Last year I reviewed, and loved, John le Carre’s famous George Smiley novels, beginning with Tailor Tinker Soldier Spy. When I found A Small Town in Germany hiding away at the back of my dad’s bookcase, I was very excited for much of the same: quick-witted character insights, twisting and complicated spy plots, wonderfully realised worlds of Cold War-era deception and intrigue.
Of course, A Small Town in Germany was not bereft of any of these elements. The action centres around the British Embassy in Bonn (the capital of West Germany), where a junior official has disappeared, along with numerous top-secret files. Suspicious spy renegade Alan Turner is sent over from London to investigate, but it’s imperative that the Germans don’t find out about the Embassy’s breach: because Communist-leaning rabble rouser Karfeld is stirring up trouble in Bonn.
So far, so John le Carre. Long yet snappy interrogation scenes are interspersed with high-level bureaucratic drama; personalities clash and boundaries are crossed, while all the time the absent figure of Leo Harting hovers ever closer like an ominous spectre – his motivations unearthed inch by absorbing inch. It’s all very engrossing – up to a point.
Using this novel as an example, it’s easy to identify Le Carre’s strengths: character, plot, straightforward spy stratagems. It’s also easy to tell that his career as a novelist was still fledgling at this point – maybe he hadn’t quite learned to recognise his tremendous skills yet. Because A Small Town in Germany’s occasional disappointments occur in the moments where Le Carre moves away from his truly winning formula. The moralising strains, which dominate far too much of the denouement, largely fall flat and although the novelist’s critique of power and the 1960s hegemony might have been more relevant at the time, now it appears just a tad overblown. Pretentious, even: not a style that particularly suits one of Britain’s great spymasters.
Although there’s much to like about this novel – fascinating history lesson of West Germany included – I can’t help but feel that it pales in comparison with Le Carre’s later work.
Have you ever read A Small Town in Germany? What did you think of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts – let me know in the comments below!