A Delicate Truth by John le Carré (2013)

Conspiracy thrillers

I started reading grown-up books and watching movies in the mid-1970s, which happened, among other things, to be the golden age of conspiracy thrillers. After Watergate and the debacle in Vietnam, a wave of disillusioned American film-makers produced gripping and chilling movies based on the premise that wicked, money-grabbing corporations had fatally corrupted government, and that any naive young government operative who stumbled on these secrets would be eliminated by their own side.

Thus films like Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Conversation (1974), and The Parallax View (1974) still deliver a paranoid thrill today – and they have a legacy in the ongoing Bourne franchise, where yet another fresh-faced, young white man is shocked to discover that his worse enemies aren’t the Russkies or the terrorists – they’re his own superiors carrying out corrupt and covert operations which are sanctioned at the highest levels.

40 years later le Carré has, rather belatedly, woken up to idea that the same thing could happen in Britain. The plot of this novel – conscientious civil servants try to expose government-corporate cover-up – feels old, very old. And instead of the handsome Robert Redford (Condor) or Warren Beatty (Parallax), we have as ‘heroes’ the very British paring of a timid young civil servant and a fogeyish retired diplomat.

Quite apart from the dusty plot, what’s really striking about the book is the garish prose style and stilted dialogue through which it’s told, a tortured style which comes from a strange parallel universe where Jason Bourne has been rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse.

The plot

British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers the evidence that his Minister, the bullying Fergus Quinn, helped arrange a hush-hush ‘mission’, Operation Wildlife, to be carried out by an American corporation – Ethical Outcomes – involving US mercenaries, four British soldiers, and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high-value terrorist on Gibraltar.

But there was no terrorist: the apartment he was meant to be hiding in turned out to be empty, and instead a Muslim woman and her baby, probably illegal immigrants who were squatting there, were mistakenly shot to ribbons.

Three years later, retired British diplomat, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn, is approached out of the blue by Jeb Owen, one of the British soldiers who took part in Wildife and has been haunted ever since by what he saw. Jeb has identified Kit as the FO man sent to witness the operation (Kit did so under an assumed name and was spirited away moments after it ended in confusion), and now Jeb has tracked Kit down to his genteel retirement in a manor house in Cornwall.

Kit was never sure exactly what happened that night, having observed it all from a distance in the squaddies’ ‘hide’, but Jeb now confirms his worst fears that something went badly wrong, and backs his story up with black-and-white photos of the dead woman and baby.

They make a date to meet again when Jeb will produce more evidence, but Jeb not only fails to keep this meeting with Sir Kit, he turns up dead in the back of his own van, in what the authorities claim is a ‘suicide’, though his wife knows this isn’t true. The evidence in hand, and Jeb’s dodgy demise, determine the honourable Sir Kit – backed by his charming lady wife Suzanne, and with the support of his feisty doctor daughter Emily – to inform the proper authorities.

So he goes up to London, to the Foreign Office, naively and stupidly to tell the very people who covered up the fiasco in the first place that he has evidence to prove there was a fiasco and a cover-up. To Kit’s amazement – and the utter unsurprise of anyone who’s ever seen or read a conspiracy thriller – the powers-that-be not only brush aside the incident, but end up blaming him for the deaths – seeing as he was the ‘responsible officer’ on the spot – and make it clear that if he breathes a word to anyone, he will be the first one to be prosecuted. Does he want that to happen? Does he want to put his wife – in remission from some unspecified illness – through that? Or his daughter? ‘Go home, Sir Kit.’

Meanwhile, in a separate thread, we flash back three years to the build-up to the botched mission, to the period when fresh-faced young civil servant, Toby Bell, was private secretary to New Labour bruiser and Foreign Office minister, Fergus Quinn.

Toby dutifully fetches and carries for Quinn but is puzzled by the bruiser’s secretiveness – a new safe is installed in the office, his door is always closed, secret phone calls abound. Toby’s concerns reach a peak when he is told to organise a hush-hush meeting in private rooms, and to ensure that even the CCTV on the side entrance into the building is turned off, so there’s no record of the attendees.

Intrigued, Toby digs up an antique reel-to-reel tape recorder which has been mouldering in his office, plants it in the meeting room and sets the timer to record the ‘secret’ meeting. Listening to it later, he hears Fergus conspiring with a renowned shady operator who floats on the periphery of Whitehall, a certain Jay Crispin, to organise the mission, and so first hears the words Operation Wildlife.

Aware that he’s breaking various protocols and possibly the Official Secrets Act, Toby transfers the tape recording of the meeting to a computer memory stick and seeks the help of his mentor within the service, Giles Oakley.

Lofty, insouciant Giles explains that Crispin is the smooth English front man for a US mercenary outfit known as Ethical Outcomes. In fact, Toby himself briefly meets Crispin and his partner and fundraiser, introduced in characteristic JLC ringmaster fashion as ‘the one and only Miss Maisie from Houston, Texas’. Quinn introduces them to Toby in his office for what might just have been an interview to be recruited into the mission – but Tobym with his Bertie Woosterish innocence, fails the audition. And just as well, as things turn out.

Toby discovers that the FO man referred to in the plans is Sir Kit, gets his address, and so travels down to the diplomat’s big house in Cornwall. Here the pair share their discoveries and, with the latter’s forceful GP daughter Emily, they form an alliance to ‘uncover the truth’. Tremble in your boots, oh baddies.

Toby travels on to Wales to meet Jeb in his crappy, post-industrial town, only to hear from his distraught wife that Jeb ‘committed suicide’ just a few days earlier – despite having just expressing new confidence that he’s finally exorcised his post-traumatic demons by meeting and talking to Sir Kit. Plus, Jeb shot himself with his left hand, which is odd because he was right-handed. Almost as if dark forces might have bumped him off and made it look like suicide. Crikey.

1. Kit takes the dossier of evidence he’s compiled up to London and, after some effort, forces his way into the Foreign Office and an interview with some creepy lawyers. These slick operators magically twist everything round to show him that the only person named for sure in the entire operation is himself, backed up by his own admission that he was senior man on the spot. Since all the others deny any involvement, this means that if his dossier is published, he, Sir Kit, would be the prime suspect and legally held responsible. A broken man, he catches the train back to Cornwall.

2. Jeb’s widow gives Toby the phone number of one of Jeb’s army colleagues who was involved in the mission. But when Toby meets this fellow, ‘Shorty’, in a North London café, instead of having a discreet chat he finds himself being briskly escorted to a car which then drives him to a very secure, guarded house in St John’s Wood, where he is received by the smooth, handsome, posh Jay Crispin he has heard so much about. Like all baddies in thrillers, Crispin is immensely urbane and polite – ‘more coffee, Mr Bond’ – before asking if he’d like to join Ethical Outcomes – sign a confidentiality agreement and immediately double his salary? No? Oh dear. That is unfortunate.

Toby walks out and walks home, opens the door to his Islington flat and is immediately gagged, hooded and given an extreme beating by professionals wearing knuckle dusters. As he lies vomiting on the floor, one of them mutters, ‘This is just for starters’ – such a cliché it made me laugh out loud. When Sir Kit’s daughter Emily phones, Toby groans into the receiver enough to make her come round and clean him up. Feeling slightly more human, he insists on getting dressed, finding his hidden memory stick and all the other evidence, and hobbling with her help to the nearest internet café, from where he emails all the evidence he has to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 news, Guardian and so on.

At which point they hear sirens. Lots of sirens. Sirens coming from all directions and converging, with a screech of tyres, just outside the café. Almost as if his blackberry, phone and even the memory stick are tagged and monitored and that, by using them, he has drawn down on himself the forces of darkness!

Just because you’re paranoid…

This ‘powerful’ ending reminded me of the 1988 movie Defence of the Realm, in which investigative journalist Gabriel Byrne and the fragrant Greta Scacchi come together to reveal the massive official cover-up of a near-nuclear accident – which ends with them, also, posting all the documents they have to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, the Guardian etc – before the forces of darkness ensure that they meet a very sticky end.

The sticky end, after all, the time-honoured ending of the paranoia thriller (cf Warren Beatty getting killed at the end of The Parallax View) – just the final thrill in a sequence of shocking revelations.

Moreover, the downbeat climax repeats the fatalistic endings of le Carré’s other late novels – the whistleblower ‘Salvo’ unjustly extradited in The Mission Song, the innocent refugee Issa brutally kidnapped by the CIA in A Most Wanted Man, the defecting Russian mafiosi (and his innocent Brit minder) blown to pieces by the forces of darkness at the end of Our Kind of Traitor.

The ‘clean-cut-heroes-against-the-corrupt-Establishment-cover-up’ plot is an old and venerable one, one I quite literally grew up with 40 years ago. So how is it handled here? What about its style and presentation?


Le Carré land

From the first pages we are in le Carré land, where posh, naive white men talk to each other in superannuated 1950s slang, are tyrannised by modern, go-getting types who show how up-to-date they are by saying ‘fuck’ a lot, who are in cahoots with dastardly foreigners – not Islamic terrorists or Russians, no, the worst foreigners of all – Americans! – and where all the characters and the omniscient narrator are indistinguishably soaked in the same heavy-handed, lumbering, facetious tone of voice.

Le Carré’s response to every aspect of the modern world, especially in its bureaucratic and organisational forms, is one of unremitting sarcasm. He has a particular bee in his bonnet about the way ‘Personnel’ departments have been renamed ‘Human Resources’ in big organisations, a bugbear which crops up in several books. Here is Sir Kit meeting the head of HR at the Foreign Office right at the start of the novel:

‘So how’s your poor dear wife?’ asks the not-quite-superannuated ice queen of Personnel Department, now grandly rechristened Human Resources for no reason known to man, having summoned him without a word of explanation to her lofty bower on a Friday afternoon when all good citizens are running home. The two are old adversaries. If they have anything at all in common, it is the feeling that there are so few of them left.
‘Thank you, Audrey, not poor at all, I am pleased to say,’ he replies, with the determined levity he affects for such life-threatening encounters. Dear but not poor. She remains in full remission. And you? In the pink of health, I trust?’
‘So she’s leavable,’ Audrey suggests, ignoring this kindly enquiry.
‘My hat no! In what sense?’ – determinedly keeping up the jolly banter. (p.4)

The whole book is written in this phony, mock heroic voice. The passage contains examples of several JLC mannerisms:

  • The way public schoolboys use condescending tags and clichés to indicate their superiority over the great unwashed – ‘when all good citizens are running home’ – like the poor miserable rabbits that they are, presumably.
  • And is it really a ‘life-threatening encounter’, chatting to the head of HR? No. Then why make out that it is? Ironic hyperbole, old chap. All part of the ‘jolly banter’.
  • Antiquated slang. How many people, in Britain, in 2016, in a moment of surprise, exclaim, ‘my hat’? Anyone?

The HR thing gets le Carré’s goat so much he repeats it later:

‘Were the Personnel people – or Human Resources or whatever they call themselves these days…’ (p.172)

Yes, why do people keep bloody changing the words for things all the bloody time?

Jeb might be psychotic, he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or any of the other big words we throw around so easily these days… (p.187)

As Colonel Blimp might have put it: ‘Bloody confusing big words: what’s wrong with the short words we used in the good old days – dago, darkie, pansy boy?’ To my surprise, Sir Kit does actually use the expression ‘pansy-boy’:

Said one of the Americans was a little fat bastard with effeminate mannerisms. Pansy-boy, according to Jeb. The pansy-boy was the worst.’ (p.213)

Well, who could possibly disagree? ‘Bloody Americans. Bloody fat Americans. Bloody fat American pansy-boys, they’re the worst, oh definitely the worst, old boy.’

The reader thinks: ‘Well, we better not tell the confused old buffer that we no longer use pounds, shillings and pence or that we’ve put a man on the moon. His head might explode.’

And this character – Sir Christopher ‘Kit’ Probyn – with his ailing wife, his devoted labrador and his manor house in good old Cornwall – this is one of the two ‘heroes’ of the book. He is held up as a gold standard of old-fashioned morals and conscience – but comes over as an ineffectually blundering buffoon.

Our Le Carré’s use of the little word ‘our’ is symptomatic. He deploys it in a way which radiates public school, upper-class facetiousness; a pally-pally, knowing condescension:

‘our dear young queen… our stoical defenders… Mr Jay Crispin, our corporate warlord and intelligence provider… And the secret pulse of our great nation, Laura?… a reliable has-been from the ranks of our own dear Service… our intrepid friend… our selfless volunteers… [at his village fair Sir Kit enters the] roped-off enclosure of our Rustic Crafts section… [Sir Kit is referred to as the] leader of our gallant British detachment…’ and so on and so on

Far too intelligent to simply refer to people by their names or functions the narrator – and Le Carré’s characters (interchangeably) – use ‘our’ to indicate their mocking familiarity with the personage in question, advertising their lofty height above the great unwashed.

Your fine family Similarly, family and loved ones or careers and places – especially funny foreign places – are routine targets for upper-class exaggeration and elaborate hyperbole, or for the public school habit of using religious tags and mock pomposity in a tone of permanent sneering:

‘should an unfortunate crisis afflict your fine family… given to him by his beloved wife… Manila, Singapore, Dubai: these are but a few of the fine cities where you have attended conferences… Paul, you are now and for evermore family… My beloved wife Hermione tells me… his beloved La Rochefoucauld… the fabled castle that is Prague’s pride… My beloved ex-partner…’ and so on and on.

Ye olde English Toby’s mentor, Giles, tries to reassure him that everything’s been sorted out, but cannot say anything without using the same facetious upper-class banter, with the same mock Shakespearian rhetoric, that all the other characters use:

Just listen to me, dear, will you? The scandal at Defence is dead, and Jay Crispin is henceforth and forever banished from all ministerial and government premises on pain of death.’ (p.74)

Is he, though? Banished? On pain of death? No. That is deliberate hyperbole and exaggeration because posh Giles – imprisoned, like so many Le Carré characters, in the lofty tower of his expensive education – just can’t speak like ordinary people. He can’t say, ‘Listen, Crispin is finished, it’s official. No-one is allowed to contact or do business with him,’ because that is how ghastly oiks speak.

When Toby gets a new job as Private Secretary to Quinn, the narrator can’t state this as a simple fact, but has to describes him as ‘newly anointed’. In one of their long conversations, Giles goes into ecstasies of sarcasm about ‘Man of the People’ Quinn: I counted him using the ironic phrase ‘your nice new master’ five times in as many pages.

Almost all the character speak in this insufferably mannered upper-class style. There’s only so long you can listen to these smug wankers with their insufferable smugness and superiority before wanting to hit something.

Telegraphese Too posh to say complete sentences? Bark them out like a retired colonel:

  • ‘Man’s a liar.’
  • ‘Hell are you doing with my daughter anyway?’

Music hall compère I particularly relish the occasions in Le Carré novels where the narrator introduces his characters with the pomp and moustachioed bombast of an old-time, music hall compère:

And who is the guiding light in London who presides over this pragmatic trade in human destinies…. – None other than Giles Oakley, Foreign Office intelligence broker extraordinaire and mandarin at large. (p.61)

‘Tobe, kindly pay your respects to Mrs Spencer Hardy of Houston, Texas, better known to the world’s elite as the one and only Miss Maisie.’ (p.86)

The first quote is the narrator speaking. The second one is ‘Man of the People’ Fergus Quinn speaking. The mock heroic phraseology is identical in both. That’s why I say the narrator’s voice and the characters’ voices are interchangeable: they all radiate the same kind of condescending, mock heroic, upper-class grandiosity.

This inability to find any other voice than a pompous Old Etonian is particularly noticeable when le Carré tries to do colonials. Just as the Australian tennis coach in Our Kind of Traitor didn’t sound remotely Australian, so Elliot the allegedly South African character doesn’t sound remotely South African – he sounds just like all Le Carré’s other elaborately facetious characters – although in these two particular cases, rather more like an elaborately ironic butler than the lord of the manor:

‘Sir, I believe I have the singular honour of welcoming Mr Toby Bell of Her Majesty’s Foreign Office. Is that correct, sir?’ (p.316)

Really? Is that really how a tough bastard South African mercenary would talk?

1950s slang Is there anyone of working age who routinely says ‘old sport’ and ‘old chap’ at the end of every sentence? Or ‘what?’ Or exclaims ‘My hat’? In a remarkable moment, the smooth-talking New Labour-era creep Jay Crispin, manipulator of American billionaires and Whitehall ministers, while trying to buy Toby off, tells him that Jeb, the soldier he was due to meet is a bit, you know,

Not quite himself, ‘twixt thee and me. (p.319)

‘Twixt thee and me’?

Sarcastic descriptions Similarly, when le Carré wants to ridicule characters he does it with very heavy sarcasm, lumbering them with elaborately ironic adjectives and descriptions. In particular, in all these later novels, le Carré can barely contain his anger at the way Tony Blair’s New Labour betrayed all its promises, instigated the appalling ‘corporatisation’ of the state (in this case the civil service, with its outliers in the military and intelligence services – renaming perfectly good Personnel departments Human Resources, for chrissakes), and rubber-stamped America’s mad invasion of Iraq.

This anti-New Labour animus adds such malevolence that posh Giles can only bring himself to refer to Toby’s minister – ‘your nice new master’ Quinn – with arch facetiousness:

‘…your distinguished minister… appears determined to outdo the militarist zeal of his late great leader, Brother Blair…’ (p.97)

(I’ve never seen this formula – ‘brother X’ – with its air of smothering but simultaneously contemptuous familiarity, used in this way by any other author. It’s a le Carré trademark.)

The first half of the book amounts to a satirical caricature of a New Labour minister, Fergus Quinn, who bulks large in the first half of the novel as Toby’s bullying master, helping to arrange the ill-fated mission, presumably in expectation of some back-handers or a transition to a nice, corporate position when he leaves government. With characteristic New Labour emphasis on slick media presentation, Quinn hypocritically puts on a smile for the cameras and likes to present himself as a straight-talking Glaswegian. And so gets skewered with the same withering descriptors throughout:

‘Fergus Quinn, man of the people… Quinn the People’s Choice… the Champion of the Working Classes… Fergus Quinn, MP, white hope of the powers-that-be in Downing Street (p.191)

A politician who puts on a fake smile for the cameras but is really a hectoring bully in private? Golly. A politician who helps high-level business contacts while in office and then moves smoothly into a related directorships when he leaves? Crikey. This isn’t really new. It isn’t even New Labour new. Weren’t Trollope and other Victorians aware of the canting posturing of politicians. Isn’t 18th century literature awash with corrupt political figures? What is The Beggar’s Opera (1728) but a satire on the deep-dyed corruption of the Prime Minister?

Bluster instead of insight As per usual, when key players in a le Carré novel try to get to the heart of the matter, they prove incapable of intelligent analysis – instead they bluff and bluster. The first meeting between the good guys, Sir Kit and Toby, has them discussing the situation and leads up to Sir Kit summarising for Toby his understanding of the military cock-up which is at the heart of the whole plot:

‘Operation Wildife,’ he barked. ‘Roaring success, we were told. Drinks all round. Knighthoods for me, promotion for you – what?’ (p.198)

Days later I am still reeling from the imbecility of this moment. The man is meant to be a seasoned diplomat. Toby, who he’s talking to, is meant to be a fast track civil servant.

When I worked at the Department for International Development, I had contact with some of the heads of directorates and once with the Secretary of State himself. What came over was their immense workload and the brisk, professional way they dealt with it. I was impressed by the speed and incisiveness of their fact-processing and decision-making. By contrast, almost all le Carré’s Whitehall characters come over as dim and slow – really slow, much, much slower than the reader, who is always streets ahead of them. By about half way through I was really hoping the entire crew of dim duffers would be arrested, extradited, or simply blown up, as the only fitting way to respond to such irreparable denseness.

Humour Le Carré is probably the most humourless writer I know. But his narratives act as if they’re hugely funny. Take Elliot, the dodgy South African mercenary handling the British soldiers during the ill-fated mission. Here he is explaining to Sir Kit that the aim of the mission is to kidnap a terrorist, codenamed Aladdin.

‘Aladdin is basically a mixed-race Pole who has taken out Lebanese citizenship… Aladdin is the Pole I personally would not touch with a barge, to coin a witticism…’ (p.23)

Ha. Ha ha. Le Carré is so proud of this joke that he repeats it a few pages later. And to be fair, it is probably the funniest joke in the novel. There’s another cracker when Sir Kit asks one of the yokels in his village, Ben, the owner of Ben’s garage, if he can borrow some metal cutters, prompting this sparkling exchange:

‘You off to prison?’ Ben enquires.
‘Well, not just at the moment, Ben, thank you,’ replies the same Kit, with a raucous hah! of a laugh. (p.142)

Because, you see, Ben the yokel is making a humorous suggestion that Sir Kit might want metal cutters so he can break out of prison, and Sir Kit pretends to find this frightfully funny. Ha ha ha. Oh, my hat!

Italics Why so many italics in the dialogue? Scattered so randomly? After as little as one page the reader begins to wonder whether the characters are mentally ill, afflicted with a version of Tourette’s Syndrome which makes them emphasise words with no logical reason, like a pub drunk jabbing you in the chest with his finger according to no discernable logic.

As a tiny example, when Sir Kit goes up to London to (naively and hopelessly) put his case to his former employers at the Foreign Office, he has to pass through several layers of security but then is gladdened to see a familiar face:

‘Molly, my God, of all people, I thought you’d retired aeons ago, what on earth are you doing here?’
‘Alumni, darling,’ she confided in a happy voice. ‘I get to meet all our old boys and girls whenever they need a helping hand or fall by the wayside, which isn’t you at all, you lucky man, you’re here on business, I know. Now then. What kind of business? You’ve got a document and you want to hand it personally to God. But you can’t because he’s on a swan to Africa – well deserved, I may add. A great pity because I’m sure he’ll be furious when he hears he’s missed you.’ (pp.282-283)

Partly it’s standard upper-middle-class class gush: ‘Oh Lavinia, how simply marvellous to see you’ etc. But it’s been turned up a notch, beyond the comprehensible, to become a mannerism, a compulsion.

The suspicion arises, not for the first time, that when le Carré tries to do clever dialogue between people who are assessing and probing each other – dialogue which ought to be subtle, measured and understated – he can’t. So he has his characters either swear a lot ‘for fuck’s sake’, or randomly emphasise every other word to make it sound somehow more forceful and intelligent.

Both of which tactics fail.

Conclusions

Whereas the outcomes of, say, a Robert Harris thriller are genuinely unexpected and sometimes terrifying, the outcomes – in fact most of the plots – of le Carré’s later novels are entirely predictable variations on the dominating obsession of his post-Cold War books, all emanating from the, to-him, shocking revelation that the modern world is corrupt.

The key text to understanding his attitude is his 2003 article ‘The United States of America has gone mad‘, which perfectly captures the way he can barely contain his white-hot anger at the American government’s stupid, blundering, imperialistic invasion of Iraq – so much so that the tone spills over into sarcasm, facetiousness and barely controlled hysteria.

(Note particularly the final section which abruptly switches from outraged journalistic diatribe to a spooky dialogue between an earnest lickle child asking innocent questions about the war and a reassuring Daddy telling him the it will all be over quickly and everything will be alright.)

