Single & Single by John le Carré (1999)

Public school hero

Just like the narrators of The Secret Pilgrim and Our Game and the protagonist of The Tailor of Panama, the central figure in Single & Single, Oliver Single, attended a number of private schools and speaks and thinks – and is emotionally stunted – accordingly. He was bullied and harassed by the home tutor his parents hired with a view to getting him into the Dragon (preparatory) school, and his name was down for Eton from birth (where Andrew Osnard of The Tailor went, and where le Carré himself was a teacher, whoops, Master). But in the end Oliver disappointed his father, passing through a string of second-rate boarding schools before only just scraping into law school.

Back story

His father is the ‘legendary’ ‘Tiger’ Single (almost all the characters in these later le Carré novels are ‘legendary’, along with legendary tables, legendary inner sanctums and even legendary haircuts), in fact on his first appearance in the book he is introduced as ‘the one and only Tiger Single himself’, rather like a clapped-out comedian at the London Palladium in the 1970s.

Tiger had made good as a barrister in the mean chambers of Liverpool before coming down to London and setting up a brokerage and investment company named Single & Single. Despite his academic failings, Oliver manages to get his law degree and his father takes him into the firm as a partner, where he quickly uncovers the web of money laundering, offshore deals and criminal banking facilities which the firm offers to all kinds of unsalubrious characters.

The main partners in crime are a pair of very shady Georgians operating out of Moscow, the Orlov brothers, Yevgeny and the retarded Mikhail, accompanied everywhere by a sinister Polish lawyer, Dr Mirsky and a blond psychopath, Alix Hoban, who spends almost all his time creepily whispering into a mobile phone.

It is Hoban who, at a charged meeting in 1990 between the Orlov brothers and Tiger, outlines three sure-fire get-rich schemes. They are each based on the brothers bribing high officials in post-communist Russia in order to:

  • secure a monopoly in selling off Russia’s rusting scrap metal
  • seize control of Russia’s creaking oil infrastructure
  • and – sickest of all – to help set up a national Russian blood transfusion service whose real purpose would be to sell surplus blood at a profit to the West. The sums involved are hundreds of millions of pounds

So far so cynically crooked. However, all these schemes come crashing down with the Russia coup attempt of August 1991, which removes their high government contacts from power. Only after a hiatus of further trips to the East, many mysterious phone calls and some time later, do the brothers re-emerge with a new scheme which will make them and Tiger into billionaires – taking over the Asian opium and heroin trade.

While the business relationship has been deepening Oliver has made numerous visits to the Orlov family homestead, in a remote valley in Georgia, only half-jokingly referred to as ‘Bethlehem’. Prompted – or rather taunted – by one of Yevgeny’s daughters, Zoya, on one of these trips, something snaps inside Oliver when he discovers the full iniquity of this latest project. He is sickened and, in a strange mood of anxiety and disorientation, when he passes through Heathrow Customs on the way back from Georgia, makes the decision to request an interview with a senior Customs official. He wants to come clean and unburden himself.

Oliver is introduced to the sturdy, incorruptible Nathaniel Brock and confesses everything to him, forging with him that close, very personal relationship between controller and ‘joe’ which le Carré so often refers to simply as ‘love’. Olive tells Brock everything he knows about his father’s shady dealings with various international crooks.

However, even with Oliver’s confession, Brock doesn’t have evidence enough to prosecute anyone and asks Oliver to keep spying on his father and colleagues for a little longer. Eventually, when he can’t cope with his double life any longer, Oliver is spirited away, given a new name and identity in the West of England. Here he unwisely rushes into marrying Heather, a nurse, and has a baby daughter, Carmen. Years pass and their relationship collapses, and Oliver ends up separating from her and taking a room at a small hotel (reminiscent of the comfy boarding house in the West Country where Magnus Pyke retreats to in A Perfect Spy and the similarly isolated West Country house of Jonathan Pine, protagonist of The Night Manager). We learn through all the flashbacks that Tiger, faced with the evidence of his son’s flight / disappearance, ignores it, telling everyone Oliver is on an extended business tour of the world, scouting out new opportunities, occasionally returning home for personal meetings with Tiger…

But five years later, one fine day, one of his father’s fixers, the lawyer Alfred Winser, is taken from a run-of-the-mill business meeting in Turkey, to a bleak isolated spot on the coast, interrogated at gunpoint, then shot in the head – all of it recorded on video by the terrifying Hoban.

