Read The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín. The concept is compelling: in her old age, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is hounded by two groups of people—some, including the Romans and the Elders, who want her silenced in case she contributes to the growing legends about her son and some, her keepers who are writing the Gospels, who want her to tell stories about her son’s divinity.
Mary isn’t willing to be pushed either way. She thinks all the son-of-God chatter is nonsense. In her view, her son’s disciples were a group of losers:
He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal, I said … My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit; he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent.
Mary relates in a puzzled, angry way the various events that led to people’s believing that her son was the son of God. In her view, things got twisted, embroidered, exaggerated. She doesn’t understand how some of the supposed miracles came to happen and she often just sounds exhausted.
Towards the end of the book, Mary talks about the crucifixion. Related by a mother, it could hardly not be a harrowing story but in addition Tóibín seems to catch the very nature of evil through the quiet words of the witness.
Listened to Our Kind of Traitor on audio. It was very well read by Robin Sachs who, sadly, died earlier this year. (Having now listened to a few dozen audio books, I’ve become aware of how important it is to have a good voice to narrate the books: minimal accent, clear and crisp narration, no oddities of pronunciation. Robin Sachs was one of the best.)
As John Le Carré is one of the best of his kind. As an author of novels of intrigue, I don’t think he has an equal. His early spy novels were classics of their era; in recent years his work has had to be updated to reflect the changing world, but he retains an unparalleled ability to reflect the moral complexity around us.
In Our Kind of Traitor, two young English people on holiday in Antigua meet up with with Dmitri Vladimirovich Krasnov, known as Dima. A hearty, overwhelming bear of a man, Dima worms his way into a sort of friendship with Perry and Gail while playing tennis with Perry and pressing hospitality on them both. He then asks them to help him get in touch with the English secret service to facilitate his move to London with his family in exchange for the rich variety of information he has amassed in his time as “Russia’s number one money launderer.”
The book takes its time setting up the background and fleshing out the characters. Perry and Gail are the least interesting, although we get to hear a lot about their lives. More nuanced are the characters of Hector Meredith and Luke Weaver, the intelligence officers who work on the case. There is a sense of growing menace and despair at the uphill work they have to do to put together a plan. The conflicting loyalties and dubious morality of the grey, faceless men that Hector has to work with are all too convincingly portrayed. You watch as greed for political power or influence or money create a climate where the unthinkable becomes banal reality. You know it is not going to end well but you’re unable to look away.
Broadchurch, an eight-episode BBC TV series starring David Tennant as Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Olivia Colman as Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller. This series, set in a village on the Dorset coast, is the compelling story of a child’s murder and the subsequent investigation that involves and damages the whole community. Ellie Miller is the heart of the series, having a person-next-door quality that makes her character utterly believable. She is deeply affected by the murder as she is a close friend of Beth and Mark Latimer, whose son Danny has been killed. Ellie believes that her son Tom is the victim’s best friend, although it later becomes clear that their relationship is much more complex than that.
As with all the best murder mysteries, everyone in the community has something to hide. Their prevarications and suspicious behaviour may hold important clues—or may just lead to dead ends. Ellie is annoyed that DI Hardy has been brought in to lead the investigation since she believes the job was promised to her. Compounding her annoyance, Hardy obviously has personal problems that are having an impact on his ability to do the job. For his part, Hardy is annoyed that Miller can’t set her personal feelings aside.
The identity of the murderer only becomes obvious close to the end of the series. As the truth sinks in in the final episode, the actors have some harrowing scenes that ring true. And the murderer has a motive that is not easily classified—there is an ambiguity about it. The series is an impressive achievement.
Postscript: Since US television cannot leave well enough alone, Fox will be developing an American version of Broadchurch, to air in 2014-15.