The same runaway anger informs these later novels – anger that:

  • transnational corporations get away with murder (The Constant Gardener)
  • a rogue America can trample roughshod over individual and national rights in its obsessive ‘war on terror’ (Absolute Friends, A Most Wanted Man)
  • and worst of all, how Britain has also fallen into the mire [since some imaginary romantic past of chivalrous idealism] so that senior politicians, businessmen and even elements of ‘our dear Intelligence Service’, are in corrupt collusion with shady foreigners like the Russian mafia (Our Kind of Traitor), or are paid agents of dastardly international arms dealers (The Night Manager) or are helping to plan coups to impose corporate-friendly rulers on helpless Third World nations (The Mission Song)

Anger that is only barely contained beneath a simmering surface of withering sarcasm, of fake joviality and spurious bonhomie littered with the bizarre remnants of the almost-forgotten, upper-class banter of the 1950s.

The movie

If you dumped the entire bombastic narrative voice, changed the characters from 1950s throwbacks to make them 21st century people, rewrote the dialogue so it is intelligent and snappy rather than sweary public school chaffing, and trimmed down and focused the plot – in fact if you dropped everything about the book except the core idea – Foreign Office hero uncovers conspiracy to cover up UK involvement in US-led extraordinary rendition cock-up – then it would make a cracking movie or TV series, just like A Most Wanted Man or The Night Manager which, once they’d been extracted from le Carré land, and comprehensively rewritten, proved to be very successful.


Credit

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré was published in 2013 by Viking books. All quotes are from the 2014 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing 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 trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – 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.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary 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 eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard 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, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional 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 with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – 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.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar – but there was no terrorist: instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré (2010)

‘Well, fuck, said Hector happily.
‘Fuck indeed,’ Perry agreed, bemused. (p.88)

Plot

Perry and Gail

Thirty-something Oxford tutor, Peregrine ‘Perry’ Makepeace, and his girlfriend, the beautiful, rising star barrister, Gail (immediately reminiscent of the beautiful, rising star journalist, Penelope, in The Mission Song), are on holiday in Antigua.

Gail is a stunner (‘Men fell in love with her all the time’, p.181). Perry, we are told, rather adventurously, went to a State school – gosh – but seeing as he is a famous tennis player, and a famous mountain climber, who is also passionate about cricket, looks good in his Oxford bags, and says ‘chaps’ and ‘fellows’ a lot, he actually sounds like all le Carré’s other public school heroes. In fact, the characters’ lexicons quickly transport us back to the 1950s of the black-and-white St Trinians movies.

As a small example, there’s an Australian tennis coach at the resort who takes Perry under his wing but sounds like no Australian I’ve ever met, more like a diamond geezer from a 1950s crime caper.

‘Thank you, Perry, no doubles for Dima, I’m afraid,’ he interjected smartly. ‘Our friend here plays singles only, correct, sir? You’re a self-reliant man. You like to be responsible for your own errors, you told me once. Those were your very words to me not so long ago, and I’ve taken them to heart… Perry, I do not believe you should be reluctant to take this gentleman on,’ Mark insisted, ramming his case home. ‘If I was a betting man, I’d be pushed which of you to favour, and that’s a living fact.’ (p.9)

Australian? Similarly, the maitre d’ at the hotel is named Ambrose but since, in le Carré land, no character goes without a facetious nickname or adjective for very long, he swiftly becomes ‘the venerable Ambrose’ (p.48).

This habit of giving every character a larky adjective (‘the immaculate Gail’,  ‘Ace Operator Perry’ p.77) and then making them speak with improbably plumminess or butler-like servility, quickly makes the whole book feel like a P.G. Wodehouse novel with, admittedly, a lot of modern swear words thrown in. As if aware of this, JLC has the characters explicitly reference PGW on p.94:

Precisely, Bertie,’ Perry agreed in his best Wodehousian, and they found time for a quick laugh.

Dima

It is Perry’s demon tennis-playing which gets him introduced to a stocky, charismatic, over-friendly Russian named Dima. Perry and Dima have a sweaty singles match, with Dima effing and blinding all the way through, as he goes on to do throughout the rest of the novel.

Next day the couple find themselves invited to join Dima’s extended family on the beach, getting to know his reclusive, religious wife Tamara, the stroppy twin boys and the beautiful, pubescent Natasha. Ice cream and cricket on the beach are followed by an invitation to a party at Dima’s villa that evening.

Here Perry and Gail are surprised to find themselves ushered into a remote room up in the windy attic of the building and handed a piece of paper while Dima signs them not to speak and they realise he is worried about being bugged and recorded.

On the paper, Dima has written a long message claiming that he has invaluable information he wants to give to the British government in return for asylum in Britain for him and his family. Gail is taken aside by Tamara, leaving the men alone, and Dima gives Perry a small package which turns out to contain a tape cassette to give to ‘the right people’ back in England. Then they all go on to the party.

After the party, back at their holiday apartment, a bewildered Perry and Gail decide to cut short their holiday and return to Britain. Being a lecturer at Oxford, Perry has heard about a fellow tutor who, rumour says, makes ‘approaches’ to his undergraduates on behalf of the security services. Perry goes and tells him his story; the don listens, then gives Perry a phone number. Perry rings it and is put through to ‘Adam’ who instructs him to a) write his own account of the proceedings b) expect a taxi driven by ‘Ollie’ who will collect him and Gail and drive them to a basement flat in Bloomsbury.

Perry and Gail’s debriefing

Here the couple undergo an immensely detailed ‘debriefing’, in which their ‘handlers’, Luke and Yvonne, force them to relive every word, every inflection, every facial expression of every single exchange they had with Dima and with each other during the Antigua trip.

This is le Carré’s forté, the detailed presentation of the debriefing and recruitment process, a process we know from his biography that he actually carried out himself when he worked for the security service in the 1950s. But whereas in, say, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the reader is only slowly and cannily allowed insights into the cunning conspiracy being carried out by the disgruntled spy, Leamas, and so is on tenterhooks throughout his interrogation by East German security – here, we don’t yet know how much, if anything, is at stake, and so these long opening pages contain no tension.

Lacking this, we are left with the characters of the posh young couple and quickly become irritated by their bickering and nerviness, especially Gail’s bitchiness. Her feminist unhappiness that Dima chose to speak to Perry alone, and that Perry then refused to reveal what was said at that private meeting, comes out in the sustained use of italicised emphases:

‘It’s true. I felt appointed by him. Over-promoted is more like it. Actually, I don’t know what I felt any more.’ (p.50)

In her leaden sarcasm:

‘You listening, Gail?’
What the fuck d’you think I’m doing? Singing ‘The Mikado’? (p.75)

And her improbable mimicking of the voices of everyone concerned – Dima, Tamara, Perry himself – so that she comes across as a rather demented Mike Yarwood. Not helped by her mannerism of ending almost every paragraph with the tag, ‘didn’t we, Perry?’ Gail is meant to be a rising star barrister but quickly comes across as a petulant, spoiled 14-year-old.

‘Perry! Stop! Come back! Stay here! I’m the fucking lawyer here, not you.’ (p.75)

Hector Meredith

At the end of these sessions, disgruntled Gail is told to go (again), leaving Perry with Luke and Yvonne. At this point they reveal that their boss has been listening, upstairs, to the couple’s debriefing. Now he pads downstairs to meet Perry in person.

The boss is called Hector Makepeace and he is an extraordinarily old-fashioned, 1950s type of fellow, who overwhelms the text with his blustering, hail-fellow-well-met manner, his bolshy, anti-modern Britain attitude, and his copious, ceaseless swearing.

‘Well, I’ll tell you what you are, Mr Perry Makepeace, sir,’ he asserted, as if he’d reached the conclusion they had both been waiting for. ‘You’re an absolute fucking hero, is what you are’ – seizing Perry’s hand in a flaccid double grip and giving it a limp shake – ‘and that’s not smoke up your arse.’ (p.87)

‘Smoke up your arse’? ‘And that’s a living fact’? On every page the prose is studded with heroically out-of-date slang. Although the narrative is set in the Noughties, the lexicon is a combination of Dixon of Dock Green livened up by The Sweeny. The monotonous, continuous use of ‘fuck’, many times on every page, quickly becomes wearing. Pages 75 to 77:

‘Jesus Perry. I’m fucking scared…I’m the fucking lawyer here…For fuck sake, it’s me, Gail…What the fuck is going on between you two…What the fuck d’you think I’m doing… what the fuck are you trying to tell me… Tamara didn’t speak, Perry. Not one solitary fucking word… absolutely fuck-all passed between Tamara and myself… either mind your own fucking business or tell me what Dima said to you.’

I laughed out loud when Hector is described as a ‘maverick’ (p.124). Just like the swearing, blustering ‘maverick’, Bachmann, in the previous novel, Hector is the ‘legendary’ subject of the same kind of ‘rumour mill’ (p.125) and ‘ground-floor gossips’ (p.145) and ‘office wits’ (p.163) that all JLC’s sweary mavericks inspire. He even has devoted ‘Hector-watchers’ (p.126), as there are ‘Bachmann-watchers’ and watchers of each of this character type in all the novels going back to Tinker, Tailor (and even turn out to be ‘Perry watchers’, on page 180). It’s as if every JLC character comes trailing a retinue of adoring followers, like a supermodel or film star.

Hector explains himself:

‘You’re on record as believing that our green and pleasant land is in dire need of saving from itself. I happen to share that opinion. I’ve studied the disease. I’ve lived in the swamp. It is my informed conclusion that we are suffering, as an ex-great nation, from top-down corporate rot. And that’s not just a judgement of an ailing old fart. A lot of people in my Service make a profession of not seeing things in black and white. Do not confuse me with them. I’m a late-onset, red-toothed radical with balls. Still with me?’ (p.119)

No, frankly. This is worthless as any kind of political analysis, and it just confirms your opinion of Hector – who is the lynchpin and centre of the plot – as, well, an ailing old fart. Is this how the author sees himself – a late-arriving radical, a maverick, the man who tells it like he sees it, damn the consequences and that’s not smoke up your arse?

There is a bit of sub-plot thrown in whereby Hector, a few years earlier, took leave from the Service to fight off the aggressive takeover of his family firm by dastardly corporate raiders. His battle made the press, in which he is described as ‘a doughty lone warrior’ fighting off ‘vulture capitalists’ (p.126), depicted as the kind of gentlemanly, paternalistic, tweedy business owner that went extinct in the 1950s. So the reader is not at all surprised to learn that the doughty warrior is ‘a stubborn technophobe’ (p.145).

A man, in other words, completely unsuitable for the 21st century world he finds himself in, who is not trusted or respected by his superiors and who, as we shall see, embarks on a ramshackle security mission which completely fails.

With Hector we get our first introduction to the office politics of the security services, insofar as this wild ‘maverick’ has trouble getting his superiors on-board for his projects (just as Bachmann had trouble with his bosses in the previous novel).

This is especially true of the Head of his Department, William J. Matlock. Since no le Carré character goes un-nicknamed (just like back at prep school), Matlock is immediately referred to as Billy Boy Matlock or plain ‘Bully Boy’ (p.130). From the start Hector conveys the sense that there are wheels within wheels at the security service, and that he is struggling against official scepticism, bureaucratic inertia, and worse, to get the Dima project signed off.

Dima’s career

Through all Hector’s bluster and swearing, it emerges that the security services know about Dima and have a good record of his career. For Dima is currently the finance officer for the seven brotherhoods which dominate the Russian crime underworld. As a youth he was imprisoned in the harshest possible labour camp in the Kolyma region of Siberia. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for murdering a military administrator who frequented his horrible state-built family apartment, and who ushered him and the other kids out of the apartment while he screwed their mother, very noisily, so that the rest of the floor could hear it all. Until teenage Dima snapped and stabbed him to death. (As with Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, every reference to ordinary life in Russia makes it sound unbearably awful.)

In the Kolyma camp Dima got covered in underworld tattoos, and became a vor or member of a criminal brotherhood. Once released and back in Moscow, his natural aptitude for figures, and the contacts he made in prison, saw him rise through the ranks of his particular brotherhood, before becoming financial manager for the Big Seven, going on to create a vast international money-laundering operation of which he is now the lynchpin.

But now things are going wrong for Dima. A shadowy underworld figure referred to only as ‘the Prince’ (p.147) is taking over the brotherhoods and he wants to replace Dima with his own man. Dima is being forced to sign over his control of all the gangs’ finances, in two separate tranches which are coming up very soon, whereupon he knows he will be ‘whacked’.

The net is closing in very fast and violently. A protege of his, a vor he mentored named Misha, who had married Tamara’s sister (an ex-hooker) and so became family, was assassinated just a week before Perry and Gail met Dima. Hence the air of tension about the whole family which they both noticed, the bodyguards, the silent meeting in the attic of the villa. And why Misha’s newly orphaned children were among the large family group Gail, in particular, found herself entertaining on the beach.

All this explains Dima’s desperate approach to the first half-reputable Englishman he could find – the unfortunate Perry. And clarifies the whole following sequence of events – Perry approaching his fellow tutor, phoning Hector, writing his account and now, meeting Hector.

What Perry hadn’t told Gail – and part of the reason for her resentment at his secrecy – is that Dima insists that, when he meets representatives of British security, Perry and Gail are present as a guarantee for his safety. Hector now offers Perry his proposition: do he and Gail want to work for him, and British intelligence, on a dangerous mission, namely to help smuggle Dima and his family away from the Russian mafia, out of the Continent, to safety here in Blighty?

Perry returns to Gail’s flat and puts the proposition to her. She thinks of Dima’s girls. She thinks of the beautiful Natasha. She says yes.

Conspiracy at the highest levels

Dima has insisted that Gail and Perry rendezvous with him in a box to watch the French Open Tennis championship at the Roland-Garros stadium in Paris on June 7. So the team must be in place by then.

Hector meets with his boss, Matlock and plays him Dima’s tape, which contains hot information about the far-reaching criminal activities of the seven brotherhoods, some of which include British officials.

Then, a whole new arena in our understanding of the situation opens up, with the screening of video footage taken by British security agents of a party held aboard a luxury yacht given by ‘the Prince’ and featuring a rogues gallery of crooks AND a senior figure in the British Opposition (ie Labour) party, who happens to be charged with overseeing banking reform and regulation, AND Aubrey Longrigg, Matlock’s predecessor as senior executive in MI6 itself!

Once again in a le Carré late fiction, Britain’s darkest enemy seems to be inside the ranks of its own ‘Establishment’: as in The Night Manager where the evil arms smuggler was shown to have supporters within the security services, as in The Mission Song where an illegal African coup was mounted with the help of ‘elements’ of the British security services.

Same here. Hector is playing a ‘dangerous’ game by trying to secure Dima’s defection, since the Russian’s confession will implicate some very influential people indeed, people who will pull every string to make the mission fail or to silence Dima.

The plan

While these high-level machinations trundle on, Gail and Perry undergo a detailed preparation for their role in the great Dima defection, an abbreviated course in spy skills given by Ollie and Luke. (Throughout the book we hear more and more about Luke, about his unhappy marriage and his multiple affairs and indiscretions. He is quickly ‘little Luke’ and moves on to being described as ‘randy little Luke’, not least because he rather too overtly fancies Gail, another string in her bow of permanent irritation.)

Gail and Perry are flown to Paris, put up at a hotel and the next day, as arranged, accidentally-on-purpose, bump into Dima in one of the shopping malls outside the Roland-Garros stadium.

Dima is accompanied by a large group of Russian mafiosi, including the Prince himself, and a number of western courtiers, including the over-the-top ‘queen’, Bunny Popham, the sinister Italian fixer, Dell Oro, and a former Royal Navy officer, de Salis, now PR man for the Prince in the City of London.

Dima is being kept under the beady watch of sundry heavies but gaily invites Gail and Perry to join him in their luxury box for the big game featuring Roger Federer (since all the best Society events nowadays have special boxes for the Russian mafia).

Out of all these courtesies and invitations, it is somehow agreed that Dima and ‘the Professor’ will play a little amateur match (after everyone has enjoyed the big one with Federer) on one of the small, private courts. It is pouring down with rain, but they decide to proceed anyway and the group of criminal VIPs, their hookers and hangers-on, as well as the armed hoods watching his every move, don’t seem to find this suspicious.

But in fact this match is an elaborate excuse for Dima to go with Perry down to a subterranean ‘massage room’ where Hector is waiting – to introduce himself to Dima, and ask him vital questions about the timing of his signing over of his fiduciary powers, to explain how they’re planning to snatch him, to quiz him about his family who are still back in Switzerland and how they will be brought to safety.

Hector and Dima shake hands on the deal, then Dima and Perry sally out to play their rather silly game of tennis in the rain. Once it’s over, both players return to the ‘massage room’, where Hector and Dima make final arrangements – before both players return, showered and changed, to the hoods drinking champagne in their box.

The snatch

Next day our team are in place – as in an episode of Mission Impossible – at the Bellevue Palace Hotel, which is where the Russian contingent is staying.

Luke is in the lobby, posing as an innocent bystander tapping away on his laptop. When Dima comes downstairs with the Prince and other heavies he asks to go for a pee in what happens to be the downstairs toilet. Down he goes, followed by Luke, who none of the Russkies know or suspect. As they turn a corner and are hidden from view of the mafia, in one fell swoop Luke clobbers one of Dima’s two minders with his laptop, while Dima turns, punches and savagely kicks the other one to the ground.

They flee out the back door – carefully unlocked in advance – jump into the car stashed in a nearby car park, roar out onto the street and are well on their way to the remote Alpine village of Wenden, before the Russkies realise anything is wrong.

Collecting the family

Meanwhile, Gail and Perry have been driven by Ollie, in a horsebox as a disguise, to Berne, where Dima has told us his family are staying. Here they hurriedly load up Tamara, the boys et al. Except that the beautiful teen Natasha is not there! That morning she had asked her bodyguard, Igor, to drive her to the station. Gail – who had formed a close bond with Natasha on the beach and then carried on exchanging messages by text and phone – volunteers to track the teenager down and bring her to the safe house.

Reluctantly, Perry and Ollie leave her and drive the rest of the family direct to the house in Wenden. What Gail knows that none of the others do – because they’ve discussed it in text messages – is that Natasha is pregnant by her ski instructor, Max. Gail knows the ski resort where Max lives and has a shrewd idea that’s where Natasha has gone.

After taking the train there, Gail asks around and quickly finds the house of the dashing instructor, and there finds a miserable Natasha cowering on the sofa. She has discovered that her Alpine Adonis is in fact married with a child of his own and is being offered tea by his kindly wife, all unawares of the situation. Ah. Teenage love. Gail gently removes Natasha and transports her via a series of trains towards the safe house and to the rendezvous with the main party.

Tension

Now that the 250 pages of meetings and interviews are over, and that something is actually happening, these last forty pages of the novel become genuinely tense. For a start the various cars driven by Ollie et al – and Gail and Natasha on their train – seem to be stopped and asked for their tickets or their passes or their car permits, more than is strictly necessary.

They become convinced that some kind of alert is out for them, even though no law has been broken. The text powerfully conveys the strong suspicion that the Swiss authorities have been tipped off by – might even be collaborating with – the Russian mafia. At each stopping, as the police kick the tyres and ask for the boot to be opened and then stare at them for a long time as they drive off, JLC very effectively builds up the tension and the certainty in the reader’s mind that one or all of them will be arrested, assassinated, blown up – that something terrible is going to happen.

Delay

Gail, Perry, Luke, Ollie, Dima and his family are now all holed up in a remote Swiss chalet awaiting the signal for them to be shipped to England. And wait. And wait.

Because the running thread through the book describing Hector’s struggles with his superiors – with his boss Matlock, and the people above him, and also the baleful influence of Longrigg and other shadowy figures – now comes to the fore.

Hector phones the team from London, bitterly reporting delays, with the Home Office, passport, immigration, HMRC, all putting blockers in the way. Meanwhile, the hours turn into days, day after day, of tense waiting and diminishing hope for Dima, his family and the team.

In their conversations, JLC is at pains to bring out the theme of all his post-Cold War fiction, that the Enemy Within, the greed and corruption inside the so-called ‘Establishment’, which infects the higher reaches of British society – Parliament, the banks, corporate lawyers, multinational corporations – is at least as bad as the Enemy Outside, terrorism or international crime.

Thus it is strongly implied that a cohort of 40 or so MPs, a number of buyable Lords, the Financial Services Authority, parts of the Press guided by PR consultants, have all been bought and paid for by the Russian mafia. As one character puts it, at a period of crippling credit crunch, any money – even Russian mafia money – is good, especially if it comes in billions.

Eventually, Hector tells Luke and Perry that he’s got conditional approval to fly Dima to London and that, if Dima’s information satisfies the security services and other stakeholders, then the family can follow.

Perry accompanies Luke and Dima to the tiny private airport at Belp, near the safe house, and there are last hugs and handshakes. He notes that Dima seems a shrunk, lost man, having abandoned hope over these last soul-sapping days.

Fin

Dima and ‘randy little Luke’ board the plane and Perry watches it take off, bank and then blow up. BOOM. The flaming fragments falling to the snowy earth. That’s the end. There’s a page giving an impartial record of the ‘official enquiries’ held into the ‘incident’ which speculate about ‘instrument failure’ or ‘pilot error’. Oh well. Nothing at all about Perry or Gail or Ollie or Yvonne or the rest of Dima’s family or Hector.

Just a cold bleak end.


Reader response

So a high-level Russian mafiosi is murdered. Do I care? Nope. Will Gail and Perry go back to their normal lives, sadder and wiser? Yes. Will Hector the maverick’s career be damaged, maybe finished? Probably, but he is ‘an ailing old fart’, anyway. Is it sad to see ‘randy little Luke’ blown to pieces? Yes, but he was as tiresome as all the other characters.

In fact, the only people I felt anything for were the two unnamed pilots of the plane who were, presumably, totally innocent of any involvement in anything and are the most genuine victims of the whole book.

Am I scared or concerned that ‘senior figures’ in the Establishment are somehow ‘in cahoots’ with possibly criminal elements of the Russian mafia? Once I’ve put the book down and the sense of fear generated by the clever writing towards the end has faded away – No. I can well imagine MPs and Lords working as consultants for companies which are ‘fronts’ for dubious activities – they’ve done that for centuries.

All of us know that our banks have been involved in countless criminal activities, from selling us PPI to laundering drug money – so no surprises there. Do I believe that the British Security Services engage in illegal and criminal activities? Well, we know they bugged and burgled their way across London for decades, and Edward Snowden’s revelations proved the astonishing degree of their surveillance over us, and we’ve known about the US-UK policy of extraordinary rendition for some time.

So, although JLC is outraged at these travesties, he seems to have discovered them a long time after the rest of us. The one claim that stands out from these books, is that some elements of the British Security Services actively conspire against other elements in the same services, to collaborate with international criminals and to quash investigations into their activities. But again, since 9/11 and the decision to invade Iraq, it’s become common knowledge that different security organisations don’t talk to each other, withhold information, are poorly co-ordinated, and so on. That this sometimes crosses the line into actively criminal behaviour would require more proof than a novel.

No matter how serious, complicated and well-documented many of these issues are, in imaginative terms, I’d say these books fail to convince you because – whatever the facts of the matter – the style of these novels all too often makes the characters seem absurd.


Style

This is because every aspect of the style is overblown.

Legendary characters

From the get-go the characters are ‘legendary’, ‘fabled’, ‘famous’, much talked-about, the subject of the ubiquitous ‘gossips’ and ‘rumour mills’, with sets of ‘watchers’ devoted to monitoring their every move, as if they are film stars or celebrities.

