Over the next few weeks, I plan to send along a selection of classic mystery and history pairings for your reading, listening and watching enjoyment. This week’s adventure will take us to the Cold War era.
The Cold War is commonly considered to have started in 1947 with the creation of the Truman Doctrine, a policy implemented by the United States to contain Soviet expansion following World War II. The Cold War ended officially in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR, but began to thaw in 1989 with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. (Most people from that era will never forget Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!) It was during the time of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 that an adviser to Harry Truman coined the term “Cold War” to reflect the increasing cooling off in relations between the two former allies.
In the forty plus years of the Cold War, America and the USSR built up their nuclear arsenals and fought for both ideological and geo-political dominance throughout the world. As distrust between the two nations and their allies grew exponentially, the arts of spycraft and espionage networks were perfected.
Despite all of the real awfulness and implications of this conflict throughout the world, there is a fictionalized glamour that is full of clandestine connections in exotic cities between complex networks of agents and double agents on impossible missions. It is this fictionalized version of the Cold War that is great fodder for the most compelling mysteries.
Cold War Mysteries:
John le Carrè (David John Moore Cornwell) crafted the quintessential agent of the Cold War era, George Smiley. Why Le Carrè did this so much better than anyone else is perhaps because he knew the life of “the Circus” better than anyone from ten years spent in the British Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Combining with Le Carrè’s insider's knowledge of the tradecraft of international espionage is his own natural inclination for storytelling. Le Carrè credits growing up as the son of a professional confidence man as providing him with chops necessary to be the type of natural storyteller that can make fiction feel even more substantial than fact. Le Carrè’s fictionalized language of “the Circus” demonstrates the iconic status of his novels. For without these novels the world would not have “moles, ferrets and pavement artists.”
It is through George Smiley that I was introduced to this genre of fiction. I fell in love with the shabby, academic, quiet genius of George and his world of dissembled dialog and romanticized dysfunction. There are nine novels in the Smiley series that have been adapted into 4 films, 3 BBC television series and several BBC radio series. The 2011 film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley is one of my all-time favorite films. I have watched it at least three times, finding new details each time that I had previously missed. The film is available to stream on Amazon Prime. The film’s great soundtrack is available on Hoopla (I love Julio Iglesias’ version of the classic French chanson, La Mer, which closes out the film). Unfortunately, none of the Smiley novels are available on Hoopla. All are available on Libby/Overdrive.
The audiobook Overdrive/Libby link that I have included below is for a BBC production that includes a full cast of narrators, starring the award-winning Simon Russell Beale as Smiley. Fortunately, Overdrive/Libby has several editions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, making it an easier checkout for all.
For insight into the making of le Carrè as an author, I recommend checking out A Son’s Criminal Pursuit, a piece le Carrè wrote for the New Yorker in 2002 about his relationship with his father.
I also recommend reading le Carrè’s biographic essays The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, which are avaliable on Overdrive/Libby in audiobook and ebook. The audiobook is narrated by le Carrè.
Graham Greene was a British author who studied history at Oxford. Greene, like le Carrè, spent some time employed by MI6, and actually was surpervised by the famous British double agent Kim Philby. Best-selling author Robert Littell wrote the historical fiction novel Young Philby, based on Philby’s life, which I have added to the links below. Greene travelled extensively throughout the world and in the 1950’s, he found himself intrigued by Havana. His time in Cuba inspired him to write Our Man in Havana, a satirical Cold War spy novel that features a second-rate agent who is recruited by the British Secret Service to report on covert activities. Although the novel is satirical, it surprisingly foretold the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The story behind the novel Our Man in Havana is equally intriuging. The time Graham Greene spent in 1950’s Cuba was full of unbelievable adventures. Greene met and befriended Fidel Castro, whom he admired during this time and even played a small role in supporting Castro’s guerillas. Christopher Hull’s biographical narrative Our Man Down in Cuba is the perfect intersection of a pivotal time in the history of a country and the author’s experience of capturing it through his work. Our Man in Havana is available on Hoopla in e-book format, and Our Man Down in Havana is available on e-audio book in Hoopla.
Odd Arne Westad is a professor of History and Global Affairs and specializes in the history of the Cold War. His definitive history explores the Cold War on a global level. This is a comprehensive work for those interested in a deeper dive into this fascinating time.
Peter Carlson writes about one of the most surreal moments of the Cold War, the visit of Nikita Khrushchev to the United States during the height of the Cold War. The forty plus years of the Cold War had interesting moments of relaxed tensions, be it via a hockey match or a visit from the Secretary of the Communist Party. These moments provide the promise of mutual understanding and hope (or not), as Khrushchev's 1959 trip across America was full of highs and lows, but also plenty of hijinks and laughs. This book provides a highly entertaining look into the Cold War era. I have also included a PBS documentary on this historic visit in my Kanopy Watch List.
Cold War Watch List on Kanopy:
The list provides mostly documentaries, but it also includes perhaps the best spy movie of the era (or ever for that matter): The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
All movies are free to watch with an active Mt. Lebanon library card. If you have trouble setting up your account, please contact our reference desk at 412.531.1912.