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Monday, January 26, 2009

The Secret Pilgrim

***½ The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré. Action/adventure.

The Secret Pilgrim is more a fictional memoir or series of anecdotes than a novel. Spy Ned is retiring, and he invites his old mentor Smiley to speak to Ned's last class of novice spies--which leads to multiple anecdotes about spy work during the Cold War.

Some of the stories are short; others are more involved. They're all interesting and full of the tradecraft details that make le Carré's novels such good reads. And in one sense, the book was a success: I did very much feel that I was there, listening to two old spies reminisce.

But that was also partly what kept me from enjoying this as much as I'd expected to. I didn't feel involved at all in the stories. No sooner would I start to get involved in the drama of an anecdote than that story would be over and I'd have to start over again with a new one. Without a connecting thread to hold my interest, it became far too easy to put the book down and go do something else. As a result, it took me over a week to read what should have taken me a day. It wasn't that I had to force myself to read it--I did enjoy it while I was reading--but there was nothing to pull me in.

The best analogy I can come up with is a clip show from a sitcom. Do they still do those? While none of the anecdotes originally appeared in other novels, it felt as though they might have. They lacked the depth of actual short stories and were more like teasers to entertain readers already familiar with the characters and settings, who could then use their imaginations to fill in the rest of the story.

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