Where are they legendary? In the world they move in? Or in the author’s mind, where he creates theatres of overacting?

  • … Perry says, parading his fabled powers of recall. (p.35)
  • Perry on guard over his celebrated memory. (p.47)
  • He was renowned for his ability to quote tracts of English literature on the strength of a single read. (p.58)
  • His surprise had been all the greater therefore when a month into his sentence he lifted the phone that hardly ever rang to hear himself being summoned by Hector Meredith to lunch with him forthwith at his famously dowdy London club (p.123). ‘Forthwith’?
  • Was it because Longrigg and Matlock had for years been famously at daggers drawn? (p.163)
  • Hector’s fabled nerve (p.152)
  • a view of the fabled Lauterbrunnen Valley (p.276)

The ringmaster presents!

The narrative introduces characters with the facetious over-ripeness of a circus ringmaster – the eminent this, the legendary that, introducing for your deelight and deelectation none other than the one and only, world famous Mr Mafia Himself!!!! Or, as Dima’s become by page 277:

The world’s number-one money-launderer.

The circus master idea is made explicit late in the novel, when the text refers to ‘Giles de Salis, ringmaster of the media circus’ (p.282). Is le Carré consciously parodying this bombastic manner? Why? It’s one of the many ways in which there is no subtlety or nuance in these late novels. Everyone is performing grand, larger-than-life roles.

Another aspect is the way all the characters accumulate a large number of descriptors:

Perry the English tutor (p. 35) Perry as capsule historian (p.109) Perry the puritan (p.48) Perry the climber of north face overhangs (p.54) Perry the devoted mountaineer (p.299)

Gail the actress’s daughter, Gail the barrister (p.184) the immaculate Gail (p.94)

Little Luke, randy little Luke, Luke the conciliator, adept little Luke, dapper Luke, little B-list Luke, Luke the habitual worrier (p.276), Luke the good man on a rope (p.304)

Mocking sobriquets

Giving all the characters facetious tags is very double-edged. Sometimes the tone is one of reckless over-promotion; but at least as often it smacks of public school mockery. The tags which attach themselves like limpets to the characters, are often mocking, knowing, superior, dismissive.

  • Nine p.m. approx. Supper arrives, wheeled in not by any old room-service waiter, but the venerable Ambrose himself. (p.32)
  • ‘This very fine bottle of champagne comes to you folk courtesy of the one and only Mr Dima himself.’ (p.32)
  • the hallowed archives (p.140)
  • Yvonne, our Iron Maiden (p.138)

These larky adjectives don’t help the plot at all. Maybe they’re intended to add depth to the characters but they do the opposite, turning all of them into caricatures:

  • Deft little Luke papering over the gaps (p.38)
  • Genial Ollie the driver (p.40)
  • Little Luke ever the conciliator (p.49)
  • Perry the innocent (p.146)

Two of the Prince’s entourage are never named but Gail immediately makes up nicknames for them – Peter and the Wolf – which everyone agrees are jolly apt, and that’s how they’re referred to for the rest of the book. Similarly, one of Dima’s minders is a lean lanky man and Gail nicknames him ‘the cadaverous philosopher’, which is how he’s referred to for the rest of the book.

Everyone is infected with the same kind of facetious public school banter. For example, Hector is referred to as the team’s ‘supreme leader’ (p.85), the head of HR is referred to as ‘the queen of Human Resources’ (p.124).

Because Gail is not going to be available for work during ‘the mission’, she texts her chambers to get a colleague to cover for her. The colleague is named Helga, but these facts aren’t enough for the narrative, which immediately caricatures her:

Helga her bête noire? Man-eating Helga of the fishnet stockings who played the Chambers’ male silks like a lyre. (p.214)

JLC doesn’t just show his characters – he is continually poking you in the chest, nudging your elbow and crowding you into accepting his caricature estimation of them. And I intensely dislike being bullied by a book, instead of being allowed to judge and work out for myself. It is condescending. It insults the reader’s intelligence to be continually nudged and reminded that Luke is little or randy, that Yvonne is stern, that Gail is immaculate, and so on and on and on and on.

Italics

The overblown effect of the characters is reinforced by the liberal use of italics to emphasise random parts of the characters’ dialogue.

  • Perry wasn’t signing when he signed the form, he was joining. (p.34)
  • ‘After picking her way delicately over the sand for all eyes to see, she then settles herself languidly under the furthest sunshade of the row and begins her terribly serious reading. Right, Perry?’ (p.35)
  • ‘Her whole body was like a warning sign in black and red. Forget Dima, I thought. This is really something. And of course I was still wondering what her problem was. Because boy, did she have one.’ (p.57)

There are scads of italics on every page, which so often emphasise trivial and insignificant details that they not only become dreadfully wearing to read, but eventually teach the reader to ignore half the things the characters are saying.

Public school tags

Adding to the tone of heavy-handed public school facetiousness, the text is sprinkled with tags from the Bible or popular classics, knowing references to clichés from hymns or the Bible or Shakespeare.

  • The Lord is in his heaven (p.122)
  • in heaven or on earth (p.139)
  • ‘our green and pleasant land’ (p.119)

It is a recurrent habit for the most pompous characters to add ‘Amen’ to the end of any grand or definitive sentence.

Humour

Similarly, the text tries to bully you into thinking things are funny when they aren’t. Every one of these later novels has a scene where protagonists discourse in a restaurant or lecture room or bar to an audience which falls about ‘hooting’ with laughter, who interrupt the speech with gales of hysterical mirth, who explode with laughter – when nothing funny has actually been said.

  • [Dima] ‘You know Jack London? Number one English writer?’ [Perry] ‘Not personally.’ It was a joke. (p.23)
  • [Niki the driver] ‘To cut undergrowth you got to have big knife.’.. ‘I wish we had, Niki,’ Gail cries, still in her father’s skin. ‘I’m afraid we English never carry knives.’ What gibberish am I talking? Never mind. Talk it. ‘Well, some of us do, to be truthful, but not people like us. We’re the wrong social class. You’ve heard about our class system? Well, in England you only carry a knife if you’re lower-middle or below!’ And more hoots of laughter.. (p.74) Hoots.
  • ‘Is this the Men’s Singles Final or the Battle of Borodino?’ [Dima] shouts gaily, pointing at Napoleon’s troops. She makes him say it again, lets out a hoot of laughter, and squeezes his hand. (p.197) Hoot
  • ‘Do I sound like a scoutmaster?’ ‘I’ll say you do,’ said Perry… ‘Good,’ said Hector complacently to jolly laughter (p.209) I’ll say
  • Dell Oro was asking Bunny Popham whether it was too early for champagne and Bunny was saying it depended on the vintage. Everyone exploded with laughter (p.220) Exploded
  • Bunny Popham, queen of the roost, is addressing the unwashed. ‘Our brave gladiators have finally agreed to grace us with their presence. Let us all immediately adjourn to the Arena!’ A patter of knowing laughter for Arena. ‘There are no lions today, apart from Dima. No Christians either, unless the Professor is one, which I can’t vouch for.’ More laughter. (p.227)

Humour is difficult in a novel, but this novel’s consistent promising of humour and consistent failure to deliver it, adds to the sense of untrustworthy over-reaching, of a book which says it is a subtle indictment of corruption at the highest levels, but feels like a collection of posh caricatures swearing and doing funny voices.

Dated

The characters either sound like 1950s servants or 1950s debutantes.

  • [Gail] ‘And I mean honestly, try buying decent wrapping paper in St John’s, Antigua.’ (p.51)
  • If they had been looking for adventure, the Nature Path alone would have provided it. They must have been the first people to use if for simply years. (p.52) Simply years.

Dixon of Dock Green servility:

  • ‘All the same,’ said Luke, ‘If you don’t mind, sir.’ (p.58)
  • ‘And you an experienced lawyer, if I may say so.’ (p.60)

Posh

JLC emphasises that the two lead characters went to State school (golly, the daring). But in imaginative terms they are just the same upper-class, pukka characters as swan around all his late novels. Gail has a nice flat in Primrose Hill, her brother likes shooting pheasants in the country with his rich friends, she talks about her and Perry’s ‘Brideshead look’, how good he looks in flannels, and says ‘daahhling’ as liberally as Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. The text is more at home with Luke who went to Eton (are there any other schools, darling?) and his wife, the French aristocrat. She’s the one who gives the MI6 building at Vauxhall the terrifically funny nickname of La Lubyanka sur Tamise (p.141), the Lubyanka on the Thames. It’s so terrifically funny because it’s in French, you see.

The fact that Perry’s an Oxford don doesn’t shed much light on teaching English at Oxford, but it does mean that:

a) he is comfortable in JLC’s own posh, pukka, upper-class milieu, and so can confidently discuss Dima’s unrealistic request to get his children into Eton and Roedean schools
b) his supposedly ‘flawless’, academic memory is a naked authorly contrivance which enables him to repeat vast stretches of his initial conversations with Dima to Hector verbatim, allowing the scene to be told in the book’s long opening flashback
c) it allows all the characters to refer to him, in typical cartoon style, as ‘the Professor’, and for the narrative to make plays on his profession: thus Hector jokes that Perry’s written account of the meeting with Dima is an ‘alpha plus’ essay, Hector refers to his retelling of events as his ‘recitation’ and ‘lecture’, his interview is referred to as his ‘viva voce‘ and so – leadenly – on.

Conclusion

All these elements, taken together, amount to a tone of permanent overemphasis and exaggeration which can accurately be described as ‘bombast’ – defined as ‘speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful’.

The sustained use of sarcasm and facetiousness, the shouty italics and the overselling of every character, the use of swearing and bluster where there should be thought or analysis, all give the impression that someone is shouting at you for hours on end. It becomes very wearing and dulls any interest in the storyline which – once abstracted from the bombastic style and improbable dialogue – is actually quite gripping.

You can see why a lot of these later novels have been successfully turned into TV dramatisations or movies. By changing medium you at a stroke remove the intolerably mannered style; all you have to do then is completely rewrite all the dialogue, as if it’s spoken by real people living in the 21st century – and the resulting storylines emerge as very compelling.

My little pony

Almost all John le Carré’s post-Cold War novels contain a my-little-pony moment, where a lead character reveals their ineluctably upper-class childhood with a sentimental reminiscence about the little pony their parents bought them. The reference in  this novel is shorter than usual, but still works as a marker, indicating the pukka nature of Gail’s character and – by extension – of the text as a whole.

Early on in the story Gail is on the beach with Dima’s extended family, supervised by an older man who Gail has, of course, given a nickname – in this case ‘Uncle Vanya’ after the Chekhov play:

Uncle Vanya from Perm is up his ladder with the family-sized pistol in his belt and Natasha – whose name is a challenge to Gail every time she approaches it; she has to gather herself together and make a clean jump of it like horse-riding at school – Natasha is lying the other end of the beach in splendid isolation. (p.41)

‘Like horse-riding at school’.

The subject matter of this novel is very 2010, with its vision of a crime-infested Russia whose money has reached out to corrupt western banks and politicians and even the security services.

But the style and the text itself keep reverting to a jolly hockeysticks mentality and prep school phraseology which are more reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels, with added swearwords.


Credit

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré was published in 2010 by Viking books. All quotes are from the 2011 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing 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 trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – 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.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary 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 eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard 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, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional 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 with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – 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.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth –

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré (2008)

Le Carré’s default prose setting is pompous, preening, self-dramatising grandiosity, heavy-handed jocosity, leaden jokes and facetious 1950s dialogue. These traits are to the fore in this novel the character of Tommy Brue, owner of Brue Frères, a private bank in Hamburg. Like other JLC leading men, Tommy is in thrall to the memory of his ‘legendary’ father, the bank’s founder, remembered via the old boy’s embarrassingly bad quotes and dimwit aperçus, which I assume we’re meant to take seriously.

‘Tommy, my son, arithmetic is the one part of our business that doesn’t lie.’ (p.27)

Really? In banking? Who knew?

‘Never trust a beautiful woman, Tommy. They’re a criminal class, the best there is.’ (p.42)

Rather than a suave banker, Brue père, like so many JLC characters, sounds like a 1950s spiv. And his lumpen, unfunny humour has, alas, rubbed off on his son.

It wasn’t bull markets, bear markets, hedge funds or derivatives. It was cock-up. It was the persistent, he would go so far as to say the permanent sound, not to put too fine an edge on it, of excrement hitting your proverbial fan. (p.30)

The text all too often presents this kind of elaborate facetiousness as howlingly funny, whereas it makes large stretches of le Carré’s later novels almost unreadable.

Another JLC technique / vice is to describe or build up a character by inventing an imaginary chorus of colleagues, fellow worker and associates to comment on him – the rumour mill, the office gossips, fans, devotees, the so-and-so-watchers – who are then made to comment and elaborate on the characters, as if they are pop stars or celebrities, topics of continual observation and amazement.

[Bachmann] cooled his heels after fathering a near-epic scandal of which only the sketchiest outlines had ever reached the gossip mill: excessive zeal, said the rumours… (p.58)

According to rumour they had given sex a try and declared it a disaster area. (p.67)

Related to the technique of making characters the centre of worlds of rumour, gossip and intrigue, is to describe characters, their qualities or rooms or possessions, as legendary, fabled and generally tremendously well-known.

The outsize mahogany bookcase that filled the whole of one wall was similarly the stuff of family legend… Had [Tommy’s father read all the books it contained?] Legend said not. (p.25)

Big Melik, as he was also known to his admiring neighbourhood… (p.1)

Edward Amadeus OBE had been a legend in his lifetime and was a legend still. (p.186)

What had happened to the rebel in her, to her fabled powers of argument and resistance so valued by her family? (p.244)

In the hands of a legendary woman researcher called Frau Zimmerman… ‘As with decoding, so with invisible transfers, the legendary Frau Zimmerman resumes in her schoolmarm’s South German. (pp.318, 320)

One of the saddest moments in his life had been standing before the bonfire in his garden in Vienna with his first wife Sue on one side of him and Georgie the other, watching the fabled Brue Frères card index go up in smoke. (p.401)

Günther Bachmann was a famous chancer and nothing was ever going to change that. (p.406)

‘A legend in his lifetime.’ Another element in the over-selling of the characters is when they or the narrator (interchangeably) use ‘our’ to refer to them – as if we’ve adopted them, as if we are all part of the same nice snug gang, as if the whole narrative is taking part among members of the sixth form of a pukka public school.

Nobody should be interested in Mr Findlay. Mr Findlay should be relegated to oblivion forthwith and forever, is what should happen to our Mr Findlay,’ she said, adopting a furious nursery-rhyme voice. (p.267)

… where Lisa and Maria, our in-house Arabists, were already sitting… (p.211)

As to our gallant president and managing director… (p.343)

… assigning his grandfather’s chair to Our Esteemed Interpreter… (p.387)

Even more minor characters, who don’t happen to be legends in their lifetimes, still often merit facetious adjectives, indicative of the knowing mockery of superior public school banter.

… followed by an hour talking to his revered solicitor in Glasgow… (p.335)

And yet another way in which the whole tone of these later novels is over the top – over-egging the characters and overselling the action – is its addiction to italics, just to ram home the vehemence of the characters’ feelings and the importance of what they’re saying.

This scattering of italics happens on every single page so that after a while you feel that you’re reading the ravings of a man with the italics version of Tourette’s Syndrome given to utterly random outbursts of inexplicable emphases.

‘I was extremely young,’ she reported, in a tone of unsparing self-diagnosis. ‘Younger than my years by far, remember. If I compare myself with modern youth, I was a total infant. I came of a poor family, and had no experience of the larger world whatever.’ (p.261)

Scores of times, on every page. Becomes very irritating.

The plot

Issa

Issa is a Chechen refugee: he has escaped from Russia to Turkey, getting beaten and tortured along the way, before being traded across Europe into Copenhagen, and then by container lorry to Hamburg where the novel is set.

Issa follows, then imposes himself on Big Melik, a Turkish weight-lifter, boxer, footballer, and his kindly mother, Leyla, who are both hoping to claim citizenship in Germany. Out of pure good Muslim kindness, they put him up and contact the refugee charity, Sanctuary North, and its attractive young refugee lawyer, Annabel Richter. Annabel visits to interview Issa, who is obscurely convinced that the British banker Tommy Brue, who runs a small private bank in Hamburg, can somehow help him.

It turns out that Issa’s father was a Russian Red Army colonel who commanded some of the forces which went on the rampage during that country’s wars with tiny Chechnya. Obviously the Russians raped and killed lots of Chechens – their standard modus operandi – but after the colonel raped Issa’s mother (aged just 15), he kept her round long enough for her to show that she was pregnant, and then to bear the colonel a baby boy.

Issa’s mother was then murdered by her own family, who infiltrated a brother into the enemy camp who killed her for shaming the family. Somehow the baby Issa survived all this and was brought back to Russia by the colonel. What I couldn’t figure out was how a baby brought up by a Red Army general turns into a fanatically devout Muslim, committed to saying his prayers five times a day, carrying a locket of the Koran on his wrist, and insisting nobody need help him because Allah will provide.

After the colonel’s death, Issa fell foul of the Russian authorities but escaped to Turkey, was again imprisoned and still bears the scars of his beatings and torture. But he was helped to escape by the colonel’s old fixer, Anatoly, ‘a fixer extraordinaire and straightener of everything’ (p.259), who gives him cash and also – crucially to the whole plot – a scrap of paper with details of the colonel’s German bank account.

The bank of Brue Frères

It is this which has brought Issa to Hamburg and prompts him to ask Annabel to find for him the banker Tommy Brue. For it was with Tommy’s legendary father that the legendary colonel made his legendary agreement. Back in the 1980s, Colonel Grigori Karpov (p.258) was recruited by British Intelligence and began passing secrets to our side. We paid him for his ‘product’, and put the money into a safe account with the discreet and obscure private bank of Brue Frères. Run by Brits. Trustworthy chaps.

So a Soviet colonel was an agent for MI6. We paid his fee into a private British bank. He had a natural child by a Chechen girl who somehow got brought up as a hyper-devout Muslim. Who has now travelled across Europe to claim his father’s fortune. OK.

Günter Bachmann

Günter Bachmann works for the Foreign Acquisitions Unit of Hamburg’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution i.e. their secret service, which is soon informed of Issa’s arrival and that he making interesting enquiries. (Right from the start it is made clear that Germany has a number of security forces which all compete with each other, squabbling and fighting for resources, with final decisions being taken by a senior committee of bureaucrats in Berlin.)

Bachmann is, of course, like so many JLC protagonists, a maverick. He is the subject of a busy ‘rumour mill’, the target of excitablee ‘gossip’, there are apparently countless Bachmann-watchers, he is a legend in the service. And so on.

In a really bizarre scene, we see Bachmann giving a speech to his staff about the history and function of German’s security services in the aftermath of 9/11. Puzzling,y, we are told he gives this speech to the staff so regularly that it has acquired a nickname: with characteristic leaden humour we are told that it is ‘inevitably’ known as Bachmann’s Cantata. Because Bachmann sounds like Bach, you see. Bach Cantata. Bachmann Cantata. Hilarious, no?

But why does he have to give the same speech at regular intervals to his staff? So frequently that it has acquired a nickname? Are they particularly forgetful secret agents?

Bachmann’s Cantata consists of him hopping from one leg to the other, mimicking the voices of idiot politicians or the press, running the length of the meeting room to pop up behind people, appearing in different parts of the room to carry on hopping and doing funny voices, as he mimics and enacts various conflicting points of view about post-9/11 security issues in Europe.

This extraordinary and bizarre scene is, I think, meant to depict Bachmann as somehow funny, a wit, a diamond geezer, a legend in his lifetime. But it actually makes him come over as a half-wit and, like so many other aspects of the novel’s style and dialogue, completely undermines its claims to seriousness.

‘Okay, we all know the bad joke: you can’t buy an Arab, but you can rent one. We couldn’t even rent one, for fuck’s sake! With a couple of noble exceptions I won’t bore you with, we had shit for live sources then. And we have shit for live sources now… Oh sure, we had any number of gallant German journalists and businessmen on our payroll.. But they’re not live sources. They’re not venal, disenchanted, radical imams, or Islamist kids halfway to the bomb belt. They’re not Osama’s sleepers, or his talent-spotters, or his couriers, or his quartermasters or paymasters, not even at fifty removes. They’re just nice dinner guests.’
He waited till the laughter had subsided. (p.71)

JLC assures us that this entire humourless rant is punctuated by howls of laughter from Bachmann’s adoring audience, as if he’s Lenny Henry Live at the Apollo. But JLC’s inability to judge what is genuinely funny and what he is merely telling us is funny, further undermines any authority the author has with us, further distances us from this peculiar, contrived text.

The majority of the later novels suffer from the further flaw that, at the key moment where there should be insightful analysis of the historical and geopolitical setting of the fiction, when you expect one or more of the less ludicrous characters to give a half-decent summary of the geopolitical issues which JLC obviously cares about so passionately – what you generally get is sweary ranting by a blustering buffoon. This novel is no exception. When I read ‘Bachmann’s Cantata’ to my son (18) he said it sounded like a talent contest in a lunatic asylum.

The general upshot is that Bachmann and his assistant Frey (now I would have laughed if she’d been called Robin) begin hatching a plan to keep tabs on Issa. Maybe they could ‘recruit’ him as a ‘source’ for the service, eyes and ears in Hamburg’s Muslim community.

Recap

To recap the characters so far: the German spymaster comes across as an imbecile, his assistant Erna Frey as a permanently sarcastic chorus, the English banker a pompous prat, the Chechen-Muslim hero as the Lost Child in a fairy tale, Big Melik a lumbering idiot, the narrator an orotund windbag.

It’s such an odd melange of contemporary setting with fairy tale plot and ludicrous characters that I shouldn’t have been surprised when the posh charity lawyer, Annabel, with wild improbability, decides to throw all her professional standards to the wind and fall in love with the skinny refugee man-child:

She must have known a moment would come – a client would come – that would cause her to abandon every professional and legal principle she had ever reluctantly embraced. (p.155)

Maybe this is meant to be serious and not as laughable as I, personally, found it.

The wider conspiracy

Meanwhile, the legendary maverick Bachmann is revealed to be even more of an idiot than he first appears, when he is paid a visit by the head of Hamburg Station, who reveals that the wider organisation has been keeping tabs on Issa for weeks, with informers at the local mosque, taped phone conversations, spotters watching his every move and so on.

In other words, the imbecile Bachmann – who works, remember, in the intelligence service – doesn’t even have a clue what’s happening in his own wider organisation. But still – very good at hopping from one leg to the other and doing funny voices to his staff who roll around the floor emitting hoots of laughter. That’s what counts.

MI6

But it’s not only Bachmann who finds himself outflanked. Brue is surprised to be visited by two dodgy Brits who identify themselves as Foreman and Lantern from the local branch of MI6. They knew his father; they know about Karpov; they’re here to question him about Issa.

Are these, finally, the reader hopes, going to be characters we can believe in? No. They are afflicted with the same facetious, lumbering style as all the other people in the book. For example, Foreman doesn’t refer to Lantern as his assistant or partner, but his ‘partner in crime’. Oh dear. The same jaunty banter that all the other characters us. Thus Lantern’s opening sentence is:

‘It’s a privilege to meet you, Tommy, and that’s a fact.’ (p.187)

Does anyone talk like that in 2016? These two jolly cards didn’t just know Tommy’s dad – they knew his ‘revered late father’ (p.191). They needed a quiet bank into which to pay the rewards to the old colonel, bless his cotton socks, which they started to do when Brue Frères was based in ‘dear old Vienna’.

