Thursday, June 24, 2021

On the Coffee Table: A Small Town in Germany

Title: A Small Town in Germany
Author: John le Carré

via Wikipedia

A Small Town in Germany was published in 1968.  It was le Carré's first spy novel to feature neither George Smiley nor "The Circus," the author's fictionalized version of MI6.  The small town in question is Bonn and the story focuses on the simultaneously exposed and insular nature of diplomatic life in the Cold War capital of West Germany.  Leo Harting, a long-time German employee of the British Embassy, has gone missing.  It is feared he has defected and sold sensitive material to the Soviets.  The truth, of course, turns out to be a lot more interesting.

It's a good book, though I can't say I enjoyed it as much as the Smiley books I've read.  Alan Turner is the protagonist this time.  He's an official in from London to investigate the Harting case.  He's good at digging in the dirt but not good at all with the social niceties required in this embassy world.  He's quite violent with women which makes him impossible to like, even for the reader.

That said, I made some important personal connections with this volume.  First, I've actually been to Bonn.  During my family's big Europe trip in 1984, we stayed with some family friends, indeed an American diplomatic family.  So, I can attest to the strangeness le Carré describes.  Bonn was the least German place we visited in Germany, the area where they lived virtually undistinguishable from any American suburb of the era.

Worth noting Bonn's most important connection to world history, unmentioned in the book: it was the birthplace of Europe's greatest musician, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Also, my father was in the American foreign service himself in the late '60s, though in Asia rather than Europe.  As such, I was keenly aware that the social scene he described in Bonn probably wasn't that different from what my parents were experiencing on the opposite side of the world.

If anyone is keen to read everything le Carré ever wrote, the book is fine.  Otherwise, it could be skipped in between The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.


  1. Replies
    1. I was just paywalled from reading an article about his literary “decline.” I read later books, I read earlier books, and I found him compelling at all times.

    2. I can't say I know enough to answer that authoritatively. I don't like all of his books equally but they are certainly all of a dependable quality.

  2. Interesting that you can make personal connections to the book. I love it when that happens for me.