A Tale of Two Thrillers, or What to Read on Vacation

Vacations are for mysteries, at least in my life, so recently I have read two thrillers: “The Expats,” by Chris Pavone, and “Mission Song,” by John Le Carre. It’s not easy to compare favorably to Le Carre, who is a master of the genre, and sure enough, Pavone comes out badly.

“Expats” was reasonably well-plotted, and critical, through interesting though repetitive descriptions, of our modern world’s unremitting emphasis on wealth and consumption. Even better, it is a rare description from a male author of the loving but dead-end nature (at least for an ex-CIA agent) of being a stay-at-home mom with little kids. But by the end I was so tired of it all that I no longer cared who was spying on whom and how, and I was fed up with the scenes where our heroine almost met destruction yet emerged unscathed, for no particularly good reason…

“Mission Song,” on the other hand, pulled me from the first page into the intelligent, humorous mind of a fascinating bi-racial, bi-national, multi-lingual hero. Next a mixed (in both class and race) marriage in crisis, and a new and hearetfelt love affair were thrown in. On top of all this, the complex politics of Congo, and near impossibility of remaining a decent person in a world of constant war and the aftermath of genocide, were the driving issues of the book. As for physical danger, the trap is sprung near the end, just as this reader’s guard was down, which left me moved, and near tears.

And why, I would like to know, is “The Mission Song” not one Le Carre’s more famous books? Among its achievements is that it is a brooding rumination on race, and the effect of wandering around the world as a “zebra,” as one of the African characters refers to our hero of mixed heritage. The copyright is 2006, so I would think readers from the emerging World Culture would be drawn to all this. But Le Carre’s following comes out of the Cold War Smiley books, and maybe those readers are just not that interested, indifferent, or even hostile. This is always my suspicion about my own generation when it comes to matters of race, except among the part of our culture which took the Civil Rights movement to mean we should actually live out the hard-fought dream of integration.

In any event, I recommend Le Carre’s “The Mission Song.” As for “Expats,” recently on the NYT best seller list–eh. You won’t miss much if you skip it.

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