‘I would have to consult my chief cashier. Lipizzaners are something of a world apart at Freres,’ he said. ‘That was how my father wished it to be.’
‘You’re telling me he did!’ Foreman exclaimed. ‘Your proverbial grave was a bloody chatterbox where E.A. was concerned! Exactly what I said to Ian here before you showed up. Didn’t I, Ian?’
‘His words, Tommy. Literally,’ said little Lantern with his pretty smile. (p.199)

They sound like they come from a starchy, British 1950s black-and-white crime movie. Much of the dialogue sounds like an Ealing comedy, with unnervingly random emphases dropped in along the way, all dished up with a liberal sprinkling of modern swearwords. Dixon of Dock Green might walk in at any moment, saying ‘Evening all, his words literally, Ian, that’s what he said to  me, and that’s a fact, me old matey.’

If Annabel – scion of a whole family of upper-class lawyers, father a judge, mother a judge and so on – falls in love with skinny, poverty-stricken wretch of the earth, Issa – then with equally gruesome inevitability, posh Tommy (unhappily married, a timid 60 year-old, but recipient of a jolly good public school education) falls hopelessly in love with lovely Annabel.

Presumably, for some readers, it is this ‘characterisation’ which lifts JLC out of the spy genre and makes his books contenders to be ‘serious fiction’. For me, though, it’s the exact opposite: Lthese grotesquely posh caricatures form the 1950s are precisely what undermines his later novels, makes them read like predictable cartoons.

Annabel’s flat

Annabel takes Issa to her flat to pack some stuff and then on to her other flat (it’s soo handy coming from a wealthy family) bought with a windfall from a recently dead relative. After all, the author has to park Issa somewhere and if he and Annabel shared the same flat that would create unwanted sexual frisson. For Issa is portrayed as so devout that he won’t touch, or even stand near, a woman.

This second hidden flat is down by the harbour and being done up by decorators. Here Issa hides out and Annabel comes to visit him daily and hear anecdotes about the different countries he’s been tortured in. She listens to him reciting heroic Chechen poetry and falls in love with him, like all wealthy civil liberties lawyers fall in love with all their poor sexist Muslim clients.

For his part, Issa confidently tells Annabel she will soon convert to Islam, at which point he will marry her and she will bear him many children. Some women dislike having the door held open for them because it’s patronising. Others appear to fall in love with beaten-up refugees who threateningly promise they will turn them into religiously indoctrinated baby machines. Each to their own.

German security intervenes

German agents visit Annabel at the refugee centre and question her hard in front of her boss, Ursula, though she’s tough enough to refuse to say where Issa is being hidden. She then goes to great lengths to get her beloved brother, Hugo the psychiatrist, to sign Issa into a private clinic in the country (her money will pay – wealthy family). But when she tells Issa this is what she’s arranged – to smuggle him out to this safe clinic – Issa refuses to go. With irritating rectitude, he tells her Allah will provide for his future. Cycling back from this last visit, she is kidnapped off the streets by German security.

Carried to a safe house, Annabel is slowly and steadily intimidated into playing along with German Intelligence, and forced to agree to their plan. It’s for his own good, they assure her. JLC describes the detail of her ‘interrogation’ in minute detail. This process, the process of how an interrogator slowly and carefully inveigles their way into the mind of the interviewee, has always been at the core of JLC’s novels, so it comes as no surprise to learn from his biography that it was in fact the function he himself performed when he worked for the security service in the 1950s.

The psychological to and fro of an interrogator trying to win over an informer, and the surprising revelations and confessions the informer can eventually be coaxed into making, obviously impress him 50 years later, and something of the fervour and precision and excitement of the experience comes over in these scenes.

Frau Ellenberger

Meanwhile, Bachmann goes and ‘interviews’ i.e. questions in depth, Tommy’s ancient secretary, Frau Ellenberger. He discovers

a) She had an affair with Tommy’s dad, although he was married – goodness, what a surprise – young impressionable secretary having an affair with much older, filthy rich employer, my word.
b) She disapproved of the Lipizzaner i.e. black, criminal accounts
c) She speaks in random italics like all the other characters in the book
d) Rather than retell the gist or summary of the conversations she’s recalling, she insists on impersonating the voices of all those involved, in wildly improbable detail, and thus comes across as nearly as much of an idiot as Bachmann, with the absurd impersonations and impressions of his legendary Cantata.

MI6 lean on Tommy

Then MI6’s man Lantern returns to visit Tommy Brue, making it clear that the service is very unhappy that Tommy wasn’t candid with them about the old colonel’s account or the presence of the colonel’s illegitimate son during their first conversation, and extra unhappy that he and Foreman had to learn about it from German security. ‘Embarrassing, old man.’

Lantern makes Tommy sign the Official Secrets Act with its various draconian clauses, accompanied by dire threats about what will happen to him, and his bank, for aiding and abetting terrorists. For everyone is now talking about Issa as if he is a certified terrorist, each of the security people accepting each others’ valuation of him as a dangerous radical, and tending to up the anti and increase their collective paranoia. Issa has even been given a codename, FELIX, and the conspiracy to incriminate and arrest him is now called Operation Felix.

Now they know where Annabel’s hidden him, Bachmann and his assistant Erna Frey set up base in the apartment below, and brief Annabel before and after every visit she makes about what to tell the boy. As in a lot of JLC novels – for example, the first hundred pages or so of Our Kind of Traitor – it becomes a question of her acting a part under the guidance of security service minders, who go on to analyse every word and inflection of every exchange she has with Issa, in mind-bogglingly minute detail. Either this is psychologically compelling – or very boring, depending on your taste.

Enter the CIA

At this point we are witness to a high-level conference of German security chiefs to discuss what they’re going to do with the man they have now all convinced themselves is a dangerous terrorist. To Bachmann’s dismay, a CIA agent he knows from his time in Beirut is also present. Mr CIA is introduced by the narrator as if by a circus ringmaster:

And sidling after Martha and so close on her heels that he could have been using her bulk for cover, none other than six-foot-something Newton, alias Newt, one-time deputy chief of operations at the US Embassy in Beirut. (p.306)

‘None other than…’ Are we meant to applaud?

Like all the other characters, Newt’s dialogue is sprinkled with random emphases and aggressive swearing.

‘Holy shit, Gunther, I last saw you stretched out in the bar of the Commodore! What the fuck are you doing in Hamburg, man!’ (p.306)

Probably designed to be a satire on a certain type of brash virile Yank, this characterisation is just tiresome.

Entrapping Dr Abdullah

At the meeting it becomes apparent that the assembled security agencies want Issa to a) cash in his legacy b) contact a certain Dr Abdullah, a pillar of the moderate Muslim community in Hamburg and organiser of many charities c) so that they can entrap Abdullah for receiving money from a ‘known terrorist’. So Issa and Abdullah are going to be entrapped.

Bachmann is assured by his bosses that he can then pick up Abdullah and take him to a safe house, there to recruit him as a uniquely well-placed source embedded in the Hamburg Muslim community. OK. He is mollified. He hardly does any hopping fro one leg to another. And hardly any funny voices.

As with all late JLC it is made very clear that the western security services are far more dangerous than any terrorists: it’s western security services who implicate innocent people, arrest them without cause, fly them round the world for torture and indefinite confinement, blackmail and intimidate anyone they feel like. They act above any laws or restraints.

In accordance with the plan, Annabel is tasked by her minders with persuading Issa to meet with Dr Abdullah (now codenamed SIGNPOST) and donate his legacy to the many good Muslim causes which Abdullah manages – while Tommy is sent to meet Abdullah in person and gently introduce him to the idea that a mystery-money-donating stranger wants to give him the biggest bequest of his career. The plummy banker and lawyer have become pawns in the wider intelligence plan. They are entrapping the two good Muslims.

At Abdullah’s institute, Tommy meets his minders and his worthy family, the daughter studying to be a doctor, the honourable and devoted son. Abdullah is a Good Man. When he is told how much he stands to gain – by now we’ve been told that Issa is set to inherit $12.5 million from his dead father’s investments – Dr Abdullah’s face lights up. Oh, all the good and noble charitable causes he will be able to endow!

Never had [Tommy] seen a more radiant picture of innocent rapture than the good doctor now. (p.346)

Still, Abdullah is no fool and Tommy has to work hard to persuade him to accept the tainted money. Abdullah is tentative and hesitant throughout the rest of the book. Issa for his part, explains to Annabel that he has some plausible ‘conditions’ before handing over all his legacy to Dr A. For a start Chechen charities must receive first tranches of the money – and he wants enough to fund his own training as a doctor so he can go back to his country and heal the sick – but the rest is Abdullah’s to dispose of as the wise and good man thinks best.

Brue had demanded of his MI6 minders a) a passport for Issa b) guarantee of no prosecution for Annabel. He meets her at the Atlantic restaurant to show them both and assure her of his good faith. He is hopelessly in love with her. She notices but can’t help. She is hopelessly in love with Issa. The reader notes with relief that there are only 50 or so pages left till the end of the book.

So Annabel goes off to collect the domineering, patriarchal Issa, still working away at converting her to the True Faith so she can start bearing his children. She persuades him – still pretty suspicious – down into the limousine which will take them to the bank. Unbeknown to the two saintly Muslims, the meeting between Abdullah and Issa at the Frères bank is incredibly staked out, with two competing factions of German security and British Intelligence taping it and watching from a van outside.

Big Melik and Leyla

We periodically revert to the characters we met right at the start of the book, the gentle giant Big Melik and his mother Leyla, the Turkish Muslims who were hoping to get German citizenship and were kind enough to take Issa into their home before introducing him to Annabel.

Half way through the book, we had seen Bachmann assure his assistant Erna that Melik and Leyla would be able to fly off to her niece’s wedding in Turkey and then return to Germany where their citizenship application would be supported. Now Bachmann embarrassedly admits that the powers-that-be above him have decreed that Melik and Leyla will be refused return to Germany on the grounds of harbouring a known ‘terrorist’, and in all likelihood imprisoned, and probably tortured, in Turkey.

Erna isn’t impressed. Bachmann’s team aren’t hooting with laughter now at his uproarious antics. His prattish ineptitude is coming home to roost.

Shocking climax

Now Bachmann is disguised as a grumpy taxi driver parked outside the bank. The plan is that Tommy will supervise the transfer of Issa’s funds down in the vault, then ring for a taxi and hey presto Bachmann will appear – fully prepared to whisk an unsuspecting Abdullah off to a safe house where he can set about interrogating him.

Over the closed circuit TV we watch Tommy take Abdullah and Issa and Annabel down into the bowels of the bank, there to open an ancient deposit box and extract the bonds which represent the colonel’s legacy and Issa’s fortune. With a few strokes of the pen the $12.5 million is legally signed over to Issa and Tommy has transferred it into an active account. He and Abdullah then pore over the list of Abdullah’s charities and systematically dispose of the fortune in batches of payments to worthy causes. Allah’s will is done.

Much shaking of hands and congratulatory laughter, as they get their coats and emerge into the gravel drive outside the bank smiling and happy. And here is Bachmann driving the taxi Brue ordered and ready to carry out his plan of whisking off Dr A to a safe house. Abdullah is at the door and about to get into the cab when — there is a screech of brakes and a huge van careers into the back of taxi, with two black Mercedes appearing out of nowhere to block it off at either end of the drive.

Out of the van leap half a dozen big men in balaclavas who seize Issa and Abdullah and throw them into the van, lock the doors and drive off. Bachmann is still dazed, having been thrown against the steering wheel, Annabel is holding the door handle of the van shrieking ‘let him go let him go’ till forced to let go herself, and the van has gone. Wow.

They were all betrayed. Bachmann’s tidy little scheme has been swamped by American heavy-handedness. He limps down the road and round the corner to where he knows his boss, Mohr, is waiting. Mohr, embarrassed, fakes receiving a call on his mobile leaving Bachmann to furiously confront six-foot-something Newt, the CIA man.

And here, on the penultimate page, le Carré lets rip, depicting the American as a brutal war-on-terror monster. (It would be interesting to hear something intelligent at this point but, as usual in these late novels, the key speeches, the vital analysis which underpins the entire plot, consists of blustering, shouting swearing.)

‘Where have you taken him?’ Bachmann asked.
‘Abdullah? Who gives a shit? Some hole in the desert, for all I know. Justice has been rendered, man. We can all go home.
He had spoken these last words in English, but Bachmann in his dazed state failed to get his mind round them.
Rendered?’ he repeated stupidly. ‘What’s rendered? What justice are you talking about?’
American justice, asshole. Whose do you think? Justice from the fucking hip, man. No-crap justice, that kind of justice! Justice with no fucking lawyers around to pervert the course. Have you never heard of extraordinary rendition? Time you Krauts had a word for it.’ (p.415)

So that’s that then. As near as we get to an explanation or analysis. ‘American justice, asshole.’

Thoughts

The Yanks are portrayed as doubly stupid: first for cruelly and unjustly ‘rendering’ two men who have been painted as totally innocent and harmless, but secondly for devastating Bachmann’s much cleverer and more practical plan to recruit Abdullah and have him work as an agent on the inside – giving us a potential lifetime of tip-offs and inside information from the heart of the Muslim community.

On another level, the Americans’ devastation of Bachmann’s plan is in effect a repudiation of the technique of slow, patient interrogation and recruitment, which we know le Carré himself carried out during his time as a security service employee, and which is at the core of so many of his books: think of the many long, patient questionings undertaken by the calm and thoughtful George Smiley. The violent abduction represents a kind of rape of everything JLC thought valuable and insightful about his own intelligence work.

(A tiny extra insult is the way that, standing in the lee of six-foot Newt as he delivers his tirade to the ‘liberal’ Kraut, Bachmann, stands the British Intelligence man, Ian Lantern, repeatedly described as ‘little’, short, and, in these final scenes, depicted as hanging round the tall, virile Yank like a lapdog, a poodle, a bully’s hanger-on. Much, one imagines, as JLC sees his pathetic country under the leadership of ‘Brother Blair’ sucking up to the bully boys of the USA.)

This final speech merely expresses more forcefully the various sarcasms and aspersions which JLC had cast on German and British security, on their supposed ‘standards’ and ‘integrity’, throughout the novel. His contempt for his old employer grows more tangible – and is expressed in fiercer terms – in each of these late novels.

There is, of course, a very strong case to make against America’s use of kidnapping and the illegal transport of prisoners, limitless imprisonment without trial and the use of terrible and illegal torture techniques. A case which is lucidly made by countless pressure groups, charities and journalists (some of which are referenced in the afterword to this book).

And, overall, in summary, the plot is a dramatisation of this kind of lawless abduction. But as well as its plot, a novel is also about its style, about its use of language. And, for me, le Carré’s laboured, heavy-handed, facetious, sarcastic and overblown tone make his later books almost unreadable. And this fatally undermines the undoubted passion and anger he feels for his ideas.

If causes were judged by the anger, passion and sarcasm they arouse, then social media would be an academy of geniuses. But they also carry weight according to the clarity and insight their proponents bring to them. And too often, alas, le Carré brings nothing but sweary bluster and schoolboy sarcasm to what are, undoubtedly, very serious issues which should concern us all.

P.S. My first pony

Early into JLC’s post-Cold War novels I began to notice that every one of them is so unwittingly posh and features such pukka upper-class characters, that they all contain a reference to the characters’ first little pony. Since I noticed this I’ve been on the lookout for each novel’s my-little-pony moment. This one comes when the privileged lawyer Annabel – the one ‘possessed of fabled powers or argument and resistance’ – is reflecting on her ‘relationship’ with Issa.

She was reminded of a pony she had once had. He was called Moritz, and Moritz was a delinquent. He was unbreakable and unrideable. Not a family in Baden-Wittemberg would have him – until Annabel heard about him and, to exert her power, overrode her parents and raised money among her schoolfriends to buy him. When Moritz was delivered, he kicked the groom, kicked a hole in his stall, and broke his way into the paddock. But next morning when Annabel in trepidation went out to him, he strolled towards her, lowered his head for the halter and became her love for ever more. (p.244)

Probably le Carré wants his books to move us with their deeply drawn characters and their passionate dramatisation of contemporary issues. But, although I am politically sympathetic to all his beliefs, I remember the books mainly for their bombastic style and the unwitting poshness of his helplessly upper-class characters.


Credit

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré was published in 2008 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2009 Hodder paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing 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 trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – 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.
1995 Our Game – 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)
1996 The Tailor of Panama – 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)
1999 Single & Single – 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.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, climaxing with them being shot down like dogs. First part good, second part overblown.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, gives a first-person narrative of an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions who have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, who are planning to engineer a coup and impose a ‘middle of the road’ leader, ostensibly to bring ‘peace’ to Salvo’s troubled homeland. Salvo learns that the real plan is to allow the leader’s Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources and sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee, and the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious plan is itself brutally trumped by the Americans who, in the form of the CIA, betray all the characters in the book, and violently kidnap the two Muslims, taking them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor –
2013 A Delicate Truth –

The Mission Song by John le Carré (2006)

I don’t like le Carré’s later fiction. The Secret Pilgrim (1990) set the tone, a series of tales told by a self-important retirement-age security bore which revealed le Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley, to be a pompous ass. The series of novels from The Night Manager onwards seem to me:

  • to almost exclusively feature repellently posh, upper-class, public-school-educated ‘heroes’
  • who have no trouble ‘bagging’ lots of posh totty, with James Bondish ease
  • who form self-regarding cliques in which everyone is a ‘legend’ – the incomparable X, the well-known Y, the notorious Z – our loyal A, our famous B, our legendary C
  • but who also enjoy sensitive and doomed love affairs with one spectacularly beautiful, incomparably intelligent etc etc love object (whose epitome is the saintly Tessa in The Constant Gardener)
  • with each novel dominated by a Major Contemporary Issue (the wickedness of arms dealers in The Night Manager – the wickedness of big pharmaceutical companies in The Constant Gardener – the wickedness of the ‘war on terror’ in Absolute Friends)
  • and all told in repetitive, bombastic prose

For the first few pages, The Mission Song seems like it’s evaded these dangers. Unusually, it is

a) told in the first person
b) and – in a bold experiment – told by the orphaned, illegitimate son of an Irish Catholic missionary and a native Congolese woman, one Bruno Salvador, known as Salvo.

However, the all-too-familiar features of le Carré’s fiction soon comes flooding back in. For Salvador, it turns out, was raised by highly educated Catholic missionaries before being sent to an English public school where, like all le Carré’s later protagonists, he has picked up the irritatingly pompous turns of phrase which dominate his style and, therefore, the entire book. Far from attempting ‘black’ speech rhythms, Salvo’s half-caste nature and public school background do the reverse, with the result that le Carré’s naturally overblown prose style is actually turned up! Half the time Salvo sounds like Bertie Wooster.

It is a known fact that the thoughts of the most loyal raw recruit on the eve of battle stray in unforeseen directions, some of them downright mutinous. And I will not pretend that my own were in this regard exempt… (p.88)

Not exactly ‘street’, is it, nor particularly African. The extraordinarily PG Wodehouse style is matched by the high class circles Salvo moves in by virtue of having married a journalist. Being le Carré, she is of course the famous, the legendary female journalist, Penelope, described as the shining star in the firmament of her famous Fleet Street proprietor, and consorting with her gives him access to high-toned parties and eminent movers and shakers. The book becomes posher by the minute.

Adultery being a standard le Carré theme, it is no surprise to learn that the legendary Penelope is in fact having an affair with her boss, Thorne, nicknamed with characteristically leaden humour, ‘Thorne the Horn’. Feeling thus released from his marriage vows, the novel opens with Salvo energetically screwing the new love of his life, a black Congolese nurse named Hannah, who he’s met while interpreting at a local hospital.

For, like so many of the later novels, this one drips with sex sex sex sex – the hero thinks about sex on almost every page. This opening scene sets the tone and thereafter, almost every page recalls Salvo and Hannah ripping each other’s clothes off, her cry as she climaxes, her scent on his clothes and his mobile phone, memories of her startled open mouth, her wide eyes as he penetrates her, her lips moving down from his, the bed sheets revealing her breast, falling between her parted thighs, and so on and on, a leitmotiv through the rest of the text.

Claiming to believe I am not taking her seriously, she wilfully flings back the bedclothes and sits up. And you have to know how beautiful she is… (p.122)

Salvo’s general lecherousness is to the fore when he is escorted round the British Intelligence offices by a functionary, Bridget, while Salvo admires her tight jeans and imagines undressing her. When, a lot later, he packs and leaves his flat, he is button-holed in the hallway by his wife’s best friend, Paula, wearing only a dressing gown, who asks if he wants to have sex with her, then begs him to have sex with her (p.280). Truly, he is a babe magnet and a stud muffin.

In summary, then, within a few pages, the reader has been introduced to yet another public-school-educated protagonist, who moves in swanky London circles, beds women with effortless ease, but is also a sensitive soul, in love with his ravishing new belle, Hannah, who he describes in the same sentimental terms as the beautiful, uniquely intelligent love objects of the previous six novels, and whose story is going to be told in pompously self-important prose.

And the Major Contemporary Issue without which it wouldn’t be late le Carré? The endless war in the Congo.

If you read the Wikipedia article or any contemporary reporting from Congo, you will find this conflict has been raging since about 1995, if not before, and has claimed more casualties than the Second World War. It is a vast panorama of death and atrocity and rape, which most of us don’t read about because the papers don’t write about it much. All of which – the Western hypocrisy and the media indifference – make le Carré very angry.

But burning anger isn’t enough. Social media and online newspaper comments show the world is full of incoherently angry people. The ability to analyse the problem out into readable prose is what a reader has a right to expect of an author.

The plot

Part one – the conference

After public school Salvo has made a career in England as a translator, translating from a range of obscure African languages in which he is expert, into English or French. It was doing a translation job for Penelope (translating an African claiming to have a great scoop, but who turned out to be a con-man) that so impressed her that she took him to bed, where he was so impressed by her sexual technique that he proposed to her and so – to shock her Surrey parents – she married a black man.

He also, we learn, has done work from time to time for a Mr Anderson, from Britain’s Security Services. The following passage gives a good feel for Salvo’s rhetorical magniloquence, his self-importance, and for the entertaining lack of self-awareness with which he refers to himself as a sexual stud.

Did I bubble out the rest to Bridget? Appoint her my substitute confessor in Hannah’s absence? Unveil to her how, until I met Penelope, I was a twenty-three-year-old closet virgin, a dandy in my personal appearance but, underneath my carefully constructed facade, saddled with enough hang-ups to fill a walk-in cupboard? – that brother Michael’s attentions and Père André’s before him had left me in a sexual twilight from which I feared to emerge? [he was abused by Catholic missionaries in Africa] – that my dear late father’s guilt regarding his explosion of the senses [late in life, Salvo’s Catholic priest father discovered sex] had transferred itself wholesale and without deductions to his son? – and how as our taxi sped towards Penelope’s flat I had dreaded the moment that she would literally uncover my inadequacy, such was my timidity regarding the female sex? – and that thanks to her knowhow and micro-management all ended well? – extremely well – more well than she could have imagined, she assured me, Salvo being her dream mustang – the best in her stable, she might have added – her Alpha Male Plus? Or, as she later put it to her friend Paula when they thought I wasn’t listening, her chocolate soldier always standing to attention? (p.66)

En route from his clandestine fuck with the African nurse Hannah to the VIP party for his wife, this Alpha Male Plus is waylaid by a mobile phone call from Mr Anderson, asking him for a meeting. Anderson persuades him to ditch the party and come do some really important work for the old country, the ‘Britain’ to which Salvo feels ludicrously, naively, attached. And so he gets a taxi to South Audley Street where, in between ogling Bridget in her tight jeans, Anderson gives him a deliberately vague outline of the mission and he finds himself Bertie Woosterishly agreeing to do it, for the Old Country.

