Anyone who is in any way interested in spies, spying and the world of espionage in general, has surely read at least one of John le Carré’s genre defining classics. Not the later gardening and Panama nonsense, but the unforgettable Cold War, Smiley intrigues.
Especially if you’re English, that is.
And if you are lucky enough to be English and of a certain age, then you probably already have the whole ’30’s Cambridge spy ring, the old boy network running the country from their hushed, mahogany and teak Club in The City, the Cold War and the whole East vs West thing as a big game, already with you when you read a book like this. You don’t need the spy world explained to you again from scratch. You know what a ‘dead letter-box’ is, you know what ‘tradecraft‘, ‘Moscow Centre’ and ‘C’ are. The author can, with a nod and a wink and relatively few words, have you with him and get on with other things. You understand the world he is writing about and what I can well imagine would seem a rather unbelievable, class-ridden, privileged, strange world – makes perfect sense.
(However, that could be surely be why a non-middle-aged, non-English person would get nothing from, for example, the recent (poor) ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ re-adaption. My Danish wife, for example).
But one big problem the way I see it, is like this: How much is fact and how much is John le Carré fiction become fact in our collective recollection? I can imagine that it might also be a problem for any new authors wanting to write a novel set in this world: Do you write about actual institutions, actual events and run the risk that no one believes the world you’re describing, or do you use some of le Carré’s inventions, base your fiction on fiction and have your readers assume you’re writing about the truth.
Basically what I mean is, that all novels written into this particular period of the spy genre, surely have to be compared in some way or another, with the world le Carré created. How they stand up to that comparison is, unfortunately, how we then rate them. “It’s good, but it’s not as good as le Carré.” “It’s better than le Carré.” “It’s unrealistic (doesn’t use le Carre’s world)” That kind of thing. Maybe.
Whatever your opinions or experience of le Carré and the spy genre, it’s well worth giving Charles Cummings’ Trinity Six a go. it won’t disappoint. It is set in the recent past, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but is actually all about the present day repercussions from events that took place over the eighty years up until the fall of Communism. A middle-aged, recently separated from his wife academic, a lecturer in Russian affairs and part-time writer, gets dragged into present day intrigues and puts himself unknowingly in danger by getting himself caught up in other, old spy games. We travel around in Europe (surely a little less exciting since the fall of the Berlin Wall?) and we meet a variety of nice, not so nice and not so sure if they’re nice, characters. There are young spies, middle-aged spies and un-reformed old Cambridge spies. It’s very nearly bang up-to-date, technology-wise, but with enough links back to the good old spying glory days, to satisfy those still missing decent books about the Cold War – me, for instance. It’s nicely paced and focussed, it doesn’t dash unnecessarily about all over the place, it stays believable and has some decent twists, turns and revelations. Of course, the ordinary person caught up in an extraordinary world the don’t understand, is nothing new, but the intrigue is genuine and there’s some nice moments of suspense and uncertainty.
Trinity Six is a good, enjoyable read which often feels like an Alan Furst, (obviously set today rather than between the wars). That’s absolutely ok with me. For those of us who have read le Carré’s spy books, there’s no avoiding the fact that it’s not quite be up there with the Master’s best. But if you haven’t read le Carré, you may actually be the lucky ones and so Trinity Six is an excellent entré to the mirror world of British old-school espionage.