In media res

And this is where the novel actually starts, with the scene of a sobbing Winser begging to know what he’s done wrong, before he is executed. Bang. It then cuts to Oliver, labouring away at his (humiliating) new occupation as an entertainer at children’s parties. In among blowing up balloons and working a gruesome glove pocket, Oliver gets a series of phone calls which, it slowly transpires, are from his minder Brock, calling to let him know that his bank account has just had a huge amount of money paid into it and Brock and the police want to know why.

The whole of the backstory outlined above is told only after these rather puzzling opening scenes, recounted in flashbacks and memories, often shuffled out of chronological order and often told in very short snippets or scenes, which the reader has to piece together. (It is only on page 109 that Brock quietly but dramatically confirms that Oliver’s last name is Single – and we begin to make the connections with preceding scenes featuring Tiger and the firm.) It makes le Carré’s novels a lot more interesting that they’re structured like this and that they make you work hard to understand what’s going on.

Going forward

It is Winser’s execution that prompts the central crisis of the story. In one strand of the narrative it turns out that the murder has prompted Oliver’s drunk, irresponsible mother, Nadia, to tell Tiger where Oliver’s been hiding all these years: that explains the sudden payment of millions of pounds into the trust fund Oliver had set up for his baby daughter, the payment which was monitored by the authorities and prompted Brock’s calls to Oliver. It is a generous gesture by his father but also a way of communicating with him – and a threat.

But in the central strand of the story, it appears that Tiger himself has gone missing at the news of Winser’s murder… Why? And why was Winser murdered in the first place? In the execution scene, Hoban had said something about a ship being intercepted by the authorities, something Winser, even at the point of being shot, tearfully claimed to know nothing about.

Brock persuades Oliver to come out of hiding and track his father down: he is best placed to do so since he has a far better feel for his father’s behaviour and his network of crooked deals than any of Brock’s fellow officers.

And so the second half of the novel follows Oliver on an odyssey to find his missing father, which forces him to confront the ‘ghosts of his past’ (eg his miserable childhood), the terrors of the present (eg the hair-raising psychopath Hoban) and the wrath of the father he betrayed.

(This is all very similar in structure to Our Game, which opens with a hundred pages or so of puzzling events ‘in the present’ before the narrator reveals clues about the backstory, till it just about all makes sense, and then spends the second half of that book on an odyssey to find his missing friend / agent / betrayer, Larry, an odyssey which – just like here – takes the protagonist deep into the badlands of the Caucasus.)

The quest

The quest or journey is one of the oldest narrative structures in existence. Typically, the quester meets a range of people who shed light on both the world at large and his own identity, before arriving at some overwhelming truth. And that is exactly what happens here. Oliver:

  • confronts his mother at his parents’ massive country pile, Nightingales, a scene which inevitably unlocks scores of childhood memories, mostly unhappy, all those high expectations he was unable to fulfil
  • breaks into the Single & Single offices where he meets his father’s most devoted servant, an Indian called Gupta, before opening the safe in the ‘inner sanctum’ and finding incriminating paperwork which he passes on to Brock
  • flies to Zurich undercover with Aggie, the only woman on Brock’s team (‘straight-eyed and long-legged and unconsciously elegant’ (p.57) – in other words, a model, and sure enough, later on Aggie is described as looking like she should be in advert for smart rainwear, p.321). It comes as the opposite of a surprise that Oliver ends up having an affair with her
  • in Zurich interviews the Swiss lawyer Single & Single deal with, who reveals that his father also visited a week before (ie he’s on the right trail) and was terrified

Oliver is about to sneak out on Aggie from their Swiss hotel when she catches him red-handed and insists they fly together to Istanbul. Here Oliver goes to the heavily-guarded house of the crooked lawyer, Dr Mirsky. He is out but Oliver is grudgingly admitted, accompanied by heavies down to the pool, where he meets the leggy, flirtatious Mrs Mirsky. After some flirting Mirsky himself arrives, sweeps Oliver up into his office, and explains the double cross which is at the heart of the novel.