The Alpha Male Plus is given casual clothes (all the time lecherously imagining the beautiful assistant’s clothes magically falling off and them making love there and then), then taxied across London to a helicopter, which flies to Luton airport where he is taken aboard a secret flight.

On board the plane Salvo meets some rough mercenary types – Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider – who shout and swear a lot and give him further vague info about the ‘conference’ he’s booked to translate at. For the first time he learns it’s something to do with his ostensible homeland, the Congo. The plane lands at an isolated airstrip and they all drive in the dark to an old, castle-style mansion on a coast somewhere, maybe Scotland? Denmark?

Here Maxie (aka the Skipper) explains that a big peace conference is taking place in Denmark between various interested parties in the Congo conflict. Some combination of British interests have arranged a ‘side meeting’ to the conference, to take place at this isolated and discreet location. Here they have invited three representatives of the Congo’s warring tribes and factions to be brought together with a charismatic Congolese leader, the Mwangaza. The Mwazanga allegedly represents some ‘third way’ for the country, although when we meet him, his expository speech is so blustering and bombastic – as is almost all the dialogue in this terrible book – that it’s either difficult to understand or childishly crude:

‘I am the Mwazanga, the messenger of harmonious coexistence and prosperity for all Kivu. I think with my head, not with my gun, or my panga, or my penis.’ (p.150)

The central 150 pages of this novel claim to describe this meeting of the leaders of political factions from a war-torn country. You would expect there to be cunning and wheeler-dealing, gambit and counter-gambit, a subtle exposition of the situation and possible areas of agreement – the kind of thing, for example, I heard when I worked at the Department for International Development at around the period this novel was published. These kind of meetings are generally well prepared in advance, and even if the talk is frank, there are identifiable positions and interests at stake.

Swearing instead of analysis

But if you expected analysis of the situation in Congo, or a clear-headed account of the history which led to the current shambles, or an explanation of the various peace plans on the table – you will be sorely disappointed by this book. Instead of cool analysis you get people swearing: first the mercenaries on the plane deliver an insultingly crude and sweary account of the situation. Fair enough, they are military hard men. But the (lengthy) scenes with the three political leaders and their aides is a farrago of effing and blinding.

Haj: Holy shit! My dad warned me the old boy was heavy duty, but this is something else. Aw, aw, aw. Why does he talk Swahili like a Tanzanian with a paw-paw stuck up his arse?’ (p.175)

It’s like being in the men’s toilet at a football match. The foul language goes on for scores of pages. It is interspersed with Salvo’s weirdly out-of-date and preening prose. And his fuck-filled accounts of the ‘negotiations’ are themselves interspersed with his memories of fucking young Hannah just before he left England. Taken together, this brew creates the most revolting pages of prose I’ve read in years.

This book represents an incredible come-down from the author of the brilliantly cunning classic, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, or who gave us the under-stated, coolly calibrating spy-master George Smiley. That author is long dead and now le Carré’s characters routinely swear and shout and grandstand – the more some kind of intelligence is required, the more the reader expects analysis and information – the more foul-mouthed the dialogue becomes.

Here one of the delegates, Haj, is ridiculing the Mwazanga’s lofty rhetoric:

Allies in what, for fuck’s sake? To achieve what? A united Kivu? North and South? My friends. Let us seize hold of our resources and thereby control our destiny. Humph humph. They’ve been seized, arsehole! By a bunch of Rwandan crazies who are armed to the eyeballs and raping our women in their spare time! Those interahamwe guys up there are so well dug in, the fucking UN doesn’t dare to fly over them, without asking their permission first. (p.179)

It is like this for page after page.

As to the plot, Salvo, as official translator during the ‘sessions’, is given free rein of the multiple bugs and microphones hidden everywhere around the building and its grounds in order to report to his superiors, Maxie and the new arrival, the posh upper-class (of course) Englishman, Philip.

But (predictably) Salvo also hears ‘things he shouldn’t’. With incredible naivety, he appears to have expected everyone to behave nobly and virtuously, to be motivated by love of their country and humanity. So he is horrified to discover that the Brits appear to want something out of the deal, and the three delegates are demanding up-front payments for themselves.

The deal

The plan being proposed by ‘our guys’ is that before Congo’s next elections – due to be held in just two weeks time – the ‘Syndicate’ ie British interests – will, with the three leaders’ help, foment disorder on the streets. This will prompt armed intervention which will instal ‘our redeemer’, the Mwazanga, as a moderate middle-of-the-road leader who will restore peace. In other words the Brits are planning to stage an undemocratic coup.

The ‘Syndicate’ will station mercenaries at air bases in each of the three leaders’ territories for six months, during which they will be able to extract ore from conveniently nearby mines and sell it on the world market at a tidy profit.

Only an idiot would be surprised to learn all the players in this squalid meeting are in it for what they can get, instead of bringing Peace and Freedom to Congo – but Salvo comes across, throughout, as just such a preening, sex-mad imbecile. Every aspect of his character is literally unbelievable: the absurdly Wodehousian diction; the absurdly unironic references to himself as a sexual stud; the absurdly unthinking British patriotism; and the naivety with which he approaches a political conference.

Salvo is disillusioned

Not only is Salvo disillusioned at the participants’ motivation. To his amazement he hears, on headphones in the ‘control room’, one of the delegates, Haj, during a break in the negotiations, apparently being tortured with some kind of cattle prod. It becomes clear Haj is being tortured by Maxie, the hard man in the plane over, into admitting that he represents not only his father’s tribe and interests, but a French corporation which, on closer examination, turns out to be run by a group of Halliburton-type American corporate executives. He also appears to confess that the 30% of takings from the Syndicate’s operations which were pledged to the Mwazanga – and which the Mwazanga had pledged to improving the Congo’s lost – schools, hospitals etc – will in fact go directly to this US corporation. Tut tut. Secret deals. At a diplomatic conference!

Then Haj, once they’ve stopped torturing him and he’s recovered, himself demands $3 million before he’ll sign the ‘agreement’ drawn up by the team’s slippery lawyer, Monsieur Jasper. (I found the way Haj was tied down and electrocuted, and then only ten minutes later is making deals with his torturers, a little hard to believe.)

So upset is he at this bitter disillusionment that Salvo makes the stupid decision to smuggle the tapes which have been recording the conference, and the notebooks he’s been scribbling it all down in, back to Blighty. At the conclusion of the ‘conference’, the delegates sign the ‘contract’ with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The coup is set for a few weeks time. Can Salvo stop it?

Part two – back in London

The ‘contract’ signed, the Africans fly back to their big conference in Denmark and our boys drive back to the little airport, get their charter plane back to Luton, and this is where Salvo is dropped off. He makes his way, guiltily laden with his bag of contraband tapes and notebooks, back to the up-market Battersea flat he shares with the Top Journalist Penelope. Here he makes the decision to leave her for the new Love of His Life, Hannah. So he packs a few belongings, takes off his wedding ring, skips past his wife’s friend, Paula, who chooses this moment to offer to fuck him – and goes look for the beautiful African nurse.

They rent a room in a flop house kept by an Asian couple, the Hakims, and have sex. Quite a few times. And in between discuss what to do. In among all the conversations and hurried phone calls during the conference, Salvo had heard Philip put one through to one Lord Brinkley in London, a character he (conveniently) happens to have met through his wife’s high society contacts. From what Salvo could hear,  posh Philip was on the phone to Brinkley giving feedback on the conference and asking Brinkley for the go-ahead to the coup.

Salvo very stupidly decides that if he can only confront Lord B, the latter will realise that he has – oh dear – been led astray and will immediately call the wicked plan off. So, with stupefying naivety, he goes to visit Lord Brinkley and his terrifically posh wife Kitty – ‘We’re in the drawing room, dahling‘. To nobody’s surprise except stupid Salvo, they both deny ever having met him before or having had the phone conversation he alludes to or knowing the people he mentions.

But now the conspirators know that Salvo has gone loco on them. Bad. To nobody’s surprise except his own, the apartment he shared with Penelope is comprehensively turned over. If Salvo had read any kind of thriller, or seen a movie, or ever watched a TV detective series, Salvo would have known this is absolutely par for the course. But he hasn’t, and he doesn’t, because he’s an idiot. It is impossible to belive in a thriller whose protagonist is an idiot.

Baptiste

Hannah says she knows a true Congolese patriot, Baptiste who can help so they arrange a meeting. Here Baptiste – all wraparound shades, gold bling and aggressive attitude – listens to the chocolate soldier’s story but alas, he is as potty-mouthed as all the other characters.

‘Let’s do facts. Here are the facts. Your friend here fucks you, right? Your friend’s friend knows he fucks you, so he comes to your friend. And he tells your friend a story, which your friend repeats to you because he’s fucking you. You are rightly incensed by this story, so you bring your friend who is fucking you to me, so that he can tell it all over again, which is what your friend’s friend reckoned would happen all along. We call that disinformation.‘ (p.329)

Do we? Is that a shrewd summary of disinformation? Despite the idiotic swearing, Baptiste claims to be some kind of sophisticated political mover and shaker – but in the next breath he also is revealed as a naive fool, because he point blank refuses to believe that his hero, the Mwazanga, has sold out to the West, to the White Man, to the fat cats in Kinshasa. So he simply refuses to believe Salvo’s story that the conference is a stitch-up and tells him and Hannah to get the fuck out.

Well, that wasn’t very helpful.

Mr Anderson

Next, Salvo catches a train to Sevenoaks where he tracks down his ‘control’, the man who represents ‘the Security Services’, who has given him various jobs in the past and gave him this particular job just a few days ago, the man he trusts most in the world, Mr Anderson. He tracks Anderson down to the very fine public school (is there any other type, old boy?) where he is rehearsing with his choir, and interrupts the practice.

They go to a quiet room and Salvo hands him the 20-page dossier he has written about the whole affair named, with stunning unoriginality, J’Accuse. Salvo naively tells this Security Service high-up that ‘we must stop the coup’. Guess what? Go on. Mr Anderson hears him out, then very politely says he has gone out of his way to help Salvo in the past and now is very saddened that in exchange Salvo has betrayed his trust and broken the Official Secrets Act. He gets out his phone to call someone ominous, maybe some heavies to come collect Salvo. Imbecile that he is, Salvo is surprised and stunned that someone high up in British Intelligence doesn’t want to betray or cancel a top secret operation. Salvo stalks out.

The only thing surprising in this sequence is what being back in a public school setting does to the already antiquated prose.

Seconds later Mr Anderson himself squeezed his bulk round the door and, looking past me as if I wasn’t there, addressed his womenfolk in tones of command. ‘Mary, I’ll trouble you both to go home and await my return.’ (p.339)

A lot of le Carré’s prose is like seeing a rare animal in a zoo – you didn’t realise stuff this pompous, stuffy and out of date was still alive.

Thorne the Horn

Fergus Thorn is nicknamed ‘Thorn the Horn’ because he’s notorious for screwing women. The horn? Sex? Gettit? (If you think that’s a hilarious nickname, this book is for you.) He is Penelope’s boss at the high-end newspaper where we are repeatedly told she is the rising star. Sometime in the past they had a run-in with Lord Brinkley who sued them for defamation and nearly bankrupted them. So Salvo phones a sceptical Horn and asks for a meeting. Here in a darkened wine bar, Salvo hands over the 20-page dossier and says he has phone recordings of Brinkley’s voice authorising the money for the coup.

Unfortunately, the Horn is another character who le Carré thinks will sound modern and thrusting and contemporary if he’s made to think crudely and swear a lot. And talk in italics. Thus, taking Salvo up on his offer, the Horn briefs the hacks who’ve come with him:

‘Sophie. Flash your tits at the security firms. Who’s MaxieColonel Maxie? Maxie who? If he’s a mercenary, he’s ex-Special Forces. How ex? Who does he fuck? What schools did he go to?’ (p.356)

Presumably this must be the approach which bags him so many women. But when Salvo rifles in his bag to find the incriminating tapes, he finds them gone. The Horn becomes progressively more sarcastic as Salvo’s search becomes more desperate, until the latter finally gives up and is forced to leave with his tail between his legs, the deal unconcluded.

On the way back to the hostel, Salvo realises what must have happened. Hannah stole the tapes. (For a moment I thought Hannah would turn out to be MI6’s woman all along and only having the affair with Salvo to monitor him in case he turned out to be unreliable; that would have been a bit clever. But no. She is every inch the high-minded social warrior Salvo and le Carré paint her as. She took the tapes for her own purposes.)

Turns out Hannah has transferred them to a sound file and emailed them, but to who, exactly? Salvo tries phoning her to find out but Hannah has decamped on an ‘outing’ to the seaside with her friend Grace, which they thought would give Hannah a good cover and protection, and her phone doesn’t answer.

So Salvo lies on his own in their room back at Mr Hakim’s boarding house, with the radio and TV on, and is astonished when reports start coming in of how an attempt at a coup in Eastern Congo have failed. To his consternation, the TV news shows pictures of Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider shackled and shuffling under the guard of their captors, along with the twenty or so other mercenaries they were leading. The apparent leader of the coup, the man they call ‘the Enlightener’ (p.367) – ie the Mwazanga – has disappeared.

So the coup failed after all. Salvo calls Hannah’s friend Grace’s mobile to tell Hannah to discover Grace is hysterical, because Hannah was arrested as they walked down the street in broad daylight. At this point it finally sinks into Salvo’s head what he has set himself up against. For the first time he loses the will to fight. Up to then he’d been careful about using his own mobile phone in case it was traced. But it had been a kind of patriotic love for Hannah which had kept him going through all this. Now he turns on and uses his own mobile for the first time, not caring if the call is traced, not caring if he is arrested, beyond caring.

He finds an answerphone message from smooth-talking Philip, who had masterminded events at the mansion, suggesting a meeting.

Climax

And so Salvo goes to the house of posh, silver-haired Foreign Office-type Philip, where he is let in by two tough young bodyguards. As soon as he enters his presence, in the stylish drawing room, Salvo tries to attack him, but is knocked unconscious by his bully boys.

When he comes to, the baddy – suave and posh, English upper class, like most of the baddies in le Carré’s later novels (the ‘worst man in the world’ Roper in The Night Manager, the head of the FO who covers up Tessa Quayle’s murder in The Constant Gardener, and so on) smoothly tells him that Hannah has confessed all and is being deported to Kampala.

It turns out that once the authorities start digging, they’ve discovered that he, Salvo, has a fake identity, presumably concocted all those years ago to protect his priest father from charges of impropriety. Having entered Britain on a false ID, he also is now being deported. Bye, old chap.

Epilogue

The last ten pages are the only good thing in the book. It consists of a long letter written by Salvo to Hannah’s son, Noah, back in the Congo somewhere, describing conditions in the internment camp where Salvo is being kept – surrounded by barbed wire and beaten up by the police from time to time, where he is waiting to be deported.

There’s a letter within a letter as Salvo unexpectedly gets a missive from Haj, the wide boy political leader he overheard being tortured, who gives a last cynical but exuberant vision of contemporary Congo, with its shootings, rapes, corruption and disease. Haj confirms that in the end nothing Salvo or Hannah did had any significance. It was he, Haj, who alerted the authorities to the coup the moment he got home, and thus had it forestalled and defused.

Now there will be elections in Congo, ramshackle and corrupt, ‘they won’t deliver solutions but they’re ours.’ All Hannah and Salvo’s efforts were for nothing.


Blustering explanations

As in all the other late le Carré novels, when the time comes for some kind of explanation of the political situation, what we get instead is the drunken loudmouth bluster of sweary braggarts. (Exactly the same happened in the Night Manager, Our Game and The Tailor of Panama.) Le Carré likes to ‘tackle’ big geopolitical issues but, when push comes to shove, seems to lack the analytical intelligence to write anything interesting about them. Even entry-level explication of the situations is beyond his characters. This is how the organiser of the team flying Salvo to this mystery mansion – Maxie aka the Skipper – explains the situation.

‘We’re sorting the place, Sinclair, for Christ’s sake!’ he expostulated in a pent-up voice. ‘We’re bringing sanity to a fucking madhouse. We’re giving piss-poor, downtrodden people their country back and forcing ’em to tolerate each other, make money get a fucking life. Have you got a problem with that?’ (p.125)

This is pathetically inadequate. But it’s not just Maxie. The ‘delegates’ to the micro-conference, instead of putting reasoned arguments for their respective parties, all sound like swearing teenagers and their ‘discussions’ are just rants. I worked for three years on Channel 4’s international affairs TV show. Nobody who is the leader of a political party or group talks like this.

‘So it’s a coup, right?’ the Dolphin [one of the delegates] demands, in the shrill, hectoring French of a Parisian sophisticate. ‘Peace, prosperity, inclusiveness. But when you strip away the bullshit, we’re grabbing power. Bukavu today, Goma tomorrow, Rwandans out, screw the UN, and Kinshasa can kiss our arses.’ (p.167)


Appalling style

The poshest African

On paper having an African narrate the story might seem a bold experiment. Alas, in the event, the ‘African’ character comes out sounding even more phenomenally posh than the usually posh le Carré product. Not just posh, but out-of-date, stilted posh.

I was surprised to register the presence of a recording angel in the room, for such as I construed him, male. He was ensconced at a desk in the bay window, which I briefly confused with the bay window in our bedroom at Mr Hakim’s. Sunlight was streaming over him, making him divine. (p.375)

I well understand that it is a deliberate ploy to make Salvo’s English more orotund than usual, in order to give him a verbal style, and to convey his odd background – Africa and public school. But it is murder to read.

Our

As in all the late novels, the word ‘our’ used to create the rather smothering sense of a ‘gang’ – our boys, our lady of the night, our saviour, our flying ace. The ‘our’ in these sentences doesn’t refer to the character’s relationship to the other characters. It refers to the character’s relationship with the author and with the reader. Le Carré uses ‘our’ to hustle the reader into reluctant agreement, to shoulder him into being one of ‘the gang’ – like a bully in a pub – you’re one of our boys now, you’re one of our gang now.

Our ace crime reporter… our supergrass (65)… our neophyte secret agent… our great enterprise (93) our great venture (106)… Monsieur Jasper Albin our specialist lawyer from Beançon (144)… our Mission’s self-appointed and rascally protector (144)… our Enlightener (216)… our Redeemer (250).. the Great Coming… our distinguished notary (251)

At the same time it is also tremendously facetious; it tends to be used in an ironic and deliberately grandiose way. It sounds like a Victorian music hall maestro bombastically introducing our very own, the one and only, the stupendous, the once in a lifetime etc:

big Benny our gentle giant (259)… Haj our French-trained Bukavu wide boy and nightclub owner (278)… our skipper Maxie (365) … our gallant Canadian allies (382)…

He seems unable to mention any of the characters without facetiously over-describing them. For example, Salvo identifies one of the voices on the tapes he’s stolen as belonging to ‘none other than my long-time hero and scourge of Penelope’s great newspaper, Lord Brinkley of the sands’ (p.272). ‘None other than…’ It is ostensibly a serious novel treating a serious subject, and yet the narrator consistently treats all his characters like cartoons.

The narrator sounds like a circus ring-master introducing a series of world-beating acts, rather than human beings. Everything feels like it’s shouting at you – the way the characters are over-hyped, the way they swear at each other in all the dialogue, and the narrator’s plentiful use if italics to really emphasise when something important is happening – or just when he’s astonished that people seem to be behaving really badly.

Isn’t the advice they give in all the creative writing courses, Don’t tell – show? Le Carré always tells, repeating again and again how wonderful, eminent, clever, successful etc his characters are, whereas in fact – like Smiley when he actually says something in The Secret Pilgrim – they are all-too-often revealed to be tiresome, self-important bores.

He sets characters up as if they’re about to reveal some especially acute insight into the geopolitical situation, the reader is dying for intelligence and insight, but – all too often what we are actually given is a bunch of characters swearing like chavs at chucking-out time. A lucid introduction to the dire political situation of the Congo would have been useful. Instead we get this summary from Maxie the mercenary leader, telling Salvo how the Congolese have been:

‘Fucked by the Arab slavers, fucked by their fellow Africans, fucked by the United Nations, the CIA, the Christians, the Belgians, the French, the Brits, the Rwandans, the diamond companies, the gold companies, half the world’s carpet-baggers, their own government in Kinshasa and any minute now they’re going to be fucked by the oil companies … Time they had a break, and we’re the boys to give it to ’em.’

England versus America

I came to this novel from reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant Wolves Eat Dogs. The comparison really highlights how Cruz Smith is a poet, a nimble magician of prose, whereas le Carré’s style has gotten more clotted, more pompous and convoluted, as he’s gotten older.

It is frankly a conundrum to me, observing these events from where I sit today, that as I followed Bridget down the stairs and back onto the pavement of South Audley Street, attired as I was in the garb of a secondary-school master up from the country, and with nothing to attach me to the world except a bunch of bogus business cards and the assurance that I was about to endure unfamiliar perils, I should have counted myself the most blessed fellow in London that night, if not the whole of England, the most intrepid patriot and civil servant, but such was indeed the case. (p.61)

I know the style is meant to reflect the peculiar heritage of the frankly unbelievable character, Salvo. But it must have been painful to write and it is excruciating to read. The comparison of MCS with JLC makes you think the Yanks represent the future of English as a flexible expressive tool and the Brits represent a sclerotic past.

I will not deny that I was a touch nervous following Maxie down the cramped cellar steps, albeit the sight of Spider, Welsh eyes twinkling with honest mischief as he doffed his cap to us in humorous salutation, eased my apprehensions. (p.115)

I read novels less for the plot than for the style, and I thought the style of this book was almost unreadable. Maybe this would be redeemed if the story held up, but the plot is silly, based as it is entirely on the central character’s unbelievable stupidity and naivety, and there isn’t even the saving grace that book offers any insight at all into the very real, ongoing tragedy of the Congo and its long-suffering people.


Credit

The Mission Song by John le Carré was published in 2006 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing 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 trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – 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.
1995 Our Game – 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)
1996 The Tailor of Panama – 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)
1999 Single & Single – 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.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, climaxing with them being shot down like dogs. First part good, second part overblown.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, who happens to be half-Congolese, gives a first-person narrative of an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions who have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, who are planning to engineer a coup and impose a ‘middle of the road’ leader, ostensibly to bring ‘peace’ – but in reality to plunder the country’s resources. Salvo is there to translate, but ends up hearing more than he should about the brutal behind-the-scenes deals the syndicate and the delegates are cutting, and sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man –
2010 Our Kind of Traitor –
2013 A Delicate Truth –

Absolute Friends John le Carré (2004)

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

For three quarters of its length this is the best, the most compelling, gripping and psychologically rewarding le Carré novel for years: for excitement and plausibility I would recommend this one over all its predecessors as far back as A Perfect Spy. It is a return to the full-blown world of Cold War spying, but now continued on into the more uncertain, violent and scary post-9/11 world and also, for the first time in his fiction, gives a real sense of age and frailty and remorse.

