in their own right. It was the last time when women rulers, particularly in England, could really be said to rule as well as reign. Later English queens like the Stuarts Mary II & Anne were increasingly constrained by Parliament as constitutional monarchy became the norm.

 

Literary Ramblings

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Here are just a few bits & pieces that I want to share – a quick review, some publishing news (more Furrowed Middlebrow – hooray!), a blog post that had me reaching for the tissues with tears of laughter & some new bookcases with obligatory cat picture. Phoebe is not defying gravity here, she’s decided that my new bookshelf is her new favourite spot for sleeping & just generally looking out over her world. I don’t know why photos I take on my phone refuse to be rotated even when they look fine in my editing software. Anyway, you’ll just have to look sideways at this one.

shelfThe new shelves were a gift from some friends who are downsizing. I’ve used them to shelve my unread Slightly Foxed & Folio Society editions. Apart from looking lovely, this has also freed up some room on the tbr shelves in the study. Not that I’m buying books. I’ve bought only a few books since October & have no desire to buy at the moment. This is what happens. I stop buying & then, gradually, the desire to buy just fades away… I only have two preordered books  – Isabella of Castile by Giles Tremlett (due in a couple of weeks)  & Richard III by Chris Skidmore (which I ordered in August 2014 & is now due in September although I’m not holding my breath).

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I also now have all my DVDs in one place & in alphabetical order. I haven’t separated the watched & unwatched, they’re just one sequence. These shelves were the exact size I was looking for, as you can see. They fit perfectly in the space beside the window.

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I’ve just finished listening to a wonderful audio book, The Outsider, Frederick Forsyth’s memoir. I haven’t read any of his novels (although I’m now keen to read or listen to The Day of the Jackal & The Odessa File)but I was intrigued to listen to this after John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. It sounds a silly thing to say about an author who has sold millions of copies of his books over the last 45 years but he’s such a great storyteller. I loved hearing about his wartime evacuation as a baby to a Norland training school where the nannies practiced on him, learning French & German on holidays where he immersed himself in the languages by staying with local families, his experiences as the youngest pilot in the RAF, the years in East Berlin & Africa as a journalist & the experience of writing his early novels & seeing Jackal made into a film. Beautifully read by Robert Powell, one of my favourite narrators.

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Darlene at Cosy Books has reviewed one of the latest Persephones, Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood. If this review doesn’t make you long to get hold of this book, I don’t know what will. It’s very close to the top of my tbr pile.

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Speaking of Persephone, another book has leapt from the tbr shelves to the reading table after reading the latest Persephone Letter. As well as short stories & wartime letters from London, Mollie Panter-Downes also wrote this account of Ooty, one of the Indian hill stations where the English of the Raj spent the summer months. I picked this up second hand years ago in a previous fit of Panter-Downes enthusiasm. I wonder if Persephone are planning a reprint?

The most exciting publishing news I’ve heard in a while has been Scott’s announcement of the next titles in his Furrowed Middlebrow imprint (in conjunction with Dean Street Press). I’m especially excited by the Elizabeth Fair titles which sound perfect for fans of D E Stevenson, Angela Thirkell or E M Delafield. Also The Lark by E Nesbit which was enthusiastically reviewed by Simon here. They’re being published in March so I can feel a fit of preordering coming on when the books are listed at the Book Depository.

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Finally, I’ve also started another long book. A group of readers (see the post here at I’ve Been Reading Lately) are going to read Clarissa by Samuel Richardson on the dates that the letters in the book were written (it’s an epistolary novel). It’s not too late to join in. The book begins on January 10th & there’s a flurry of letters until January 20th then nothing until February 20th.

Dickens in December

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For me, December means Dickens. This year I have a treat, a new Naxos recording of Dickens’ Christmas stories.These are the stories Dickens published in the 1840s. The first of them was the perennially popular A Christmas Carol.

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I’ll be listening to Miriam Margolyes reading the Carol as I have for the last few years. This new recording is of the other four stories – The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life & The Haunted Man. Even better, they’re read by David Timson, one of my favourite narrators. I listened to his recording of Dombey & Son last year & it was wonderful. He’s also recorded the complete Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon which I’m nearly halfway through. I haven’t read these later Christmas Stories as often as A Christmas Carol – I can recite whole passages from the Carol – but these later stories have never been as popular. The Carol was a hard act to follow. However, I’m finding a lot to admire & enjoy in them. I think listening is the perfect way to experience them.

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I’ve also been catching up on back issues of The Dickensian, watching Ronald Colman (photo from here) in the 1935 movie of A Tale of Two Cities (which made me want to reread the book immediately) & reading this terrific interview with Jenny Hartley where she chooses her top 5 books on Dickens.

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Apart from Dickens, I’m also reading this anthology of Christmas stories. A mixture of old favourites & new discoveries. So far I’ve enjoyed rereading The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L Sayers & discovering a very Golden Age story by Val McDermid called A Traditional Christmas. There are also stories by Ian Rankin, Ellis Peters, Ngaio Marsh & Margery Allingham. I bought the Kindle edition for only about $3 but it’s also available in paperback.

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I’ve also been tempted by bloggers to buy a couple of Christmassy books, the first books I’ve bought for nearly two months. Elaine’s review of Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days was so enticing that I ordered it straightaway.

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I was also intrigued by Heavenali’s mention of this anthology of Christmas Stories published by Everyman. I love these chunky little hardback anthologies of short stories. There are several more here that I’m tempted by.