The reveal

Tiger’s right hand man in London is ‘Randy’ Massingham, who has long been restive at his subordinate position. On the Orlov side the psycho Habon is obviously a threat. Between the two of them they have cooked up a scheme. Fragments of the Orlovs’ smuggling operations will be leaked to the Russian authorities, who will pick off bits and pieces. The aim will be to attach the blame to Single & Single in such a way as to a) discredit Tiger b) persuading the Orlov brothers to demand compensation money out of him using threats and menaces c) ultimately destabilise the Orlov operation enough for Hoban to take over and eliminate the brothers.

So Hoban gets Massingham to tip off the British authorities who will tip off the Russian authorities about a ship – the Free Tallinn – arriving in Odessa carrying tons of heroin. The Russians duly storm the boat, and in the resulting firefight Yevgeny’s beloved brother, Mikhail, is shot dead.

It is this – the death of his brother – which tips Yevgeny over the edge, which ages him decades overnight, which reduces him to a pawn in the hands of the manipulative Hoban. Hoban persuades Yevgeny that, since the tip-off came from London, Tiger must be behind it, the double-crossing b*stard. And it is this which leads to the outrageous demand Oliver has learned about on his odyssey – a demand hand-delivered to Tiger at his office along with a video. The demand was for the immediate refund of all moneys invested with Single & Single, plus punitive damages and costs and interest: £200 million in total! And the video is the film Hoban shot right at the start of the novel – a video of Alfred Winser begging for his life before having half his head blown off. No wonder Tiger emerged shaking from his office, drove straight to his country house to load a travel bag, flew on a fake passport to Switzerland and then…

For a heartless amoral crook, Mirsky is disarmingly frank with Oliver and doesn’t harm him, driving him back into town. Oliver reports back to Brock then takes Aggie to the house where he had previously met the Orlovs and their extended family. It is empty and abandoned, the only person left in it the now-almost-demented Zoya, cradling an armed Kalashnikov. They manage to talk her down, get the gun off her, make her soup and discover the family has returned to Mingrelia.

It is at this point that Oliver does finally succeed in eluding Aggie, setting off on a motorbike for a long night-time drive to an airfield in eastern Turkey. Here he charters a plane at an outrageous rate which flies him to the remote valley in the Caucasus which he had visited so many times in happier days. When he arrives everyone is very unfriendly, though he is allowed to make his way up to the Orlov family mansion on a hill.

Although he knows there is a price on his head, although he knows he could be shot dead at any moment, Oliver braves it out, talking to the shrivelled, shadow-of-his-former-self Yevgeny and his wife as if nothing has happened, trying to raise everyone’s spirits. Hoban enters and Oliver begins shaking with fear inside but hides it, insisting on making tea and then helping cook the evening meal for everyone, just like normal. Eventually they let him see his father, Hoban taking him out back to a filthy stable where Tiger is lying half-naked in the straw, prisoned in a massive chain and manacles.

The Massingham plotline

While Oliver’s odyssey across Europe has been going forward, it has been interspersed by a parallel plot strand based in London. Here the imperturbable Brock is in possession of Randy Massingham, formerly arrogant globe-trotting representative of Single & Single, now trying not to quake with fear in a seedy safe house in south London since he, too, received a letter and a copy of the video which said that not only he, but his gay lover, William, would meet the fate of Alfred Winser.

Thus Oliver’s adventures are interspersed with the much less glamorous, much more slow-burning, psychologically tense interrogation of the evasive, arrogant Massingham by calm, persistent Brock. In the end Massingham breaks, reveals the whole story and prompts Brock to realise he has to act now to save both Tiger and Oliver.