Then bizarrely, right at the end, it turns into a rant against George Bush, Tony Blair and the US invasion of Iraq, our heroes get assassinated by the wicked, imperialist Americans and the whole thing is covered up in a finale that’s reminiscent of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, only without the style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like another channeling of le Carré’s own lifestory. Like the author, the main protagonist Ted Mundy is brought up by a braggart father – this version is a British Army Major who stays on into post-Independence Pakistan, all bristling patriotism and military lingo, his mother having died in childbirth. When his father is cashiered from the Army in the 1950s, young Ted returns with him to grey, rainy England and, like the young JLC, is packed off to a succession of boarding schools which he hates, before – like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional iteration to Berlin (the author went to study in Basel in Switzerland).

As with A Perfect Spy, the closer le Carré is to his own life, the more grounded the text and the language feel. Granted the entire childhood in Pakistan, the food and Muslim prayers and Urdu words for things, are not directly autobiographical, but the product of research – nonetheless, the feelings of being puzzled, isolated, seeking escape from a childhood world which is both smothering and the only support he knows, are powerfully conveyed and give the novel more psychological conviction than its four or five predecessors.

The plot

At Oxford Ted had taken a lover (le Carré heroes are never short of women, they luxuriate in an atmosphere of prolonged sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is a defining characteristic of these books). Strident young Ilse introduces him to sex and radical politics, packing him off to Berlin with a letter of introduction to the city’s top student radical, Sasha (we never learn his last name).

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

Of course they do – just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel. Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but – like all le Carré leading men – the happy ‘conqueror’ of numberless women, and the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

For the first time in five or six novels, there were scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary or what total rotters they are. These scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped by being set among foreigners who don’t end each sentence ‘old boy’, and therefore sound like normal people, not the self-regarding ‘legends’ of Eton or Harrow or Shrewsbury who populate his other post-1990s novels.

Ted enjoys free sex with, inevitably, the most beautiful and aloof of the many beautiful young women in the squat, there’s sticking up posters calling for the workers to overthrow the system etc, and then there’s a big demonstration in which 6-foot-tall Ted a) rescues Sasha from a beating by the police b) is himself arrested, soundly beaten, handed over to the British Consulate and deported.

Time passes during which Ted does not resume his degree at Oxford but tries various life experiments – and the narrative gives a good sense of the confidence and open horizons to be found in the early 1970s. Ted teaches at schools (he has affair with one of the other master’s wives, natch), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (has affair with a painter’s wife, natch), tries his hand as a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, before drifting back to London and getting a homely little job at the British Council. He also lowers his sights from artists and free spirits and falls in love with a practical young woman, Kate, teacher in a local state school (that is, not a fee-paying boarding school – crikey, there are a few around, apparently) who also happens to be an activist in the local Labour Party.

In his new British Council role he is tasked with accompanying a youth theatre group across north Europe and then around the Eastern bloc countries. This meandering account all leads up to the seismic moment when Ted is hailed by Sasha backstage in an Eastern European capital. Yes, Sasha! Quickly Sasha makes a rendezvous with Ted at which he tells the incredulous Englishman what’s happened to him in the decade since the glory years in Berlin. Briefly, he was lured by radical colleagues to cross the Wall into the East where he was at first interrogated and grilled in the notorious ‘White Hotel’ interrogation centre, and then, finally, rehabilitated, on condition that he becomes a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

By the time of this backstage meeting Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as red fascists. He had begun copying incriminating documents and building up an archive of the State’s criminality against the long-awaited day, far in the future, when the communist regime will collapse. Then he is amazed to see his friend’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha wants to spy for the West. He has access to files and documents and information all of which he will give to the West, for nothing, just out of anger and hatred of the regime. Ted doesn’t know what to think, and has the latest of many out-of-body experiences he has throughout the novel when he finds himself out of his depth. However, Sasha stipulates that he will only hand these goodies over to Ted, in person, no-one else. To manage this, Sasha explains, to cement their bond, Ted must offer himself as a spy to his Stasi masters. This will provide the perfect excuse for their meetings.

Ted becomes a spy

Sasha even explains to Ted who to get in touch with when he gets back to the West, a drawling upper class Intelligence officer in West Berlin, Nicholas Amory, who becomes his case officer. Ted now undergoes training in a) how to collect Sasha’s information b) how to present himself as a candidate for recruitment by the Stasi, not being too earnest, playing hard to get, then ultimately giving in and agreeing to become a double agent.

This central part of the novel is familiar territory for le Carré, but fascinating nonetheless. His classic spy novels from the 1960s and 70s emphasised the human cost of the trade and this is no different. Ted has married Kate and they have a young son, Jake, but all of them find it wearing to cope with Ted’s more and more frequent trips to Eastern Europe, ostensibly attending conferences promoting British Culture, but in every instance a) pretending to the Stasi that he has vital espionage material to feed Sasha b) in fact collecting and transporting back Sasha’s top secret information to us. The narrative makes a deal out of the multiple versions of himself Ted has to navigate: Mundy One, his ‘true self’, Mundy two the British spy, Mundy three the pretend Stasi spy. Throw in playing the roles of good father and dutiful husband, and you have a very confused public schoolboy, who wishes he could just go and play cricket. I found the narrative’s portrayal of this slightly hallucinatory sense of managing multiple selves, very convincing.

Amidst all the spying Ted is introduced by Amory to a shaggy, tall, comfortable American, who interviews him in depth over a number of days, and who he grows to like, one Orville J. Rourke (‘call me Jay’), whose dear old mother, like Ted’s, is of Irish descent. Then one day he’s gone, without goodbye or anything. Amory explains that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (ie the CIA) and passed clean. Good for him.

Over the years Ted and Kate drift apart. She finds herself promoted within the Labour Party and put forward as the PLP candidate for her home town of Doncaster, which requires her to move up there, along with Jake. Because of his work Ted remains in London, and is often abroad anyway. The inevitable happens and, some years later, they have a summit meeting where Kate announces she’s leaving him, for a shadowy man in the background, Philip, something to do with the shiny New Labour Project. (Le Carré, who gives every sign of loathing Tony Blair, is heavily sarcastic about Kate and her steady rise in the New Labour hierarchy).

What rings most true from these sequences is Ted’s heartfelt sorrow at missing out on his son’s childhood, sadly meeting up with the teenage Jake and realising he is a stranger to him.

Then one day they all find themselves watching on TV the Berlin Wall being hammered to the ground, while the East German police look on in bemusement. Ted has a moment of concern for his friend Sasha, liable to be lynched by the mob in the anti-Stasi reprisals; and then panic for himself, as he realises his own Stasi file, proclaiming him a communist spy, might be published. But it doesn’t happen…

The present

All le Carré’s post-Cold War novels start in media res, ie in the middle of the complete sequence of events they describe. After establishing the situation in ‘the present’, they then go back to explain the often long and convoluted backstories which led up to this moment. Thus Absolute Friends opens soon after the Allied invasion of Iraq (March-May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again. Having lost his family in England around the same time the Cold War ended and his career as a spy came to an abrupt end, he returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

As ‘the present’ opens this school has shut down, bankrupted by the possibly criminal activities of his business partner Egon, and Ted has drifted down to Munich, where he has fluked a job as an English-speaking tour guide to one of the castles of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, giving chummy, unfunny lectures to bemused tourists.

He has also fallen in love with a poor Muslim immigrant, Zara, who approached him one night in a bar offering to prostitute herself. The decent public schoolboy and soldier’s son in him turns this down and insists on buying her a nutritious dinner. She is victim of an arranged marriage made back in Pakistan to a man who turned out to be a crook and wife beater, and who smashed out her front teeth among other assaults, before being arrested and sent to prison. Now she prostitutes herself to support her proud little son, Mustafa.

Ever one for a lost cause (and leaking a fair bit of sentimentality), Ted becomes her protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the significance of having had Ted born and raised in Pakistan. It makes him sympathetic to Muslim culture, it makes him ready to be taken along by Zara and Mustafa to their impoverished mosque in the backstreets of Munich, it contributes to his anger at the short-sighted stupidity of the Allies for invading Iraq on a trumped-up pretext.

But the description of his childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving. And above all, it is a relief not to be among the braying diplomats and their bitchy wives who have dominated JLC’s past few novels. It feels a little bit like actual modern life, in its poverty and anxiety and multi-cultural confusion. And it feels like an achievement for le Carré to have reached beyond the bubble of his age and class and grasped that.

The counter-university

This brings us to the final act. Out of the blue Ted gets a letter from his old comrade in arms, Sasha, who makes his third great interference in Ted’s life. This time, when they meet, Sasha introduces him to a mad new scheme: there is a secretive billionaire who is so incensed at the West’s invasion of Iraq, and by the stranglehold the new, more virulent military-industrial complex is exerting over all aspects of Western media, culture and education, that he has a magic plan at hand – he wants to set up a Counter-University, which will provide a safe space for voices speaking out against the Complex to be heard, for alternative discourses and theories to flourish.

Sasha drives Ted out to an aircraft-hanger sized barn in the countryside outside Munich, where they transfer to a 4-by-4 driven by a stern female operative, and then up hill and through a maze of forests and valleys to a remote mansion. It is like a James Bond lair, immaculate and clean in every detail, and Sasha leaves Ted to be processed by several sets of slick young receptionists and security guards before being admitted to the vast room of Mr Big, who turns out to be a tracksuited, twinkly old man of 70, who gives his name as Dimitri and delivers a long monologue about the evils of the US military-industrial complex. He outlines his plans to set up the Counter-University and even produces a reading list of the kinds of books they should be teaching, a list which could come straight from the pages of the Guardian:

  • Naomi Klein
  • Arundhati Roy
  • George Monbiot
  • Mark Curtis
  • John Pilger
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Susan George

I’ve read articles or books by all of these authors and even attended lectures by some of them. I am broadly sympathetic to their views, but I found le Carré’s decision to promote their views via the mouth of a wizened, old James Bond-style villain, bizarre.

‘I am speaking of something even more important to the development of western society than the ballot box. I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or State manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor fuck of a student.’ (p.276)

In the fiction, Ted is driven back to his flat where he agrees the whole deal with Sasha, but the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, to find it full of farm equipment, and on up to the James Bond mansion in the forest, only to find it stripped and bare. Spooky! Stumbling back through the woods he is aggressively captured by a large force of armed and trigger-happy Austrian security police, stripped, hooded, bundled into a jeep and interrogated before it all comes to a halt with the reappearance of Jay, the CIA man from years before.

Jay reveals to Ted that they have their eyes on Dimitri and have traced his money back to Riyadh. The Saudis. Muslims, Ted. Has it crossed Ted’s mind that Dimitri might not be a peace-loving philanthropist but part of the new web of anti-Western terrorists spreading around the world?

Ted is cleaned up and dropped home where he is paid another visit by his old MI6 minder Nick Amory. For the first time since Ted’s known him, Nick is himself at a loss and puzzled. He reveals MI6’s uncertainty about Dimitri’s background and motives: is it to found a grand new liberal university in the venerable university city of Heidelberg? Or is that the facade for some evil ‘spectacular’ like blowing the city up?

And Nick tells Ted that Jay is no longer with ‘the Company’; he’s been a freelance advising the big US corporations for four years or more. So whose interests does he have at heart? Ted is right to feel confused, and the reader along with him. Thirty pages from the end he gets Zara and Mustafa onto a plane back to Turkey, to attend her sister’s wedding, glad to have them out of the way of whatever happens next.

The shoot-out

What happens next is Ted drives to the big, empty school building where he’s made an appointment to meet Sasha. Sasha is late. After a few drinks, Ted takes a jemmy and opens the crates of books which have started arriving as preparation for the big new university and are piled up in the big main hall. Sure enough, he finds lots of books on philosophy etc, but then some on how to make home-made bombs, tips on arson, and then some crates full of hand grenades and guns. Alright.  OK. In a very cinematic moment he sits back in the armchair in the big unlit atrium of the schoolhouse staring at the pile of cracked-open crates in utter silence, wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.

Then he hears the moan of a motor car, a screech of brakes and all hell breaks loose – the doors and windows are smashed in by black-clad US Special Forces firing machine guns in all directions and letting off small explosions. Ted runs to the stairs and stumbles up them despite being hit in leg and shoulder, and makes it up to the attic where he swings open the skylight, looking down into the road in time to see Sasha being shot to pieces outside, at which point half a dozen SWAT troops burst in after him followed by a balaclava-ed, tall, shaggy guy with a smooth Boston accent – God, it’s Jay! – who takes careful aim with a sniper’s rifle and shoots Ted through the head.

The cover-up

Exactly as in The Constant Gardener a) the hero is killed by the forces of evil b) le Carré embarks on an elaborate explanation of how a completely fictional cover story is manufactured by the State and media c) one good man speaks out and is stifled.

It is given out that US forces only just managed to prevent a major terrorist atrocity right in the heart of Germany. Huge stockpiles of ammunition and guides to terrorism were seized and two of the hardened terrorists shot dead but not before an intense firefight. Ted’s life is completely rewritten to make him look like an embittered loser who has turned to Islamic radicalism (even marrying one of them, goddamit) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasis spy and failed radical. We learn that Dimitri was a conman and actor hired to deceive both Sasha and Ted, who has taken a big payoff and retired to the States. We learn that Zara was arrested on arrival in Ankara and is being tortured until she corroborates the official story. We learn that a high-ranking British official published a ‘true’ account of Mundy’s life on an anonymous website (this would be Nick Amory), an account which was comprehensively rubbished by the powers-that-be and gullible journalists – always easily impressed by the glamorous world of ‘intelligence’.

And the motive behind this elaborate and murderous scam? Germany had refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which invaded Iraq. This entire incident and the deaths of Sasha and Ted were engineered to terrify German public opinion, helped along by paid articles from America-friendly journalists, designed to bring pressure to bear on the German Chancellor to fall into line with US foreign policy. The American military-industrial hyperpower which, in le Carré’s view, has gone mad, and is undermining the whole world.


A spot of biography

Le Carré’s father, on the evidence of his own interviews and the recent biography, was a world class con-man, who gathered round him gangs of collaborators and conspirators who all agreed with the Chief and supported his mad schemes. Within this small world, tightly knit by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy all the adult characters around him seemed larger than life figures, with superhuman qualities.

This sense of a small, claustrophobic world in which everyone is a legend to everyone else is one of the hallmarks of le Carré’s fiction. A Perfect Spy is a great novel because it has the force of a barely fictionalised recap of le Carré’s odd childhood; the same sense of a magic circle of large-than-life characters is strongly felt in Single & Single where the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single lords it over his gang, and in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator is always an interloper in these secret worlds, the outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma: thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays the slick arms dealer Chief.

As part of his odd childhood, the young le Carré was packed off to a series of boarding schools where he encountered another self-enclosed, self-regarding world full of ‘legendary’ masters and ‘fabled’ young stars of the cricket pitch or concert hall or whatever. From which he progressed to Oxford University – not backward in promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status – and then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (possibly the most famous school in the world) on to the Intelligence Service, another inward-looking organisation, also not slow to lionise its leading lights, such as good old Kim Philby, solid chap.

This background, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which concerns itself with small groups of figures who all regard each other as legends and stars. The Constant Gardener is ostensibly about criminality in the worldwide pharmaceutical industry and takes the hero, the Old Etonian Justin Quayle from Africa to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and back in his quest for the truth. But in his mind he never leaves – and the narrative never really shakes free from – the small number of People Like Us in the Nairobi High Commission, their secrets and lies, all conveyed in dialogue dripping with the privileged slang and superior attitude of their gilded circle.

Use of the word ‘our’ in the fiction of John le Carré

Thus, in these later novels, all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’, larger-than-life super-characters who simply everyone knows, darling. This verbal habit is like a chummy arm round the shoulder of the reader pushing you to buy into these cliquey circles, an over-familiar embrace which his fans eagerly welcome or don’t notice, but which this reader, for one, coldly resists.

It also explains why le Carré has a funny relationship with the word ‘our’. ‘Our’ is a ‘possessive determiner’ (according to linguistics) which, when used factually, simply conveys that something belongs to two or more people, one of whom is me. Our car, our house, our country.

But in le Carré’s hands it is used in a number of ways to compel the reader into the myth-making world of his ‘legendary’ characters, to pressure the reader into seeing things his, and their, way, to acquiescing in their overblown heroic status and the generally bombastic mind-set which surrounds them.

Thus JLC characters are regularly over-sold as ‘our’ hero this, ‘our very own’, ‘our dear old’ so and so. I noticed it prominently throughout this text:

… our own dear Neville Chamberlain… our beloved British monarchy… Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator… our poor King Ludwig… our recently appointed misanthrope…

It is part of the general tone of smothering, over-familiar, hugger-muggerness, the sense that you are being jostled and coerced in with a gang of upper-class twits who you would normally cross the road to avoid, which can make reading his novels feel more like an endurance test than a pleasure.

He uses the word ‘our’ to do a number of things:

  1. to be vastly patronising – ‘our dear old queen’, conveying a sense that ordinary people like the Queen but you and I, dear boy, ha ha, we are so much more sophisticated and worldly wise, eh – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148)
  2. appropriating historical or eminent figures to our cause or discourse, while simultaneously looking down on them – ‘our poor King Ludwig..’ (p.18)
  3. to pour scorn and derision on political leaders – ‘Bush and Blair, our two great war leaders…’
  4. to dismiss serious characters and issues with mock affection – ‘When our Dear Führer came to power..’ (p.75) ‘… our dear Führer’s old Olympic stadium..’ (p.147) ‘our gallant British forces liberating the imperilled Suez Canal..’ (p.2550
  5. to conceal anger beneath mockery – ‘As a young woman she [Sasha’s mother] was of course repeatedly raped by our victorious Russian liberators’ (p.78) Referring to the Stasi interrogation centre in East Germany – ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)
  6. to puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’ ; one of the teenage actors is ‘Lexham our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)
  7. mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)
  8. normal standard ‘our’ – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)
  9. ‘our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – ‘our Kate’ is how Kate’s dad always refers to her (p.204)
  10. Most of all for a self-mocking exaggeration of his own characters, as if the whole novel is a witty in-joke among public school People Like Us:
  • Ulrike our moral angel, our leading leftist, high priestess of the Alternative Life… (p.83)
  • Sasha our charismatic orator, our coming man for the leader’s throne, our Quasimodo of the social genesis of knowledge… (p.90)
  • Sasha our charismatic Socrates.. (p.119)
  • Sasha the great double agent (p.264)

This kind of pompous, overblown mockery stands in for analysis throughout the book. What underlies all its forms is the breezily arrogant superiority of the true public school article, the upper class disdain for the ordinary view, for normal phrasing.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name the character, but repeatedly to blow him up to mock-heroic proportions. We see and hear a lot of Ted’s thoughts and actions, but the narrator also overblows and mocks him in a series of comic, third-person cartoons as if he was a cardboard cutout of a human being:

  • First thing in the morning the chaste English boarding-school boy and as yet unbruised recruit to the cause of world liberation springs forth from his field bed… (p.71)
  • The good soldier is not fazed… The aspiring novelist likes to spread his notebook… (p.72)
  • ‘Ted Mundy, life’s eternal apprentice…’ (p.100)
  • ‘the former head prefect and cricketing hero signs up with a rural preparatory school…’ (p.106)

Why describe a character’s emotions when you can big him up with bombastic, if self-mocking, grandiosity?

Like boarding school

So many English public school-educated writers seem never to escape their childhood, with the result that almost everything around them reminds them of their dear old alma mater:

  • Teddy tends to announce himself ‘in his best head prefect voice’ (p.63)
  • Life in Berlin begins ‘for the chaste English boarding-school boy’ (p.71)
  • Those students who don’t leave the squat in summer are ‘like uncollected children in a boarding school’ (p.73)
  • When Ted meets his MI6 controller, his first thought is ‘whether Amory is one of the prefects who beat him in the washroom.’ (p.97)
  • as he starts his career as a spy Ted is so scared ‘it’s like opening the bowling for the public schools at Lords every time…’ (p.225)
  • ‘To Mundy they look more like cricket umpires than removal men.’ (p.331)
  • When he puts her on the plane to Turkey, Zara clings so tight to Mundy, that ‘he imagines she is his daughter and he is sending her off to boarding school against her will.’ (p.345)

Is that really the most powerful comparison the text can think up for a terrified woman clinging to her only security in the world? This continual drawing of the wider world back into the bubble of upper-class English public school experiences, slang and attitudes, has a reductive effect on the imagination. Although the narrative travels widely across Europe, the breadth of the subject matter is fighting an often losing battle against the narrowing impact of the mindset.


The big issue

Belatedly, I realise that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geo-political ‘Issue’. (It reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s early plan to write a novel about each of the vices, starting with Hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit and then Pride in Dombey and Son, before quietly dropping it.)

  • The Night Manager – international arms trade
  • Our Game – not clear
  • The Tailor of Panama – US intervention in Latin America
  • Single & Single – City institutions laundering money for the wicked (here, Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower run riot (America)

The big issue this long fiction leads up to is the alleged stranglehold on Western culture, education and media exercised by a new, all-pervading and toxic American military-industrial complex. ‘If you tell a big lie long enough everyone will believe it,’ he has Sasha yell at Ted – ‘and then anybody who speaks out against it can be labelled mad.’ Dimitri has a long speech about the evil of Bush and Blair, the wickedness of their war, the stifling of free speech. Ted nods his acquiescence.

Does it matter that a thriller contains or ends on some kind of political message? Not necessarily, no. Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels contain references throughout to the wickedness of the East German state, without denting the novels’ plausibility because the thought is integrated into the narrative. Similarly, Robert Harris’ terrifying bestseller Fatherland contains harrowing indictments of the Nazi régime, but the indictment is wholly integrated into the plot – and the seamlessness of that integration is a large part of the reason it is so satisfying as a novel. Martin Cruz Smith’s novels manage to be very exciting but at the same time to shed light on the repressive nature of the countries and systems he is depicting (Russia, Cuba). Even a comedy like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt On High can end on a page-long diatribe against the madness of nuclear weapons and not be damaged by it because it arises naturally out of the plot (and is all the more effective because Sharpe and his character Wilt are on the whole right wing and ridicule lefty politics).

But it fails in this case because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes incandescent after the invasion of Iraq. Just before this novel was published he wrote an opinion piece in the Times newspaper, The United States of America Has Gone Mad (link below) which I found embarrassing in its strident simple-mindedness.

If I was Arundhati, George, Naomi et al I would be flattered to be namechecked in a John le Carré novel but also embarrassed at the guileless shoutiness of the context.

At key moments all these books lack analytical intelligence. Emotional depth? Often. Colourful ability with language? Yes (if much given to bombast and exaggeration). Cunning plotlines? Certainly. The artful creation of multi-levelled timeframes? Emphatically yes. But when a character has to explain the exact geo-political crux, the issue firing the whole narrative, the great wrong which must be understood – time and again JLC gives the speech to a drunk, bombastic, over-the-top or imbecile character: the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, the ridiculously implausible ‘Dimitri’ in Absolute Friends.

