Good old writers

Who says old geezers can't write? Some of them die with the sharpest minds. That's certainly true of the literary critic Frank Kermode, who has just died at the age of 90.

Reading about his death yesterday, I turned to his essays published in the London Review of Books. You can't tell his age from his essay on TS Eliot published in May this year. It is the work of an academic writing at the top of his form.

There are other old writers who have not lost their powers.

Let's begin with the journalists.

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James Lee Burke, poet of crime fiction

James Lee Burke is a poet of hardboiled crime fiction. His violent thrillers are filled with twisted characters, whip-smart dialogue and great descriptions of nature. He loves nature with the same intensity that his hero, reformed alcoholic and devoted family man Dave Robicheaux, and his buddy, boozy, womanizing Clete Purcel, are haunted by their nightmares of the Vietnam war. It all adds up to thrilllers in the Raymond Chandler mode, which are social commentary sugarcoated as entertainers.

In Burke’s latest book, Swan Peak, published last year, New Iberia police detective Robicheaux, his wife Molly and Purcel the PI are staying with a friend in Montana after surviving the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. Their ordeal was the theme of  the previous book, Tin Roof Blowdown, which is hard to beat for the sheer power of its description of the hurricane and the flood in New Orleans. They come to Montana for peace, but trouble follows them like a fly.

They encounter oilman Ridley Wellstone and his brother, Leslie, whose face has been horribly disfigured by a fire in an army tank, it is said, but whom they suspect to be Mob boss Sally Dio. But Sally is supposed to be dead, killed in a plane crash after Purcell put sand in the oil tank. And the case is still under investigation. Luckily, for Clete, FBI agent Alicia Rosecrans falls for him – and he for her. That is the only good thing that happens, though.

A serial killer is at work and the local sheriff wants Robicheaux to track him down.

Meanwhile, Leslie’s pretty wife, Jamie Sue, a former country singer, persuades Clete to help her trace her old lover, rodeo-riding, guitar-playing Jimmy Dale Greenwood. Who is on the run from the prison, where he had been wrongfully jailed. Pursued by a gay prison officer, Troyce Nix, whom he had nearly stabbed to death for sexually abusing him. Along the way, Troyce has picked up a woman, Candace, with whom he has fallen in love and who is trying to dissuade him from killing Jimmy.

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Len Deighton and John Le Carre

Len Deighton turned 80 last week, I just discovered from the Guardian. He was born on February 18, 1929, according to Wikipedia.(Telegraph photo.)

Honestly I didn’t even know he was still around, for I haven’t seen any new book by him for a long time. His last thriller was Charity, published in 1996.

That’s sad because he is one of the two greatest British spy fiction writers. Second only to John Le Carre. Ian Fleming doesn’t even come close. I wouldn’t describe Graham Greene, whom I love, as a spy fiction writer.

Deighton is, in fact, more versatile than Le Carre. He has written books like Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain, World War II air-war stories like Bomber and Goodbye Mickey Mouse, and Only When I Larf, a comic thriller about conmen.

He is more snappy and less literary than Le Carre and doesn’t meander like Le Carre does sometimes, though his plots can be equally complex. What a fiendish maze he wove around his spy, Bernard Samson. Starting with The Berlin Game in the early 1980s, he wrote three Samson trilogies, ending with Charity. Midway through the series, Samson’s wife, Fiona, goes over to the Soviets but then he discovers she is working as a British double agent.

Both Deighton and Le Carre started publishing in the early 60s.

But Samson is closer in spirit to Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus than to Le Carre’s spy, George Smiley, in some ways. He is first and foremost a rebellious field agent and not a mandarin who is also good in the field like Smiley.

Deighton’s prank

Deighton also has a sense of fun. The Guardian says:

Deighton managed to achieve a false entry in Who's Who. It read, "Eldest son of a Governor-General of the Windward Islands. After an uneventful education at Eton and Worcester College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics and was President of the Union, he signed on as a deckhand on a Japanese whaler.

In reality, he was a Londoner who finished school and worked as a railway clerk, airline steward, photographer, waiter, illustrator and art director before making his name as a writer.

Early success

Both Deighton and Le Carre had their first books published in 1961. Deighton’s The Ipcress File proved a bigger success than Le Carre’s Call for the Dead featuring George Smiley. The Ipcress File was made into a film starring Michael Caine.

Le Carre hit the big time with his third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was immediately hailed as a classic when it appeared in 1963. And he is still writing. While Deighton has not published a thriller for more than 10 years, Le Carre, three years his junior, came out with A Most Wanted Man last year.

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