Bloody climax

Novels must end. Narratives must reach a conclusion. And endings are notoriously difficult.

The actual events in this one are as violent as any action movie. Brock and a team of SAS-style hard men fly to south Russia, where they meet up with Russian Special Forces and take helicopters to the Orlovs’ isolated valley. Thus Oliver is back in Yevgeny’s living room, pleading for Tiger’s life, trying to explain that they were stitched up, Tiger would never kill Mikhail, indeed he would never tip off the authorities and he never did, someone else has concocted the whole thing… when they hear the sound of helicopters flying overhead and, only minutes later, the room explodes as gas grenades detonate everywhere and the windows and doors are suddenly full of black-clad special forces men rushing in, throwing Oliver and the dazed Tiger to the ground, coshing Yevgeny and his old wife and then, as the wicked baddy Hoban goes for his gun, there is the ‘plop’ of a silenced gun firing and a red rose blossoms in his forehead. Cool, leggy Aggie, dressed in figure-hugging black, stands over the prostrate Ollie, having saved his life – Modesty Blaise come to life, an S&M princess. There stood:

Aggie, brandishing a submachine gun and wearing a panther suit and Apache warpaint. (p.413)

But what really distinguishes this violent ending from hundreds of others like it is the eerie detachment of the protagonist whose eyes we see it through. As his quest has continued Oliver’s consciousness has become increasingly overloaded with memories, dizzied by the complexity of his father’s scams and the conspiracy against him, and unsettled by the clashing of the two lives he’s been living, his old life and the new identity, wife and child he has ended up abandoning, not to mention trying to keep track of all the women he’s sleeping with.

It is in this heightened, almost delirious, mood that Oliver had bluffed his way into Yevgeny’s house and tried to persuade the sceptical hosts that nothing has changed, that they’re still all old friends, that good old Tiger wouldn’t hurt a fly, come on Yevgeny… And when the bombs suddenly explode and the guns start firing his mind collapses away from the chaotic present and his last thoughts are for his daughter, Carmen, 5,000 miles away in a suburban bedroom, and  his only worry that all the crashing and banging might wake her up.

The grail

And the immortal wisdom which is won at the climax of the quest? As in so many modern quests, the knowledge at the end of the rainbow has the taste of ashes, as he stands over the body of his short, shrunken, dirty, powerless and humiliated father, realising:

You have revealed the full scale of your immense, infinite nothingness. At the brink of death, you have nothing to plead but your stupefying triviality. (p.407)

Seen in a simple Freudian light, the whole book has led up to this moment of crushing insight, as Oliver realises he has triumphed over his father, reducing him to a nullity, travelling all this way not to rescue him – but to witness his utter humiliation.


Themes and style

Mingrelia

The Orlov brothers are not in fact Georgians, they are Mingrelians, a sub-ethnic group of Georgians, who live in the Caucasus. We learn quite a lot about their culture and history as we accompany Oliver on several business trips where he is shown around the stunning landscape and peasant culture by his proud hosts, the Orlov brothers. The novel is set in very much the same part of the world as Our Game, which gravitated around the protagonists’ involvement in the independence movement of the nearby Ingush people. Given all of Russia (or the world) to choose from, why the attraction of this tiny out-of-the-way part of it?

What’s interesting is the way that, in two long novels set in this small area, le Carré mentions but doesn’t make much of the Chechens, the not-much-larger ethnic group and nation neighbouring the Ingush and Mingrelians, but which caused Russia much more trouble in the 1990s, triggering two major wars, waves of terrorism, and the proliferation of the Chechen mafia inside Russia (as described in, for example, the opening scenes of Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thriller, Red Square).

Maybe it’s because the Chechen situation is complex and big, whereas the Ingush who feature in Our Game and the Mingrelians who feature in this novel, are tiny minority groups who le Carré is free-er to handle fictionally. Rather than take on the large and complex socio-economic-political issues of the Chechens, the relative obscurity of the Ingush and Mingrelians allows le Carré to focus not on big picture politics, but on the psychology of just a handful of individuals, doing what he does best, which is build up in-depth profiles of a small group of players, who are described in such a way as to become looming, unreally outsize avatars who, in their psychological potency and exaggerated style, drift loose of their ‘historical’ settings to become almost allegorical figures.