It is revealing that the first two characters are bigged up to ‘legendary’ status – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – because in these crux scenes le Carré doesn’t analyse (let alone dramatise): he creates a loud, shouty character and effectively says, ‘Look everybody – this guy is really famous and really clever and he thinks it’s a bad thing, alright, so you should, too.’ It’s also characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot.

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle…’ (Jonah, Tailor of Panama, p.290)

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (Larry, Our Game, p.138)

Instead of subtle and understated analysis, le Carré has key explanations of the big theme of each novel delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

So you read the long speeches the characters are given telling you that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that the Bush presidency was electorally invalid, that Tony Blair shamelessly sucked up to George Dubya for nothing, that the hysteria around the War on Terror was cranked up by the corporate-owned media in order to boost the profits of the arms industry, and so on – and you don’t disagree with any of it.

Like most people I am aware of all this, read all about it in the papers at the time. I just don’t care very much because

a) There is nothing I can do about it .
b) It is the way of the world: which war in the past 150 years wasn’t good for the arms industry, which British Prime Minister of the last sixty years hasn’t sucked up to the over-mighty Superpower?
c) Things have moved on a lot since then.

Either le Carré’s arguments should be made much more forensically, analytically, dispassionately, and zero in on precise wrong-doings; or they should be woven much more cannily into the narrative (à la Robert Harris). But they are neither: too simple minded to be effective, too bolted onto the main plot to have as much dramatic impact as they should. The combined effect, in this novel especially, is to make them look a bit childish and shallow.


My little pony

I have a bet with my son that every post-Cold War le Carré novel will contain a reference to a private school character having a little pony – In his previous three novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies or competing in the local gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama, Quayle finds a photo of Tessa’s first pony in The Constant Gardener).

Disappointingly, the main character here doesn’t have a my-little-pony memory but the receptionist at the Bedford Square house where Ted goes to see his back-up team during his spying days, is ‘a jolly girl called Laura with freckles and a pony club smile’ (p.210). So I’m still just about winning my bet…


Credit

Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2004 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, downbeat and depressing 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 trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
  • 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) Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
  • Absolute Friends (2003) Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’ climaxing with them being shot down like dogs.
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré (2001)

‘It’s time educated men and women had some balls to speak out for truth instead of cringing in the shit-house like a bunch of craven cowards.’ (p.424)

This is a long novel at 560 pages in the paperback edition. It deals with serious social, medical and political issues, and also includes sections of great suspense and tension, but I found it very difficult to read because, like most of le Carré’s later novels, the focus is very much on a handful of terrifically upper-class chaps and chapesses.

The main protagonist is blessed with the ‘good manners and ancient chivalry that were bred in him from his Etonian cradle’ (p.439) – and the relentlessly upper-class patois, speech rhythms and habits of thought evinced by him and almost all the other characters (unless foreigners or servants), almost made me throw the book away more than once. But I’m glad I soldiered on to the end because there are lots of good, and even brilliant, things in it.

Part one – the High Commission

Like most late le Carre’s novels this one starts in media res, in the middle of the plot, and then cunningly interweaves multiple flashbacks and memories to paint in the backstory and build back up to ‘the present’ while also moving the action moving forward, with the result that multiple timeframes interpenetrate each other. This always makes for a satisfyingly complex and interesting reading experience.

The Constant Gardener opens by introducing us to Sandy Woodrow, Head of Chancery at the British High Commission in Nairobi and his gossipy wife Gloria. Sandy has been lusting after Tessa, the young, free-spirited wife of Justin, the Old Etonian British representative on the East African Donors’ Effective Committee (EADEC) at the Commission. But Tessa appears to have been having a long-term affair with a black doctor, Arnold Bluhm, and now – the central event in the novel which triggers everything else – she has been found dead, murdered in a jeep on a trip into the back country along with Bluhm, who is missing, apparently on her way to visit the (real life) Dr Richard Leakey.

Posh characters

In these early pages we realise with a sinking feeling, that we are, once again, among the very posh. All the main characters went to private school:

– When Sandy goes to the hospital to identify Tessa’s body it reminds him of the dormitory at his boarding school, the trestle the corpse is lying on like ‘matron’s ironing board’. Sandy’s father was a British Army General and he reads his two young sons bedtime stories from Biggles (p.144).

– His wife Gloria keeps in touch with her old boarding schools, likes to play act the school prefect, channeling her inner ‘head girl’ (p.472), and her thoughts – which we are given far more of than we could possibly want – are peppered with jolly hockeysticks expressions – Well played, that man! (p.52) Singing at Tessa’s funeral reminds both of them of chapel back at boarding school (p.138). And Justin is not just an Old Etonian, he is ‘the right sort of Etonian’ (p.98). (It is taken for granted that we all know how beastly it can be having to deal with the wrong sort of Etonian.)

– The High Commissioner’s jacket labels still say ‘P. Coleridge, Balliol’, to remind him of his jolly days at Oxford. Bernard Pellegrin, the Permanent Secretary, is always referred to as ‘the Pellegrin’ in that ho-ho public school drawl they all use, but he is always ready to take a chap to lunch at his club.

In other words, all the main characters dress, speak and think in the tones of Britain’s white, public school élite.

Part of their superior attitude is looking down on the lower classes. The impertinent secretary to the High Commissioner, Mildren (with typically mirthless ‘humour’ nicknamed Mildred, ha ha) has, in Sandy’s view, ‘the insolence peculiar to lower class secretaries’ (p.128). The police who arrive to interview Sandy also display tiresome characteristics of the lower classes, such as expecting their questions to be answered. Tut tut, what can one do about such ghastly people, darling?

I laughed out loud when Sandy drifts off during the church service for Tessa and a stained glass depiction of St Andrew reminds him of ‘Macpherson the gillie that time we drove the boys to Loch Awe to fish the salmon’ (p.139). Like the older Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s later novels, le Carré’s very pukka protagonists are only really comfortable with members of the working classes if they are servants or Victorian-style retainers. (Of the peasant fisherman who ferries Justin across the lake at the novel’s end, Justin thinks ‘this fellow was your born family retainer, which was why, to be honest, it was easy to confuse him with Mustafa’, p.564 – to even categorise the wily old peasant as a family retainer seems patronising and narrow-minded, and then to say it’s so easy to muddle up these helpful old black chaps…).

Because of course, here in Africa, each High Commission official has a large house staffed with plenty of servants who they forge sentimental bonds with. Justin in particular is held up as some kind of paragon for his close paternal friendship with his houseboy and his head servant Mustafa et al. The characters pour lofty scorn on their Victorian imperialist ancestors (and everything else) but their patronising self-regard, and their fondness for servants, seems absolutely unchanged since 1870.

The plot

Wayward young diplomat’s wife uncovers corporate misdoings in Africa, namely a pharmaceutical company recklessly trialling an experimental drug on Africa’s poorest. Big corporation bumps her off. Husband goes on quest to discover reason for her murder, uncovering conspiracy which includes FO staff and high-ups back in London. Just as he has satisfactorily dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, he is himself murdered and everything he’s discovered rubbished in a corporate cover-up.

Father a judge, mother a contessa, sent to boarding schools and Cambridge, Tessa Quayle showed her spirit and independence by rebelling against her privileged upper-class background. (I think she is meant to be a great romantic heroine – the stern Lara is made to say Tessa was ‘very beautiful and very tragic’, p.435 – but her breath-takingly privileged background and 100% saintly character made me laugh more than once.) Tessa falls in love with dry-as-dust Justin Quayle, an Old Etonian, who reminds her of her father (natch) and accompanies him as a ‘diplomatic wife’ on his next posting to Nairobi, capital of Kenya.

Here her rebellion takes the form of feeling sorry for the miserably poor Africans around her and angry at the outrageous corruption of Kenya’s ruling class and disgusted by the pusillanimous failure of the British to highlight their failings or hold them to account.

She harangues Sandy for his cowardice while he can only think about her firm young breasts. She has a more respectful relationship with her husband Justin, who lets her go off doing her charity work all day then spend all night tapping feverishly away at her computer, denouncing corruption and wrong-doing. It is understood that he maintains a presence inside the system while she is free to do whatever she wants outside it.

Tessa gets pregnant and insists on showing her solidarity for Africa’s impoverished women by having the baby in a local hospital, where it is promptly stillborn. Such is her commitment that she suckles the baby of a Kenyan mother, Wanzi, so poor and malnourished that she can’t herself produce milk. It is the wasting away, death and disappearance of this mother under the treatment of sinister Europeans in white coats, and then her complete erasure from the hospital records, which sets Tessa suspecting the drug she was being treated with in fact poisoned her, and Tessa’s strong-willed determination to get to the bottom of it which triggers the fateful sequence of events described in the novel. Tessa (and loyal black doctor and aid worker, Arnold Bluhm) become convinced that the mother was maltreated, was given some kind of experimental treatment by the sinister pharmaceutical conglomerate, ThreeBees, who dominate Kenya’s economy and sell everything from petrol to pills.

After burying her stillborn son, Tessa returns from hospital with a new determination to name the guilty men, and so she sends countless letters to various bodies, and tries to personally buttonhole the fat CEO of ThreeBees, Sir Kenneth K. Curtis. (He is a baddy and a symbol of corrupt Westerners bleeding Africa dry, so he is ‘vastly overweight’, p.186.)

Before, during and after the stillbirth she is accompanied everywhere by the legendary Dr Bluhm, godlike African activist, hero of Médecins sans Frontières, who has himself suffered, having been arrested and tortured in Algeria. Their relationship is so close that idle tongues in the ex-pat community (is there any other type) speculate that they are lovers and even that the baby was his.

Part two – a thriller

Elba

But around page 250 the novel emerges from the stiflingly posh atmosphere of the High Commission and develops some real pace. The main protagonist is still an Old Etonian with a network of posh friends, his wife is still the daughter of an Italian contessa, but the novel acquires the speed and nerve-racking edginess of a genuine thriller, something le Carré’s previous half dozen novels have (for me, at any rate) mostly lacked.

Justin goes on the run. He is recalled by the Foreign Office to London where he has what is clearly intended as a satirical debriefing from a senior woman in Personnel, who offers counselling, a rest break and other support for the bereaved husband. But Justin has his own plans. He gets his posh lawyer friend, Ham, to validate a fake passport, name of Peter Atkinson. Then he catches a ferry to France, travels incognito down to Italy and across to the island of Elba, where Tessa’s family own several ‘estates’ (handy). Here he greets the loyal old retainer (how nice to have these old retainers to smooth your passage through life) who manages the estate and unpacks. Now he has time and space to go through the haul of Tessa’s files and letters, piecing together the story of her investigations and, in the process, sharing it with the reader, namely:

The experimental drug Dypraxa is effective against multi-drug-resistant (MDR) tuberculosis. The novel claims (with unfounded alarmism) that MDR TB will arrive in the West in the near future and that a handy treatment for it will make its owners a fortune. Dypraxa was discovered and developed by scientists in Canada working for a Swiss drug company, KVH (Karel Vita Hudson). Tessa’s documents identify the two women and man who worked on it. However, as it was rolled out for field trials in the developing world, reports began coming in of severe side effects, including blindness and death. Nonetheless large scale trials went ahead, although at least one of the drug’s inventors protested. KVH licensed the drug for distribution in Africa, and in Kenya, to the multinational, ThreeBees. Tess and Bluhm uncovered a trail of trials whose results have been systematically suppressed, patient deaths removed from the records, entire villages terrified into silence. Kenyan politicians were so corrupt they were happy to take the bribes from ThreeBees and ignore the deaths. KVH and ThreeBees insisted full and proper clinical trials had established the drug’s safety. Tessa and Bluhm had assembled an extremely detailed dossier of evidence and were travelling to northern Kenya to hand it over to Dr Richard Leakey, who they considered the only safe and independent voice in the country who could publicise their findings, when they were ambushed and murdered and all their documents disappeared.

The incorporation of different document types – magazine articles, newspaper reports, scientific papers, emails, letters, scribbled notes – though hardly a new device, gives the narrative a welcome sense of urgency and pace.

Holed up in one of the old buildings on the estate, Justin asks the 12-year-old son of the estate manager, Guido, to hack into Tessa’s computer. But when they open Tessa’s email program something has been sent to it which wipes the computer completely. Spooky.

Posh neighbours turn up unannounced with wine and commiserations, and peer over his shoulder, trying to see what old Justin is up to and old Justin is by now so spooked that he suspects they’ve been sent to spy on him. All good paranoid stuff.

In an interlude back at the High Commission we see Sandy Woodward struggling with his conscience, but not too hard, before delivering a speech to the assembled staff in which he has been ordered to lie for his country, and promote the official ‘line’, namely that the Kenyan police have issued an arrest warrant for Bluhm, who is obviously going to be made the scapegoat for Tessa’s murder, and going on to inform his staff that Justin has gone rogue, disappeared and, suffering from shock, appears to have concocted some cock and bull conspiracy theory. If he contacts anybody at the Commission, they must let him, Sandy, know immediately. Meanwhile part of him is sweating at the lies he knows he’s telling:

Who did this to me? he wondered while he talked. Who made me what I am? England? My father? My schools? My pathetic, terrified mother? Or seventeen years of lying for my country? (p.346)

Throughout the book the Foreign Office is depicted as populated by lickspittles, liars and corrupt politicians. It’s an amazing indictment from a man who once worked for it.

Bielefeld

Justin travels incognito to the little town of Bielefeld, near Hanover, in Germany. Here he arranges to meet someone mentioned in Tessa’s correspondence, Birgit, who works for a pharmaceutical-watching charity called Hippo. She tells Justin their charity was burgled a week before – the computer, all disks, and files of correspondence were taken, no money or valuables. More importantly she adds detail to the portrayal of Dypraxa and the scientists involved. First of all she explains the roles of its inventors, Dr Lara Emrich and Dr Kovacs overseen by a man named Markus Lorbeer, an odd character much given to quoting the Bible. Then she explains how big pharma companies bribe and seduce doctors with free trips and goodies, and other techniques of persuasion. But then she adds an important caveat:

Not all doctors can be seduced, not all pharmaceutical companies are careless and greedy. (p.370)

And more words to the effect that pharmaceutical companies contain many good and noble men and women researching the medicines that save all our lives. Maybe passages like this had to be put in at the insistence of lawyers, because the fictional indictment, the imaginative power of the novel, is so monumentally anti-pharma.

Convinced now that every passing car or pedestrian is spying on him, Justin makes it back to the hotel and walks into his room – only to be abruptly assaulted, have a hood slipped over his head, and be badly beaten up. A foreign voice warns him to lay off. His attackers eventually leave, allowing Justin to slowly recover and set about trying to untie his bonds…

Ghita’s quest

A junior member of the High Commission is Ghita Pearson, who Tessa had taken under her wing. Revolted by Sandy Woodward’s lecherous approaches, and then by his blatant lying about Tessa, Bluhm and Justin in the Big Speech he gives the Commission staff, she decides to find out what happened to them for herself. She makes an excuse to fly north to the same place Tessa visited, but under the pretext of having been asked by the WHO to check out a feminist support group. She flies to Lokichoggio, where she finds the aid camp where Tessa and Bluhm stayed. (Here – incidentally – there is lots of detail about what it’s like to be white people running this kind of place, designed to help African women be more independent, and the white women characters she meets, Sarah and Judith, are vividly described.) And Ghita is able to flesh out the Tess and Bluhm’s precise movements in their last days…

Switzerland

Justin just has the energy to stand, clean himself up, catch a cab to the station and a train to Zurich. It reminds him of childhood visits with his parents. He recuperates in a hotel with a trip to a medical clinic to be patched up. Then catches a train to Basel, home of many big pharmaceutical corporations. He struggles across town to the site of the huge gleaming KVH headquarters building.

Throughout this 250-page quest, Justin imagines that Tessa is with him. He jokes with her, shares his discoveries, asks her questions and, when he is dispirited, she spurs him on. His sections of the novel are marinated in her (fictional, hallucinated) presence. This is often very powerful and affecting.

Saskatchewan

Suddenly he is in Canada, in the town of Saskatchewan. This is one of the research centres of KVH pharmaceuticals (Canadian HQ in Vancouver) and he has come to meet one of the women involved in the original research, the fierce, humourless Dr Lara Emrich who, he discovers, has been hounded out of the university science department for criticising Dypraxa. KVH funds all kinds of research programs at the university, and so her out-spoken criticism a) jeopardises that b) leads quickly to her dismissal.

Emrich had done extensive research on the adverse side-effects of Dypraxa on 600 patients, submitted it to a learned journal where it was rejected, but the (supposedly independent) peer reviewers tipped off KVH and a) her contract was cancelled b) she received threatening notes in the post c) she started being followed. Emrich gives a summary of the situation:

  1. Dypraxa’s side effects are being concealed in the name of profit
  2. the world’s poorest communities are being used as guinea pigs by the world’s richest
  3. legitimate scientific debate is being stifled by threats and intimidation (p.429)

She and Justin are both so paranoid that they arrange to meet at neither her house nor his hotel but at the house of a third party, who turns out to be the fat, straight-talking Amy and her grumpy husband Ralph (p.423). As so often in a le Carré novel, it is this secondary character, a rumpled, foul-mouthed old geezer, who delivers the sweary ‘message’ of the book, that it’s time for all good men to speak out against corporate wickedness (see epigraph at the top of this review).

As they walk to Justin’s car, they see its wheels have been slashed. Two prowling cars approach, then one accelerates and tries to run them over. They jump into the car and drive off, the two flat tyres flumping against the road, just managing to evade the pursuing men long enough to make it to the ambulance station at the hospital. Here Emrich introduces Justin to an old Russian ambulance driver who has a soft spot for her, as a fellow Eastern émigré. This old man agrees to drive them back to Emrich’s house, where they are safe for the night and Justin sleeps.

Donohue and Curtiss

A creepy character who has appeared at the edges of various scenes is the tall, gaunt, childless Tim Donohue who is what the diplomats refer to as one of the ‘Friends’ ie works for British Intelligence. In a central scene we witness the head of ThreeBees, the obese very sweary Sir Kenny Curtiss yelling at Donohue, and the nature of their relationship is laid bare. Donohue of British Intelligence helps ThreeBees. This is made very explicit: Curtiss supplies good intelligence about dodgy arms deals or drug trading or other wrong-doing, and in exchange expects protection and support from the Commission and Donohue. He is, therefore, from his point of view, justified in being furious to discover that the High Commissioner, Porter Coleridge, has gone back to London to in person, to deliver a folder of Tessa’s evidence and demand a parliamentary enquiry into Dypraxa and ThreeBees. This scene would be a lot more plausible if Curtiss hadn’t been made into an obese monster who says ‘fuck’ in every sentence. The CEOs of big pharma companies are slender, well groomed and very clever men, to judge from their pics in the FT.

Leaving Curtiss with his threats to stop helping MI6 ringing in his ears, Donohue encounters his side-kick, Crick, a scary ex-soldier who says he has a friend who has a friend who heard a little something about a contract being put out on Tess and Bluhm. Donohue has a bad feeling that Crick might have been directly involved himself.

Part three – death and cover-up

With a hundred pages still to go the reader has now got a very good sense of the story. Tess and Bluhm were murdered by contract killers hired at a remote distance by ThreeBees and/or KVH because they had created a detailed dossier proving that Dypraxa, although a potentially good drug, was being trialled irresponsibly which was leading to unreported deaths among its African patients. And the generally ominous, tragic atmosphere of the book (when it is not being laughably posh and legendary) strongly suggests that Justin himself will come to no good. Therefore, the book has little sense of the unexpected or of suspense.

Kenya

In the final hundred pages Justin returns to Kenya under a false passport for the last part of the tragedy.

Dismayingly, this section returns to the point of view of the sweatily lecherous and duplicitous Sandy Woodward as he hosts a gala party organised by his wife, part of his bid to replace the High Commissioner who – as far as he and the staff know – is on an extended trip to London (only we know, because of the previous scene, that he is arguing with the people at the top about the enquiry into ThreeBees and Tessa’s murder.)

Sandy is busy eyeing up Tessa’s young Asian assistant, Ghita, who has returned from her trip up north with information about Bluhm and Tessa’s last movement – when Tessa and Justin’s loyal servant, Mustafa, hands him a note asking him to come to the gate. Here he is hussled into a car containing the well-disguised Justin, who proceeds to make it clear that he knows all about the conspiracy, all about Dypraxa. Devastatingly, he knows that Tessa entrusted a copy of her findings to Sandy to give to someone trustworthy to publicise, but that instead Sandy simply handed them over to his boss, Coleridge. Justin takes Woodward to an empty house and gets him to confess everything, blubbering like the cowardly reptile he is. Above all, he confirms that the evidence Tessa and Bluhm had collected was ‘massive’ – interviews, dates, places, scope of trials, secret documents, and then full documentation of the cover-up, dead bodies disappearing, whole villages intimidated into silence.

These pages confirm the corrupt intertwining between the ThreeBees corporation, British officials in the High Commission, the corrupt Kenyan government and powerful forces back in London. All of them have a vested interest in hushing up the story and thus are, to some extent or other, complicit in Tessa’s murder.

Immediately following this Justin has a final interview with Donohue, who fills in the rest of the picture. At some risk to his own career, Donohue fills in the gaps about the links between Curtiss, Crick and the murderers. But he also emphasises that Curtiss is himself in big financial trouble. The City has got wind of bad news about Dypraxa, ThreeBees shares are falling, Curtiss is in financial meltdown.

Lokichoggio

In the last act of the novel Justin takes a plane up to the northern outpost from which where Tessa and Bluhm had gone on their ill-fated drive, Lokichoggio, where Ghita had earlier visited. He meets the tubby man Brandt – ‘everyone loves him, everyone knows Brandt’ – who manages the arrival of food aid and its distribution. But Justin confronts him because now he knows that Brandt is also the villainous Lorbeer, who oversaw the development of Dypraxa, who is in cahoots with KVH. In fact, now Justin recognises him as the furtive figure in a white coat who sometimes attended on the dying African mother Wanzi, when Justin was visiting Tessa in the maternity hospital

In a hot sweaty African tent Justin confronts him with all the evidence and Lorbeer collapses in tears, weeping and wailing and calling on God to forgive his sins etc. Along with Ghita’s earlier visit to the Women’s Refuge, this long section gives the reader a good feel for the nitty gritty, for the dusty outhouses and drops of food aid from twin-prop airplanes, for the pride of local tribesmen and the appallingness of the never-ending feuds and tribal wars which underpin African poverty, and for the pressures such aid officials are under. But its main purpose is for the chivalrous Etonian Justin to confront the wicked Germanic baddy. Buried beneath the modern trappings, is the spirit of John Buchan.

In the final sequence Justin flies in the little propellor plane further north and is dropped at a remote outpost, from which he charters a peasant fishing boat to take him across the lake, the only way of getting to the very remote location of Tess and Bluhm’s murder – where Tessa’s car was ambushed, where she was raped and murdered, and the driver killed and Bluhm dragged off into the desert to be tortured and killed.

While sitting there he hears, first the little fishing boat tactfully putting back across the lake, abandoning him – and then the sound of vehicles drawing up. He knows it is the same collection of mercenaries. He hears them scrabbling towards him over the loose sand and rock and knows he is going to die.

