The Little Drummer Girl by John Le Carre

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
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After competing the Karla trilogy, Le Carre turned his attention to other theatres of clandestine conflict. The Little Drummer Girl is the first of those books and it takes us deep inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a huge and varied cast.

First and foremost of them is Charlie, an English twenty something actress with radical political leanings and a hefty load of ennui. She joins this war when spymaster Marty Kurtz recruits her to a scheme aimed at tracking down bombmaker Khalil. Through her eyes we see both sides of the dirty war and through her thoughts we feel the stresses of being an agent.

That's the basics of the book, which is somewhat like describing the Mona Lisa as being pigment on a parchment made to look like a woman.

The Little Drummer Girl is many things. Its a primer to the various viewpoints taken by those closest to the ongoing violence, a travelogue across Europe, a technical guide to the finer point of intelligence gathering. Above those things, its a meditation on identity and stress. All of the characters in the book feel the need to protect, to asset their identities; all except perhaps Charlie, whose desperation to find one makes her so useful to the spies. Yet living those identities is an act of trauma in and of itself for most of them. Le Carre probes the stress brought on by the characters' internal contradictions with shrewdness and sympathy.

Most of all however The Little Drummer Girl is an adventure story where the trials must be conquered by cunning, fortitude, and meticulously prepared lies. The adventure moves slowly - incredibly slowly at times - as a result of Le Carre's unhurried and forensic analysis of all the events leading into Charlie's big role in the theatre of the real. This pace will be a make or break issue for readers. Some will love the drip-drip tension, others will founder on it and the constant re-examination of the character's moods from not particularly different angles.

The other likely sticking point is Charlie herself. She is one of Le Carre's more unusual characters, an odd mix of radicalism, convention, deliberate provocation, ego and self-loathing. We spend so much time in her mind that it is difficult to love this book full-heartedly if one tires of her or finds her unsympathetic. The latter seems more likely than the former. The complexities of her character are fascinating, the exasperated sarcasm of her thoughts entertaining and very real. She deserves to be considered one of the great heroines of literature and hopefully the upcoming BBC adaption of the book will give her that boost in status.

And make no mistake, The Little Drummer Girl is literature. Buckley's classic review quote that the book is "about spies as Madame Bovary is about adultery or Crime and Punishment is about crime" cuts to the heart of the matter as succinctly as possible. It has all the hallmarks of a fantastic spy novel, but also the density and keen interest in humanity of literature. It is that combination of traits that makes Le Carre one of the most acclaimed novelists of his generation and in The Little Drummer Girl, the pairing of the two is as strong as in any of his books.
 

Vladd67

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Wasn’t this his first book after the end of the Cold War when thriller writers were looking for new ideas?
 

HareBrain

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One for the TBR pile, quite near the top. Having finished the Karla trilogy a few months ago, this sounds an ideal follow up.
 

Toby Frost

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Good review Peat. I find Le Carre a bit of a mixed bag: I liked the Carla books and thought that The Secret Pilgrim was excellent, but found that some of the others were rather underwhelming (Our Game) or crudely political (A Most Wanted Man). I'm a bit wary of him at present, although I think he's capable of excellent work.
 

The Big Peat

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Good review Peat. I find Le Carre a bit of a mixed bag: I liked the Carla books and thought that The Secret Pilgrim was excellent, but found that some of the others were rather underwhelming (Our Game) or crudely political (A Most Wanted Man). I'm a bit wary of him at present, although I think he's capable of excellent work.
I think this would be a good one for you to try. It's certainly mostly free of the politics - I daresay a partisan in that conflict could detect bias to one side or the other, but I can't see much - and it is very high quality.
 

dannymcg

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I read it when it first came out and was enthralled, I feel nowadays one tends to look with a more jaundiced eye at Middle East thrillers.
The film made a few years later was a disappointment
 

dannymcg

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I read it when it first came out and was enthralled, I feel nowadays one tends to look with a more jaundiced eye at Middle East thrillers.
The film made a few years later was a disappointment
Reading back through this thread and here's me making remarks about Middle East terrorist books on such a date! (I really never noticed at the time)
 
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