Easy sex

In the opening pages Oliver is described by his landlady as strong and silent (p.27), like a medieval hero striding out of a cave in his armour (p.33), with the ‘strong, upright, officer-class voice’ like the actors in courtroom melodramas (p.34).

He is six foot something and built like an ‘Alp’. When he’s finished doing a clown performance at a party of pukka mums, the one paying him begins to flirt with him. Rather like legendary Larry in Our Game and caddish Osnard in Tailor, poor Oliver is a babe magnet.

When he arrives in Mingrelia and is introduced to Yevgeny Orlov’s extended family, Oliver immediately notices Yevgeny’s fourth daughter, Zoya, sitting apart from the rest, nursing her sickly son, Paul, and something passes between them. Unfortunately, she is married to the psychopath Hoban. Partly to distract himself Oliver agrees to have lessons in Mingrelian back in London with one Nina, and after a day or two they’re having sex (‘Soon she shares his bed, p.175). In fact his father asks him how many times a day he’s screwing her? ‘Twice at night and once in the morning,’ as per family tradition? Archie from the Trading Floor asks, ‘Gave her one for breakfast, did we, Ollie boy?’ (p.209) She leaves bite marks on his shoulder.

However, it doesn’t last and when the initial plans with the Orlov brothers fall through, so does the affair (although Nina’s mother recommends an older male tutor if he still wants to learn the language, a man who was once, inevitably, Nina’s mother’s lover). Anyway, sex with Nina had never eliminated thoughts of Zoya out of Oliver’s mind and the next time he returns to Mingrelia the readers isn’t surprised when there’s a knock on his door late at night and it’s Zoya ready to be ‘taken’.

On the bed they fight until they are naked, then take each other like animals until both of them are satisfied. (p.188) Flinging herself round to him, she traps him between her thighs and lunges at him with ferocity, as if by taking him inside her she will silence him. (p.196)

(Very like the way Osnard ‘takes’ the drunk Louisa in The Tailor of Panama.) At dinner with the Orlovs, ‘The scent of Zoya’s juices is still on him. He can smell it through his shirt’ (p.189).

Much later, when he is driven to a safe house, and when he then flies under an assumed identity to Zurich, it is with the only woman on Brock’s team, ‘Aggie’. There is a thumping inevitability to the way they end up having an affair, she falling in love with him, him adding her to his list of ‘conquests’.

He saw a stalky girl appear, tall as himself but fit. High cheek bones, long blondish pony-tail, and that thing that tall girls have of putting all their weight on one leg while they cock the other hip. (p.118) [Sounds like a blonde Modesty Blaise.]

After Winser’s murder and Oliver has come out of hiding, he visits the penthouse apartment where his father used to live, now abandoned. First he stops at an apartment in the same building where Kat Altremont lives, his father’s long-time mistress and owner of a high-class restaurant near the Singles’ office. He is there to quiz her about his father’s movements but she immediately starts flirting with him.

She stepped forward, drawing the whole length of him against her, which was how she greeted all her men, chest to chest and groin to groin… (p.262)

And while he tries to get a straight answer out of her about why his father so suddenly fled, all she wants to do is rub her legs against him. In the lift up to his father’s penthouse room, she falls into his arms.

‘She feathered her tongue against his while her hands skimmed and dived around his crotch.’ (p.270).

When Oliver’s finished searching the flat, she says he’s more than welcome to come and share her bed.

When he visits the frightened lawyer, Conrad (‘our gallant doctor, our wizard of offshore’ p.288), in Zurich, he makes a point of flirting with the secretary in a bid to see whether she knows whether his father ordered a taxi or where he went after his meeting. She immediately starts to respond.

