I so enjoy reading John Le Carre whose masterful writing offers a lesson in how to write with precision, creating layers of meaning in finely honed phrases. Here is the opening passage from The Perfect Spy, a seemingly straightforward account of a man, Marcus Pym, striding across a square on a rainy evening, headed toward a rooming house where he is a regular visitor when in town. Here is how Le Carre tells us so much about the man without actually describing who and more importantly, what he is:
"Reaching the porch of a house marked "No Vacancies" he pressed the bell and waited, first for the outside light to go on, then for the chains to be unfastened from inside. While he waited a church clock began striking five. As if in answer to its summons Pym turned on his heel and stared back at the square. At the graceless tower of the Baptist church posturing against the racing clouds. At the writhing monkey-puzzle trees, pride of the ornamental gardens. At the empty bandstand. At the bus shelter. At the dark patches of the side streets. At the doorways one by one. "
Pym is a man who notices everything -- and prioritizes the observations of his surroundings. He moves from the most visible to the least, from the largest most obvious spaces, to the smallest and darkest corners -- the tension increasing with each repetition of the short phrases beginning with "At the..." And it is chilling to follow that gaze as the space and locations become more secretive and hidden. It is Le Carre's focus -- not on the man, but the objects of Pym's gaze that reveal the habits of a spy, and establish the character well before he has spoken a word.
The door to the rooming house is opened by an elderly woman, who pulls him into the front hall, complaining about his dripping coat and wet shoes, and the late hour. But they know each other, and he is comfortable in her grumbling. Le Carre dscribes her: "Like many tyrants Miss Dubber was small." -- which as the shortest alpha in our house, made me laugh out loud.