I’ll just finish this ramble with a link to a blog I’ve just discovered. Emily Rhodes works at Daunt Books, organises their very popular Walking Book Club & is a freelance reviewer. She also blogs at EmilyBooks. I’ve been enjoying reading her archive as she is a fan of Persephone Books, Slightly Foxed, Ann Bridge, Penelope Fitzgerald & Elizabeth Von Arnim.

I was going to finish this ramble but Lynne at dovegreyreader has written about the centenary of Penelope Fitzgerald’s birth here & I like her idea of a Persephone January. There, that really is the end.

The Pigeon Tunnel – John le Carré

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Earlier this year I listened to Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré & enjoyed it very much. Not long after the biography was published, it was announced that le Carré was planning to write a memoir. Whether it was the process of being interviewed for the biography that spurred him on or whether he felt that he wanted to dispute Sisman’s version of his life is unclear. The result is The Pigeon Tunnel : stories from my life.

The subtitle is significant as this isn’t an autobiography. David Cornwell (le Carré’s real name) ranges across his life, telling stories, not always in chronological order. Cornwell’s novels of espionage are probably his most famous but he continued writing after the fall of the Berlin Wall when many critics thought that he would be lost for subject matter in this brave new post-Cold War world. He has proved them wrong by tackling other subjects – corrupt pharmaceutical companies in Africa, arms dealers, post-Glasnost Russia – &, of course, there are still spies even if the enemy is now terrorism rather than the Soviet Union.

38 chapters cover Cornwell’s travels in search of material for his fiction – to the Middle East, famously meeting Yasser Arafat, to Russia, Africa, Panama & Asia. His novels have been made into successful movies & TV series & he describes the process of film making with Martin Ritt & Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) & Alec Guinness (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Almost as interesting are the chapters about the projects that never got off the ground, with Stanley Kubrick & Sidney Pollack, among others. He is self-effacing about the dangers involved in his travels, always generously acknowledging the journalists & locals who took him into dangerous places or to meet significant people. One chapter describes lunch with Margaret Thatcher after he’s refused an honour; another describes the experience of cavalierly accepting an invitation to appear on Apostrophes, Bernard Pivot’s demandingly intellectual interview program. There would be a panel of formidable critics to conduct the interview which would be live on television & take place entirely in French, a language Cornwell hadn’t spoken in many years. He amusingly describes the immersion course in French he took in London before the interview as well as the interview itself which he seems to have come through creditably. Leaving the studio he asks his driver why there’s no one on the street & is told that everyone in Paris stays home to watch Apostrophes.

The extent of Cornwell’s involvement with the British Secret Service has excited more interest than almost anything else in his long career. He has always refused to elaborate on his time as a spy, citing his loyalty to his former colleagues & the fact that he signed the Official Secrets Act which prevents him discussing it. Adam Sisman dug out a little new information but this book maintains Cornwell’s reticence. He must have used his knowledge of the Service to write his books & some within its ranks have felt betrayed by that but he maintains that he has never broken a confidence. One of the most fascinating chapters was his account of a conversation with Nicholas Elliott, a member of the Service & a close friend of Kim Philby. Elliott, like so many others, was betrayed by Philby & devastated when he defected. Cornwell knew both men & gives a sympathetic portrayal of Elliott as he describes his interrogation of Philby in Beirut just before he left for Moscow. Cornwell acknowledges Ben Macintyre’s book on the subject, A Spy Among Friends, & I’ve downloaded the audio book as this chapter was so interesting that I want to know more.

Perhaps the most personal chapter comes near the end of the book, Son of the Author’s Father. Cornwell’s father, Ronnie, was a con man, a charming rogue who spent his life coming up with grandiose schemes to enrich himself regardless of the consequences to others. Cornwell wrote a version of Ronnie’s story in his novel, A Perfect Spy, but he has obviously struggled with the legacy of being the son of a crook who served several prison sentences in the UK & Asia, was bankrupted several times & seemingly had no conscience about the damage he left in his wake. Cornwell’s mother, Olive, abandoned her husband & two sons when David was only five. He didn’t see her again for many years & had a distant relationship with her in his adult life. Ronnie was almost a constant presence – failing to pay his school fees, employing David to collect debts in Paris, using his connection as the father of the famous John le Carré to sponge off David’s publishers, being bailed out by David from an Asian prison, ironically threatening to sue David for the cost of his education etc etc. The anger that David still feels towards both his parents is obvious. He even spent a considerable amount of money on investigators to try & disentangle Ronnie’s lies – without much success. It seems he will never discover the truth about many of the questions that plague him about his mother’s disappearance or his father’s psychology. This section of the memoir is no less fascinating for being inconclusive.

I wasn’t sure that I wanted or needed to read The Pigeon Tunnel after reading Sisman’s exhaustive biography. I’m so glad I did, especially as I listened to the audio book read by Cornwell himself. I knew most of the stories from reading the biography. I knew the origin of the title, The Pigeon Tunnel, which had been the working title for many le Carré novels over the years. I’d read Sisman’s version of the meetings with Arafat, Joseph Brodsky & Andrei Sakharov but it was a different experience hearing the stories from Cornwell himself. Naturally more intimate but Cornwell came across as funnier, more self-deprecating, less earnest than he seemed in the biography. I’m glad I’ve read Sisman’s biography which filled in a lot of the background that isn’t detailed in this book. However, I don’t suppose many readers of The Pigeon Tunnel will be totally unaware of Cornwell’s life – there have been enough profiles & interviews over the years. As a collection of stories, some quite slight but many much more searching, this is an excellent insight into the complicated life of a secretive man.