When Oliver talks his way into the heavily guarded compound of the crooked lawyer, Dr Mirsky, in Istanbul, Mirsky is not there but his wife is. She is ‘blonde, long-legged’, Swedish, and wearing a bathing costume as she lounges by the pool and it is no surprise that she too begins to flirt with this uninvited intruder, criss-crossing her legs, stretching, showing off her assets. Basically, wherever he goes women start melting, swooning, flashing their breasts and grabbing his crotch.

And it’s not just Ollie. Even in the opening pages as the poor lawyer Alfred Winser faces his end, he has time to remember having sex with his reluctant wife, being tied to the bedstead of a house in Chiswick by ‘a chubby friend’, the deep white thighs of young Swedish women and once seeing a young woman topless in a field of poppies.

Oliver’s landlady remembers visits to the randy local bank manager who suggests they discuss her loan in bed (p.37).

Ollie’s ex-wife’s boss is remembered roaring with laughter and winking at ‘the husbands he was cuckolding’ (p.84).

When Brock’s homely wife rings him at work and tells him the local gossip, she includes the recent tale of one neighbour telling another neighbour to stop her husband standing outside her window with ‘his nasty nature in his hand.’ (p.100)

There is, in other words, a kind of permanent sense of arousal about this novel. Almost all the men are thinking about sex, and almost every female character begins to melt into the hero’s arms, whether he wants them to or not, in a way it’s difficult not to find a little ludicrous, more Bondish than Bond, like a kind of soft porn male fantasy.

It is a welcome relief that Oliver’s ex-wife, Heather, really hates him and, when she finds out that he lied to her about his entire past, hates him even more. At least there’s one woman in the novel not in a hurry to get her kit off, but she is very much in the early parts of the book, before Oliver assumes his odyssey and begins to transform into a mythical figure.

Bombastic style

For the first hundred pages I thought we’d shaken off the phenomenal poshness of public school characters, the upper-class slang and schoolboy jargon which bombard the reader of Our Game and The Tailor of Panama – I thought it might be a normal spy thriller with normal people who talk like the people you know and meet and hear on the radio and see on TV.

But as the book progresses it becomes more dominated by bombast and hyperbole. Characters – especially the father figure, Tiger, with his rather laughable nickname – are ‘legends’, they benefit from multiple epithets like Greek gods, they are referred to as the Famous X or the Fabled Y or the Legendary Z, people pepper their speech with quotes from literature or the Bible or Shakespeare and generally sound like Mr. Cholmondley-Warner from the Harry Enfield sketches.

Repetition Why describe something once when you can describe it three times? Thus Heather calls Oliver ‘her gentle giant, her lord and schoolmaster’ (p.84) We are introduced to Brock’s assistant, Tanby, ‘Brock’s emaciated shadow’.

Cadaverous Cornish Tanby who drives Brock’s car for him when he needs to catch an hour’s kip. Fetches Brock’s Chinese take-in for him when he can’t leave his desk. Fronts for him, lies for him, hauls me upstairs when my feet are lame from drink. Tanby the calm voice in the storm, the one you want to throttle with your sweating hands. (p.90)

Whether this works or not depends on whether you prefer analysis and statements of fact, or whether you enjoy the rhythm of repetitive rhetoric.

Brock was putting names to Oliver’s worst apprehensions, raising unsleeping ghosts from his past, adding new fears to old ones. (p.113)

Tiger claims that S&S’s wealth is down to ‘Our own sweat and tears. Our intuition, our flair, our flexibility. Our merit.’ (p.191). Repeat repeat repeat is the mantra of this style.

Grandiosity Why refer to someone by name when you can inflate their importance using portentous abstract nouns? Thus Oliver the whistleblower becomes ‘The lonely decider. The idealist. The walk-in of all time.’ (p.230)

Why describe a scene when you can turn it into a kind of fairground show, complete with circus-master twirling his moustache and booming through a loudhailer? When Tiger phones down to Oliver and asks him to come up to the big office, to be officially made a partner in the firm:

It is not Elsie Watmore calling Oliver to arms but Tiger himself on the internal office telephone. It is not Pam Hawsley our fifty-thousand-a-year Ice Maiden, nor Randy Massingham our Chief of Staff and raddled Cassius. It is The Man, live on stage, impersonating the Voice of Destiny… it is springtime in the young life of our budding junior-and-only partner fresh from law school, our Czarevitch, our Heir Apparent to the Royal House of Single… (p.125)

