Friday, August 7, 2015

Cloak & Dagger #13

I read this for the 2015 Cloak and Dagger Mystery Reading Challenge

John Bingham, 1908 – 1988, British spy and novelist

John Bingham, 7th Baron Clanmorris, worked with John le Carré in British intelligence. Le Carre says that Bingham objected to Le Carre’s telling tales out of MI-5 but Bingham is said to be one of the inspirations for George Smiley. Bingham, who died in 1988 at the age of 80, wrote his own espionage and police procedural novels.  His highly developed characters and plots are believable and stand up well 50 years after their creation. He examines the fallout of crime on more or less innocent bystanders. Because of his experience as an interrogator, his descriptions of police grillings make the reader shake her head in wonder; I’ve never read interrogation scenes as striking as Bingham’s.

His first novel was My Name Is Michael Sibley (1952). "I was not telling the truth when I told the Chief Detective Inspector and the Detective Sergeant that Prosset was my friend,” says the narrator Michael Sibley. “But Prosset was now dead, and it did not seem to me that any useful purpose would be served by dragging up the past, even supposing that I could have brought myself to do so...." Poor old Mike! That wasn’t your first mistake either, we readers think, as he narrates his lifetime of spinelessness and lies to himself and others. His dishonesty lands him in trouble deep when an old school frienemy is found bludgeoned to death. The theme in this novel – that a life driven by failure of nerve, hypocrisy, avarice, and despair won’t be lived without miserable penalties – reminded me of stories by Georges Simenon and Barry Unsworth. I couldn’t put it down, such was its mesmerizing entertainment.

His fourth novel, The Paton Street Case (1955), was also published as Inspector Morgan's Dilemma. With his hard-hearted Anglo-Saxon partner Shaw, the Welsh inspector uses his Celtic intuitions as he investigates the murder of a gambler with a shabby double-dealing life. Sometimes Morgan’s gut feelings are spot-on but sometimes they lead him astray. One suspect is Otto Steiner, who escaped the Nazis after a beating. The fallout of the attack however lingers. He’s scarred psychologically and in crisis acts unpredictably. After questioning another person of interest, adultery is revealed, which leads to the aggrieved spouse taking irrational actions.  James Sandoe, a critic for NY Herald Tribune Book Review,  described this novel  as "an uncommonly compelling narrative artfully wrought and compassionately conceived."

Bingham, with his ironic realism and chilly sympathy, creates a world in which people act in capricious reckless ways, responding to a volatile and dangerous environment. This is why the police in Bingham’s novels are so relentless in apprehending evil-doers and doing so resort to deceptive tactics against suspects and persons of interest: they know how slavishly perps follow their bad impulses and how vulnerable ordinary people are to the forces of greed, fear and chaos.  The take-away in Bingham’s novels is “Keep the spears sharpened.”

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