The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Have You Seen the Muffin Man?

[David Hemmings as Charlie Muffin, and Rohan McCullough as MI6 Secretary Janet exploit each other]

Brian Freemantle's Charlie M and its sequels are what I'd call school-of-le Carré espionage thrillers, but they have their own unique flavor because of the downmarket nature of the leading character, the illegitimate, Mancunian Charlie Muffin, whose inexpensive clothes lower-class origin, make him an outsider in the British Secret Service. Well, at last as it has become under new leadership--Charlie was in favor with the previous leadership, which found him in the 1950s, and set him against the Soviets.

But in 1979, Charlie finds himself disposable, deliberately sacrificed by the snobbish new administration in an operation at--perfect location--Checkpoint Charlie. Cheating death, Charlie finds himself unsure who to trust, and how to react...

The first novel has a great final twist that I won't ruin, but suffice it to state, Charlie spends the next several volumes vulnerable to treachery, relying on his professional training, his instincts for danger, and, most of all, his ruthless need to survive.

Charlie has few reliable friends or allies (to the point that the captured KGB spy Charlie had unmasked is probably his most sincere sympathizer), but manages to outplay the toffs who look down on him in their deadly game.

Until he loses.

That's when the series takes a level in quality. Charlie's ruthlessness can be breathtaking, and Freemantle keeps him just the right side of likable. His rapport with several of his foes--they bond over professionalism, and the lack of it among their colleagues--keeps Charlie and the reader wondering who, if anyone, can be relied on.

I'm trying to give you the flavor of the books without spoiling them, but they are quite fun, and startling on occasion. And Charlie--who in the film version of the first novel was played by a wonderfully world weary David Hemmings, with his aristocratic boss played by Ian Richardson--is a rumpled, clever, reverse snob with a chip on his shoulder. He uniquely is an outsider; even George Smiley, for all his dowdiness, has an Oxonian background, was recruited by the scholarly amateurs who in le Carre's novels created the "Circus"--the Secret Service--and joined the right clubs. Even his chronically unfaithful wife, Ann, raised Smiley's social status--as Edith, Charlie's wife, raises his a little. But Charlie's unfashionableness, disdain for his "betters", and fierce refusal to be condescended to (unlike Smiley)--makes him a thorny proposition indeed.

And a damned good read.

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