Single & Single isn’t a company, it is ‘a magic kingdom of which his father is benign and absolute ruler’ (p.128). Tiger is accompanied by:

The fabled Yevgeny Orlov, Moscow’s patriarchal fixer, power broker, travelling plenipotentiary and cupbearer to the Throne of Power itself. (p.129)

Why does le Carré do this, submit his characters to this sustained facetious exaggeration? Is it meant to be funny? It has the effect of distancing the reader and making the characters, and the entire text, seem fatuous and a bit stupid.

Famous We read of the ‘famous Wedgwood double doors’ into the ‘divine glow’ of Tiger’s presence (p.127). The ‘fabled Yevgeny Orlov’ (p.129). At the Kat’s Cradle restaurant, our guys take ‘the famous round table in the bay’ (p.150). ‘The Orlovs are family men. Famous for it.’ (p.152) The lift to the top floor isn’t a lift – ‘the famous gilded cage stood open to waft distinguished visitors to the top floor’ (p.210). When Oliver enters his father’s office – aka ‘the Tiger’s lair’ – it is to find him ‘standing in the fabled rotunda’ (p.215). Oliver isn’t forgetful; he is afflicted ‘with his legendary vagueness’ (p.306).

The expression ‘a legend in their own mind’ was coined to describe the pompous self-importance of various types who rose to prominence in the 1980s, not least the merchant bankers who liked to think of themselves as Masters of the Universe or Big Swinging Dicks. That’s who the bombastic self-importance applied to all the characters in this novel – and their lifts and offices – reminds me of.

Religion Why say the lift is going up when you can say it is going to ‘Heaven’? Why say Tiger had a private office, when you can refer to ‘the inner sanctum’ or ‘the holy of holies’? Thus Aggie’s mother was a GP ‘and visiting angel to the poorer Glasgow suburbs’ (p.60). Brock has ‘an almost religious sense of Oliver’s rarity’ (p.95). Brock ‘allows himself a pause for prayer and contemplation’ (p.98). Meetings of the Joint Crime Prevention Team which Brock attends are ‘informal prayer sessions’ addressed by ‘a wise woman from Research’. Brock is confident that by interrogating Oliver he has ‘committed no sin against Oliver’s soul’ (p.104). Brock tells him:

‘Alfie Winser was his life-long friend and comrade-in-arms, you’ll be pleased to learn. They trudged the same hard road, shared the same ideals. Amen’ (p.116)

Why Amen? What does that Amen do except make Brock’s dialogue sound like the humourless parody of a sermon?

The crowd of coppers hanging round a meeting room are a ‘congregation’. Oliver hugs himself ‘in some private ritual of prayer’ (p.122). Tiger’s smile ‘bestows a saintly purpose’ over his colleagues (p.128). Anyone who likes Georgia is ‘a true believer’, says one of Yevgeny’s people, ‘with the authority of the pulpit, ‘in holy confirmation of his faith’ (p.133).

‘Yevgeny’s office is a chapel of calm’ (p.158). ‘Tiger himself has chosen the path of solitude and contemplation’ (p.180). The helipad at Tiger’s country house ‘is a secret altar’ (p.233). When talking to Oliver’s ex-wife, Heather, Brock ‘had a priestly tone for these occasions’ (p.250). When Oliver tells Conrad the lawyer what they think has happened it is not his version of events, it is ‘the Gospel according to Brock’ (p.290). ‘The room was a chapel of remembrance’ (p.309), and so on…

Bereft of any actual spiritual or religious content, the use of religious vocabulary is one of the many tactics used to heighten and exaggerate the language and create a permanent effect of ironic and facetious exaggeration.

Private school comparisons A really hard core English private education seems to mark its benficiaries for life, so that they refer everything in later life back to it, everything sparks memories of your prep school, or boarding school, or public school.

