The Private Life of Spies and The Exquisite Art of Getting Even: Stories
“Each story provides a unique cast of characters and distinctly different plots, each offers a gentle portrait of people and society. And each is guided by the mastery of a consummate storyteller . . .”
Alexander McCall Smith offers a double treat in his new book and provides an interesting detour from his usual mysteries. The Private Life of Spies and the Exquisite Art of Getting Even offers two different genres. The first part of the book is made up of short stories about spies, but these aren't your typical cloak-and-dagger thrillers. Instead, McCall Smith features unwitting spies or people forced by circumstances into spying they'd rather not do.
The first story builds off a rumor that the Nazis planted spies as nuns in England during WWII. Conradin doesn't want to fight for the Nazis, much less spy for them, but that is exactly what he is trained to do, given his experience with the English language. The twist is that Conradin likes being a nun, finds the convent life soothing and meaningful after the strident militarism of Germany.
"He had fallen amongst people whose approach to the world about them was not one of confrontation and anger—as it was back in Germany at present—but of acceptance and love. It was so different, and even he, an intruder, an imposter, felt embraced by that feeling."
The other "spies" are equally unwilling or conflicted, each facing a moral dilemma and trying to navigate as best they can. In many ways, these are anti-spy stories. Espionage isn't glorified in these pages but criticized. One story encapsulates neatly how spies aren't heroes at all but "misfits."
"They may be people wanting to settle old scores with a fate that has not given them what they feel they are entitled to in life. They may be locked in battle with a deceased parent or they may be looking for a father. They may think that espionage will give them an importance that they don't have in their ordinary life They may want approval, and find it in the praise given them by their handler. There may be many factors at play, many of them based on some pathology of the soul."
Each story offers a charming surprise, a very unconventional look at spying and the toll it can take. The second half of the book does the same for the theme of revenge. In this section each story is introduced by a short essay on the price revenge exacts on the person enacting it. Is revenge ever a good thing? Is it justice or something else, something more brutish and cruel?
The stories revolve around petty vengeances, getting back at someone for bad behavior rather than illegal actions. That keeps McCall Smith tightly focused on the moral aspects once again, dissecting the human need for vengeance with his sharp wit.
"We want scapegoats, even if they are innocent. This is dangerous, as it has the effect of making society retributive and morally undiscriminating. It leads to harsh judgements and the pillorying of those who meant no harm."
McCall Smith seems to be addressing here the problems of social media, of the "piling-on" tendency that happens as people stake claims to being morally superior to others. But there's no social media in these stories, just the all-too-human tendency to see the worst in others, expecting empathy ourselves while not affording it to others.
Taken together, the two parts echo each other. Each story provides a unique cast of characters and distinctly different plots, each offers a gentle portrait of people and society. And each is guided by the mastery of a consummate storyteller, offering another treasure to his already glittering library.