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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Real or Imagined, Conflict Rivets

You have heard it all before: What is the poor thriller writer to do now that the Cold War is over and all that is left of the great East-West ideological power struggle is a messy pile on the study floor of novels that might have been?

John le Carr? has solved this problem by shifting his narrative terrain to the future geopolitical hot-spot of Panama and filching a brilliant idea from Graham Greene. In "Our Man in Havana," Greene created the character of an amateur spy who invents the secret information he sends to London. And Harry Pendel does just that as The Tailor of Panama (Hodder & Stoughton, ?16.99 or $25.49).

Pendel is a lovable Jewish-Irish con man from the East End of London. He moves to Panama, marries and sets up a successful tailoring business, but an infelicitous investment in a waterless rice farm threatens his financial security -- until, that is, Andrew Osnard turns up.

Osnard is an Etonian on the take -- a spy with a mission to make money. And he recruits Pendel to report back to Britain on what he hears as he gets the measure of the powerful men in his suits who control Panama. Hearing little, he makes up much, and London buys his tales of a highly wrought proletariat longing to revolt and of Japan waiting to seize control of the canal region when America's lease runs out in 1999. Deeply implausible as this tale is, it suits the interests of an intelligence community that is looking for trouble or, as le Carr? puts it, "enjoying the best of times and the worst of times. The service had money to burn, but where on earth was the fire?"

As readable as ever, le Carr? has written an unexpectedly funny novel with a happy ending. And while the male characters may read like caricatures of their former, more subtly drawn selves, le Carr?'s energies have for once been directed to creating females with fully-rounded characters instead of figures.


Claire Bloom's life began so promisingly. In 1948, at age 17, this quintessentially English actress had already played Ophelia and Perdita at Stratford-Upon-Avon. Soon, she was performing onstage and off with Richard Burton (her first lover) and Lawrence Olivier. Scarcely 20 years old, she starred in Charlie Chaplin's great, last movie, "Limelight." However, in Leaving a Doll's House (Virago, ?16.99 or $25.49) Bloom recalls a career that was dazzling in its pain rather than its success.

Rod Steiger was her first husband and the father of her only child, but mother and daughter left for England when Steiger succumbed to post-Oscar blues and lay speechlessly on a sofa for a whole year. In England, Bloom made a professional enemy of Olivier and married Hillard Elkins. Later in America and into marriage No. 3, Bloom went for another depressive who was cruelly egotistical: the novelist Philip Roth.

Such suffering does not make for easy reading, but Bloom has revealed the conflict and vulnerability that makes her such a riveting actress.

-- Compiled from The Financial Times and The Sunday Times.

Taking its title from Ibsen's play, this honest and finely crafted autobiography is an account of Bloom's determination to turn her back on domestic security and to embrace reckless romance instead.