Thus the ‘wise woman’ who addresses the Joint Crime Prevention Team about modern crime speaks ‘with the firmness of a head mistress addressing her school leavers.’ (p.102) The Customs room at Heathrow where Oliver is questioned ‘reminds him of a boys’ changing room in one of his many boarding schools.’ (p.104) When Oliver sneaks off from Aggie, it isn’t as an adult, aware of his betrayal – instead he feels ‘like a schoolboy playing truant’ (p.383).

Oliver is seven years old. It is his first pony class and he is wearing a stiff bowler and tweed jacket. (p.232)

I’m sure we all remember our first pony class. (In fact this moment is a repeat of the memory of her first gymkhana which comes back to the leggy, posh totty Francesca, in The Tailor of Panama. Maybe there’s a first-pony memory in each of le Carré’s post-Cold War novels. But can you imagine Alec Leamas from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold reminiscing about his first pony? Or George Smiley? These aren’t just minor details, they are symptomatic of the completely different mindset and milieu of le Carré’s novels of the 1990s compared with those from the 1960s and 70s.)

The fact that most reviewers never refer to the phenomenally posh nature of his characters, the dialogue and the narrative prose is testament to the way most people working in publishing and book-reviewing themselves went to prep school, boarding school and Oxbridge, and regard this extraordinarily pukka, ironically superior diction as normal.

Great turns of phrase

Dealing with all the above on a page-by-page basis is so disappointing because le Carré is still very much capable of great turns of phrase and vivid descriptions which take you right there, in really well-imagined scenes.

The air inside the mortuary stank of putrefaction and formaldehyde. It nipped at the consul’s larynx and turned his stomach like a slow key. (p.47)

The Kurd dumped the fresh ice into the bathtub and withdrew, his mules slapping the wet stones. (p.51)

There are more firmly imagined moments and magical use of language in this book than in the previous few and for the first hundred pages or so it feels like it might be a ‘normal’ novel without le Carré’s usual barrage of bombast. He has a great way of shaping a sentence, lots of pithy encapsulations, a wonderful throwaway precision, which reminded me of his classic period in the 1970s.

…the pleasure cruisers and glass-bottomed safari boats, the little trawlers in their fishing-net mantillas.. (p.56)

A pink moon hung above him, cut to pieces by the razor wire coiled along the courtyard wall… A strained silence followed while Pode fiddled with papers and Lanxon gardened at  his pipe, gouging sodden tobacco onto an ashtray. (p.65)

The moon hung ahead of him making a white ladder of the sea. (p.83)

But…

Schoolboy prose

It is obviously a grown-up story. It is about a grown-up world and features lots of grown-ups. They have sex. They say ‘fuck’ a lot. They concoct wicked schemes. But one particular paragraph pulled me up short.

In the House of Single the tension is audible. The primly clothed typists tread gingerly. The Trading Room, barometer of morale, is buzzing with rumour. Tiger has gone out there for the big one! It’s boom or bust for Single’s! Tiger is poised for the kill of the century. (p.174)

It made me realise that a lot of this and the previous novels’ over-excited prose is more than schoolboyish, it’s actually childish. Not just the references to the characters’ jolly public school days. Not just the overgrown schoolboy banter and slang. But the actual mind-set which the prose conveys is like something out of Just William or Biggles. OK, there’s a lot of swearing and guns and sex to fool you into thinking it’s a book for grown-ups. But somewhere at the core of these texts is a gleeful adolescent rubbing his hands and yelling, Yes! the Great Spy has entered the Enemy Camp! The Master of Ceremonies awaits in the Holy of Holies! The Black-Clad Heroine stands over the Fallen Hero, Gun in Hand.

As the novel progresses the brilliant phrase-making diminishes and the bombast and exaggeration take over. And the louder the prose shouts the more the underlying mentality seems that of a 1950s boys’ comic. At a deep level, for all its geopolitical earnestness, and although le Carré is an often brilliant writer, this feels like it’s not really a serious book.


Credit

Single and Single by John le Carré was published in 1999 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2000 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • Single & Single (1999) Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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