Call for the Dead
by John le Carré (Penguin Modern Classics £9.99, 176pp)
With this, his first novel, John le Carré introduces us to George Smiley, a short, fat, bespectacled intelligence officer whose shambolic appearance belies a talent for detecting what others fail to see or choose to ignore.
The story opens with Smiley in trouble. Having cleared a middle-ranking civil servant as a security risk, the man is found shot dead, having apparently taken his own life. In defiance of his superiors, who are keen to close the case, Smiley embarks on his own investigation.
With the help of Inspector Mendel, a stolid policeman on the edge of retirement, he enters the shadowy world of international subterfuge, where violence is second nature to the hunters of state secrets.
Smiley’s task is made harder by his realisation that a former friend and ally is now his chief antagonist. With Call for the Dead, John le Carré was established as the leading writer of authentic spy fiction.
The Wheel Spins
by Ethel Lina White (British Library Crime Classics £9.99, 256pp)
Forget the film, read the book. When Alfred Hitchcock purloined the basic plot of The Wheel Spins for his classic 1938 movie, The Lady Vanishes, he did no favours to Ethel Lina White, whose original work, battered by screen competition, fell from sight. But there is a big difference between the two versions.
Whereas Hitchcock made the disappearance of a tweedy governess on a transcontinental train into a spy story, the novel is more a psychological battle of wits between Iris, a fiercely independent young lady, and her fellow passengers. Why do they deny the existence of Miss Froy? Could it be that Iris is suffering from delusions?
There is a doctor on board intent on persuading her to rest and to accept the support of a young admirer who is equally convinced that she needs medical help.
How Iris comes through it all to rescue Miss Froy is a fabulous masterwork of frustration in a mental and intellectual battle against the odds.
Murder in Merrywell
by Jane Bettany (HQ £8.99, 320pp)
Emerging from a painful divorce, ex-journalist Violet Brewster moves to the Peak District for a fresh start. Hoping to make a living in video production, her first commission is to record the history of the local parish.
Long-standing residents seem only too happy to share their memories of people and places. But not all is easy going for our intrepid sleuth.
When she starts to ask questions about the unexplained disappearance of a woman 40 years earlier, there are signs of hostility. Ignoring advice to mind her own business, Violet redoubles her efforts, undeterred even when an elderly villager, willing to share long-held secrets, is found dead.
The problem with cosy crime is that much of it is so laid back as to induce slumber. Happily, Jane Bettany triumphs over this hazard with a thoroughly enjoyable and suspenseful story.