The cover-up

In a nifty bit of structuring le Carré has actually described the aftermath of Justin’s death before it happens. He gives a dismaying account of how, following his death, Justin is systematically rubbished by the system, how the press & PR ‘machine’ makes sure a consistent message is broadcast from the High Commission, the Foreign Office back in London and by ThreeBees, carefully co-ordinated to portray Justin as an irresponsible loner, sadly unhinged by the murder of his wife, who had rejected help from the FO, shown signs of mental disturbance, disappeared on a faked passport to visit a number of discredited ex-employees with a grudge, before making a raft of wild and unfounded accusations against ThreeBees etc. Porter Coleridge – who, we are told, tried to present Tessa’s case – is ‘retired’ early. Bernard Pellegrin, the Foreign Office’s Head of Africa, takes early retirement and slips very neatly into a place on the Board of ThreeBees.

A court case is launched using the documents Justin had, throughout his investigation, been posting to a safe house in Italy, where his lawyer friend Ham could access them. But it is quickly silenced by powerful lawyers acting for ThreeBees which will ensure the case drags on forever. Nobody escapes the corporate ‘monstering’, or uncrushed by the courts or discredited by paid-for journalists and corporate spokespersons. Or murdered. Evil wins.

The novel is designed to leave you terrified at the power of Big Pharma, at the scale of the links between big business and government, at the ease with which they can repress the truth.


Issues raised by the novel

1. Third World corruption Nobody reading the novel can be unaware that corruption is endemic throughout the developing world. It comes as no news that some African rulers are corrupt, that a lot of the foreign aid given to Third World countries is siphoned off by corrupt officials, that white ex-pats in Africa live like kings while the majority of Africans around them subsist in squalid shanties and die like flies. And, a little closer to the content of this novel, no surprise that multinational corporations screw profits out of the poorest of the poor, that drug companies have not always behaved charitably in Third World companies, nor that Britain’s embassies and high commissions are stuffed with upper class twits.

2. Neo-imperialism Throughout the book JLC’s white, upper-class characters routinely look back at the folly of their Victorian forebears, with their arrogant assumption that they could run African countries. Yet they just as routinely deplore the corruption and inefficiency of the current regime, reflecting, by implication or overtly, on how much better they would run the damn place. Tessa is on a one-woman mission to save Africa, especially all African women. If only African women could be empowered to run the place, what a better job they’d make of it than the men (a sentiment powerfully echoed by Lorbeer in his isolated aid station).

Doesn’t she realise she is the latest in a long line of do-gooding Imperial wives, from the same kind of lofty background (the contessa mother, boarding school, Cambridge), with the same exuberant idealism and with the same burning conviction that something must be done which, in the end, doesn’t change anything.

3. Big pharma, bad pharma The most controversial aspect of the novel must be the central claim that one or some pharmaceutical companies unscrupulously trial new drugs in developing countries, happy to use poor Africans (who were going to die anyway, as Sir Kenneth Curtiss angrily points out) as guinea pigs to establish safe dosages which will then be used back in the Western world. Could such things happen? I know various scandals about pharma behaviour in Third World countries have been documented, especially around the pricing of life-saving drugs (particularly for AIDS). The second accusation is that these companies, or high-up people associated with them, could have a word with someone who has a word with someone who puts the word out that so-and-so public critics of said company should meet with an unfortunate accident. Could such things happen? No doubt. Have I ever read of such a thing? No, but then I haven’t spent a career following the behaviour of large pharmaceutical companies.

British physician and academic Ben Goldacre has made such a study, resulting in his book Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. That would be one place to begin an exploration of the subject, and I don’t doubt it’s full of hair-raising stories. But it was published. And he’s still alive.

Unlike in this novel, where the central whistleblowers die horrible deaths.

Issues in the novel

The novel, with its baggy definition as a long piece of prose fiction, can include any amount of fact, history, politics, denunciation and journalism. The question is – or a question is – do these accusations work in the context of this novel? For a young person who is new to these issues I can imagine this book might be a devastating wake-up call. As a grown-up who’s spent thirty years reading about the wickedness of multinational corporations and the hopeless plight of the Third World I don’t think I read anything I hadn’t read before. In fact the one thought which I hadn’t seen expressed so well, is where one of the High Commission officials angrily tells the idealistic Tessa that it is not the job of the Foreign Office to save the world, it is not the job of the High Commission to set itself up as judge and jury over its host government and spend all its time carping and criticising. Their job is to protect the persons of the 30,000 or so British citizens living in Kenya and their business interests. What else would you expect? What else would she expect?

If these issues were new to you, maybe you would be drawn into the sense of horrible dark revelations and the ominous atmosphere the novel is, presumably, setting out to create. But for me:

  • I’d heard a lot of the ‘big issues’ before
  • in a sense the plot was given away early on – Tessa is dead and I felt we learned that she was bumped off by someone acting in the pharma company’s interests also very early, and so it didn’t come as any surprise that Justin himself ends up being bumped off – it didn’t create the frisson of fear which, I think, was intended
  • the style – the upper class cant of most of the characters – kept me repelled, or amused, or distracted so continuously that I never had any real sympathy for them

Is the thriller a suitable vehicle to make serious political points?

No, is the short answer. The thriller genre takes for granted scheming baddies, evil drug dealers or arms dealers, Blofeld or the KGB. The idea that the good guys themselves turn out to be penetrated by corruption and evil goes back at least as far as the 1970s and the outburst of conspiracy thrillers following Watergate, in fact probably back to the Kennedy assassination in the 1960s, maybe to the McCarthyite paranoia of the 1950s, or possibly to John Buchanite concerns about communists and Jews in the government of dear old Blighty. In a thriller, you expect there to be assassins in doorways and mystery cars trying to run over our hero, and all the computers to be hacked, and the government to deny any knowledge of your devastating findings because they’re in fact part of the dreadful conspiracy.

In other words, le Carré is writing his serious indictments of great social evils (the arms trade in The Night Manager, bad pharma here, American hyper-power in Absolute Friends) in a genre which teaches you not to take its grandiose conspiracies seriously; which is based on the idea that you thrill to the scale of some absurd conspiracy (like the computerised plan to invade and conquer Russia in Len Deighton’s Billion Dollar Brain), then put the book down and completely forget about it.


Thoughts about style

Legends

As usual, the characters are all legends in each other’s minds, routinely hyped up and overegged by the myth-making narrator. Sandy’s wife, Gloria, is ‘famously loquacious’ (famous to who?), Tessa’s aristocratic mother and sister were ‘fabled beauties’ (p.198), Justin visits ‘that fabled valley of the upper Rhine where pharma-giants have their castles’ (p.412), the repellent Kenny Curtiss turns on ‘the fabled charm’ (p.461), when Donohue refers to Tessa’s killers, he offensively calls them ‘the celebrated Marsabit Two’ (p.510), we read of Foreign Office mandarin Bernard Pellegrin’s ‘fabled skills at networking’ (p.549). And Tessa’s co-conspirator, Bluhm, is not just a doctor, he is:

Bluhm the Westerner’s African, bearded Apollo of the Nairobi cocktail round, charismatic, witty, beautiful. (p.35)

His colleague in an aid camp in the north of the country is ‘Reuben the legendary camp organiser’ (p.392). And so on.

Tessa, who the plot rotates around is – as you are continually reminded – the daughter of a High Court judge and an Italian contessa! She has a ‘teasing, foxing, classy voice’ (p.57). She comes from the same ‘thoroughbred stable’ as her husband, Justin. She isn’t, in other words, any old totty. She is phenomenally posh totty. She is a legend to everyone who’s met her.

God forbid le Carré’s stories should happen to ‘ordinary’ people. His characters come from Britain’s social élite and are gods and legends in their own minds. If you like this exalted atmosphere of privilege and entitlement, if you like characters talking like they are still at Eton and Harrow and Winchester and convinced they are the only people in the world who matter, then you will enjoy this book, old boy.

Lechery

Sandy Woodward is a middle-aged man with wife and children, but the opening of the novel is drenched in his unrequited leching after Tessa.

I tried not to notice her naked silhouette… trying to wrest the lower half of his gaze from the shadow of her breasts through the puff of her dress… shoulders back, dress stretched across her breasts… her naked silhouette still taunting his memory… (pp.58-63)

She is cradling the child to her left breast, her right breast free and waiting. Her upper body is slender and translucent. Her breasts, even in the aftermath of childbirth, are as light and flawless as he has so often imagined them. (p.83)

Bit of a boob man, old Sandy.

This is before we get on to Justin’s memories of meeting Tessa. How it happened is he was called up at the last minute by a chap in the FO who he knew at Eton, asking if he could deliver a lecture at Cambridge at short notice. Tessa is there, half his age, asks feisty questions, they go for a stroll by the Cam, then a spot of punting, then she takes him back to her little apartment for heady ‘sexual delights’ (p.164). She is sick of boys her own age and looking for a kindly father figure; and he, a confirmed bachelor (although with an impressive track record of affairs, of course) is blown away by her life and enthusiasm. And body. They make a pact that Justin will carry on being Mr Dull and Conventional on the inside of the diplomatic service, giving Tessa a free hand to do her thing.

Fuck

All the characters say ‘fuck’. The High Commissioner, Head of Chancery, Foreign Office Personnel, Permanent Secretary, the police, all say fuck and shit a lot.

‘You try,’ Amy said. ‘If you don’t try, you’re fucked.’
‘Fucked if you try, fucked if you don’t.’ (p.424)

As far as I can remember this is the first le Carré novel to use the word ‘fart’ (the Permanent Secretary at the FO takes Justin for lunch at his club and explains that the fish makes him fart). The opening words of the first scene in which we finally meet Sir Kenny Curtiss, head of the villainous ThreeBees pharma company, are:

‘What the fuck does your man Quayle think he’s playing at, Tim?’ (p.451)

What made George Smiley a totemic character was his quiet dignity, his restraint, his subtle intelligence. In these later novels all the characters roar:

‘This is Turkana we’re talking about, not fucking Surrey.’ (p.452) ‘I’m Sir fucking Kenneth Curtiss! I have subscribed – last year alone – half a fucking million quid to party funds. I have provided you – British fucking Intelligence – with nuggets of pure gold.’ (p.457)

Italics

This loss of self-restraint (either in the characters or by the author) is mirrored by another, which is the eruption of italics throughout the text. For some reason everyone starts emphasising every third or fourth word they say in order to really ram home the importance of what they’re saying. Get it?

‘I’m sure Justin would like me to write to him… I mean I wouldn’t tell him anything that was going to hurt him… I mean Justin knows that Tessa and Arnold were travelling together… Whatever was between them, he’s reconciled to that… There must be something you remember that she did or said… Well, I won’t say she did contribute to that discussion…

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper le Carré spoke about how angry he’s become as he grows older. It’s unfortunate that this wrath and frustration at the wicked world spill over into continual emphasis of almost everything that everybody says.

‘I just don’t see how you could survive like that… Would that be your feeling, basically?… You negotiate with other countries, don’t you? You cut deals with them. You legitimise them through trading partnerships… We really like Bluhm… Bluhm’s as close as you’ll ever get to a good man… With those big fireplaces she always had an eye for soot! And no, Mr Justin, the chimney sweep certainly didn’t have a key… Don’t tell me you’ve abandoned your computer, Guido!… But that’s awful, Guido!… You cover this bit up, then out pops another bit. So you cover that bit up… I am quite sure there was nothing of the kind on either side… What were the side effects?…

The excessive use of italics throughout the text becomes quite wearing quite quickly, but is also indicative of characters – and a narrative – which are increasingly shouting to get your attention.

‘But why did you sign the wretched contract in the first place?’…
‘Because I trusted them. I was a fool.’ (p.426)

Timeframes

If we accept that the main characters are off-puttingly posh and privileged, and that the love triangle at the heart of the novel is described with a lachrymose sentimentality that would make Mills and Boon blush, that the ‘political’ insights about the book are the kind of thing my son learns in school (Africa poor & corrupt, big business bad etc), then the most interesting thing left about the book is its structure.

In a way which reminds me of his major influence, Graham Greene, le Carré is very canny, very clever about the way the narrative of his novels are constructed from multiple timeframes. The ‘present’ of the book is the High Commission as news of Tessa’s murder comes in, followed in forward chronological order by Justin coming to stay with Sandy, both being questioned by the cops, then flying back to London.

From the vantage point of this stretch of ‘present’ narrative, both Justin and Sandy scan back over the past, remembering key moments in their lusting after or marriage to, Tessa. The plot, what happened, is relatively straightforward – but the sophisticated flashback structure allows le Carré to move at will between different key moments, building up their emotional resonance by repetition of scenes or phrases, or to suddenly reveal a previously unsuspected past of the puzzle, taking the reader by surprise with a new twist.

Interview

The interview or interrogation is a key location for this kind of timeshift and for a long stretch at the start of this novel, both Sandy and Justin are questioned at length by the two police officers who’ve flown out from London to investigate Tessa’s death. The official interview is such a handy device for an author because it allows him or her to insert long sections of narrative and plot dressed up as reminiscence, memory or just answers to the interviewers’ questions. Thus Justin replies to the cops’ persistent questions about Tessa, but also drifts off into reveries, remembering their meeting and courtship etc. Very handy, very effective.

The way a beautiful, wilful young woman falls into bed with a dowdy old diplomat I found laughably like middle-aged male wish-fulfilment, as I found the revelation that Big Pharma employs dodgy business practices in the Third World tiresomely familiar – but the structure of the narrative, the way moments and scenes from multiple moments in the past are juggled and ordered to create a multi-layered timeframe, I found immensely skillful and rewarding.


The movie

If only there was some way to enjoy the structure and pacing of this well-thought out and dramatic story without having to wade through le Carres’ highly mannered and irritating prose, without having to endure the smug self-satisfaction of his intolerably posh characters… How about – making it into a movie?

Released in 2005, the film at a stroke removes the pukka prose style and upper-class twit dialogue (what a relief, darling) to make it acceptable to an audience which was not lucky enough to attend one of England’s top public schools. It converts the long-winded, multi-levelled and circuitous text into a fast-moving action thriller with a heart-stopping soundtrack à la Bourne Identity.

It was directed by Fernando Meirelles and the timid, old bachelor Justin Quayle is transformed by the magic of the movies into the impossibly handsome Ralph Fiennes, while Rachel Weisz perfectly recreates the gorgeous, headstrong heroine, a performance which won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and a Golden Globe award.


My little pony

Rummaging in the dead woman’s room, Sandy finds a photo of Tessa as a ten-year-old riding her first pony (p.69). In his previous two novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies and gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama). I am winning a bet with my son that all le Carré’s later novels will turn out to have a my-first-pony moment.

Credit

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré was published in 2001 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes are from the 2005 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, downbeat and depressing 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 trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
  • 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) Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events leading up to her murder, with her husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
  • Absolute Friends (2003) Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’ climaxing with them being shot down like dogs.
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

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)

The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré (1996)

‘In Panama everyone knows Harry Pendel.’ (p.68)

Le Carré’s narrative technique

Le Carré is masterfully cunning at releasing his information in dramatic instalments, deploying the constituent parts of the plot with great rhythm and timing. In its predecessor, Our Game, and in this novel, le Carré opens by selecting a key scene from his narrative, choosing it to be ‘the present’, portraying it at great length to establish setting and characters – and only once this static island in time is firmly anchored, then arranging a kaleidoscope of flashbacks and memories in the rest of the text to paint in all kinds of elements of backstory, characters’ history and psychology, memories, re-enactments and so on – simultaneously moving the story forward to tell us what happened next.

Quite often the amount of ‘what happened next’ narrative is smaller than, or less vivid than, the ‘flashback’ material, so that reading the book feels more like watching a tree or bush grow in a nature programme, with tendrils moving out in all directions – completely different from the much more straightforward linear narrative of a Deighton or Forsyth.

Thus the first hundred pages of the Tailor describe a day in the life of the eponymous tailor, Harry Pendel, leading up to his appointment to measure a new customer, Andrew Osnard. Except that Osnard is quickly revealed to be no ordinary client. He spends the measuring session probing Harry extensively about his past – before revealing that he knows Harry’s carefully cultivated front as a partner in a posh tailors’ firm is rot; his firm never existed on Savile Row, the sadly deceased partner he likes to spin long yarns about is a complete fiction.

No, Osnard knows that Harry grew up in poverty in the East End of London, went to work for his Uncle Benny in the rag trade, was caught burning down Benny’s warehouse in a plan to defraud the insurance company, was convicted of arson, imprisoned and, immediately upon his release, fled England with guilty Uncle Benny’s help to Panama, where he married a local American woman whose parents had money.

Osnard says he knows that Harry has used up that entire inheritance to buy a rice farm out in the countryside, but that the water has dried up, it will never be viable, and he is losing money fast on the loan he took out to buy it at an extortionate rate of monthly interest. In fact, Osnard reveals to a stunned Harry that he was stitched up by his banker ‘friend’ (Ramón Rudd), who was the one who tipped him off about the opportunity in the first place and encouraged him to make the purchase and loaned him the money, but who is in cahoots with the rice farm estate manager (Angel) to drive it into the ground, then buy it at auction for a song, restore the water, make it a thriving concern and sell it off at a big profit. He’s been had.

Having reduced Harry to speechlessness by the depth and devastating content of his knowledge about him, Osnard then reveals that he is a spy for Her Majesty’s government and asks Harry if he wants to work for him. Osnard has done his research and knows that Harry, as a snobbish tailor to the great and good of Panamanian society (including, believe it or not, the President himself) gets to hear a surprising amount of gossip and confidential information. ‘Report it back to me and there’s money in it for you, old boy,’ drawls Osnard. Harry’ll be able to repay the loan which is threatening to bankrupt him. Harry hesitates, but can’t really say anything but yes.

A kaleidoscope of flashbacks

All this – a man has a fitting session for a new suit – takes up no fewer than 100 pages.

And from this slender incident in the present opens up a flood of memories and backstories from the past, which come in numerous fragments, sometimes less than a page long, sometimes just a few, or even one, paragraph. These paint rapid sketches of Harry’s miserable childhood in the East End of London; him finding out he’s illegitimate; what it was like working for kindly Uncle Benny; getting caught setting fire to Benny’s warehouse to claim the insurance; the police beating the crap out of him; his miserable experiences in prison and Uncle Benny seeing him onto the boat to Panama, complete with a letter of introduction to his old friend form London who’d emigrated there, Mr Blüthner.

It is Blüthner who finds Harry a shop, loans him material, puts customers his way. Harry falls in love with the American woman, Louisa, but it is always a troubled relationship, then has an affair with the Panamanian girl, Marta. The US Air Force comes to bomb General Noriega out of power but ends up destroying the poorest slums in Panama City and killing hundreds of civilians including all of Marta’s family, while Harry and Louisa watch terrified from their house up the hill.

Later, in the febrile post-air raid atmosphere, Harry is driving Marta home when they are stopped by Noriega’s fascist Dignity Brigades and, because she is wearing a white t-shirt associated with the resistance to Noriega, Marta is really badly beaten with baseball bats, leaving her face permanently disfigured, Harry pinned down by the cops and forced to watch, begging them to stop.

When the Dingbats walk off, Harry drives the bleeding Marta to the apartment of his friend, Michelangelo ‘Mickie’ Abraxas, who takes them both on to an undercover doctor, who makes a mess of trying to fix Marta’s face, and the next day reports them to the cops, but only knows Mickie’s name and address. So it is that the cops arrest Mickie and send him to prison, where the beautiful young man is repeatedly raped and brutalised, emerging a shattered shadow of his former self.

All of this comes out in a tumble of vivid, often lurid, flashbacks, not necessarily in the correct order, sometimes repeated with variations of new facts or phrasing, building up a mosaic or kaleidoscope of Harry’s life and the back stories of the novel’s main characters, with key moments – like the bats smashing Marta’s face, the roar of the flames in Uncle Benny’s warehouse – emerging and re-emerging like gold strands in a tapestry.

And also interspersed among them are the ‘now’ parts of the narrative, as Harry drives home from his session with Osnard thoroughly confused and anxious, worrying about Osnard, worrying about the rice farm, worrying about his wife. The structure, the use of these scattered flashbacks, is very effective:

  • with its repetition of key scenes it builds up a powerful sense of the important memories and elements of the characters’ personalities
  • with its repetition of descriptions, it takes you deep into a thoroughly imagined world, into the humid Panama of hotels and drug barons, roadside militia and brothels
  • above all it allows le Carré to get right to the point: to give just a snapshot of a moment, to describe the key moment or phrase or word, which defines a situation, a decision, a narrative turning point – bang! – and then move on.

Osnard ‘recruits’ Harry

Around page 200 le Carré finally gives us a lengthy description of Osnard’s back story. Although employed by MI6, he is basically a crook on the make. He went to Eton and has used his connections to cruise through a number of unsatisfactory jobs before being recruited into Intelligence. When he is offered Panama, he senses the possibilities and, within days of arriving he’s shaping a plan: he realises that he will get to handle large amounts of non-attributable slush money if he can persuade his bosses there’s a big underground liberation movement in Panama which needs supporting.

Some research brings him to Harry, a well-connected liar and ex-convict, and the long opening scene is there to demonstrate Osnard’s technique of coercion and the way his plans begin to fall into place as he realises how scared and malleable Harry is.

Thus Osnard prompts and encourages Harry to invent out of thin air a network of spies with members among the student movement, the fishermen and workers and to concoct the so-called ‘Silent Opposition’ of political rebels. Osnard winks at Harry nominating his best friend, the ex-convict and down-on-his-luck drunk Mickie Abraxas, as head of this fictional SO. In a typical piece of wit, Osnard christens his imaginary source BUCHAN, which allows all concerned to make jokes about the ‘brave Buchaneers’ etc.

Political background

The background to all this is that the Americans commissioned, funded, ran and kept military watch over the Panama Canal from its opening in 1914. In 1977 the Democrat US President Jimmy Carter (roundly despised by all the right-wing characters in the book) signed a treaty promising to hand the canal over to the Panama government in 1999.

As a result, US authorities, the US Army and – to a lesser extent – allied governments are all anxious that some other foreign power might take control of this vital gateway of world trade, maybe not militarily, maybe just doing favourable trade deals with the Panama government. Osnard knows he can screw money out of his employers back in London – and maybe even out of the Yanks – if he can convince them some big conspiracy is afoot.

Once the ‘spy network’ is up and running, and Osnard is feeding entirely fictional reports from Agent Buchan back to base, he finds himself under pressure to provide more factual detail, and so it is he asks Harry to commit the ultimate ‘betrayal’, and spy on his wife (who works for the Panama Canal Authority, another factor which helped Osnard decide to approach Harry in the first place). Harry embellishes the resulting documents, and then Osnard embellishes them a bit more – including accounts of the Panama President’s recent trip to Japan and South-East Asia – to make it seem as if the Panamanians (or ‘Pans’ as they are dismissively referred to in the neo-colonial slang of the white protagonists) are about to flog the Canal to the ‘Japs’.

[Historical note: back in the early 1990s the expert view was that the West was about to be economically and militarily overtaken by the Japanese and the other South-East Asian Tigers. So much for the geopolitical ‘experts’.]

The media mogul

Osnard’s boss back in London, Luxmore, a canny Scot, encourages Osnard in his wild fantasies, which seems puzzling until we discover this is because he is on the payroll of a wicked media mogul, the potty-mouthed Ben Hatry – not unlike the wicked media mogul played by Jonathan Pryce in the Pierce Brosnan-James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies. Hatry wants to engineer an American takeover of Panama in order to rally round the forces of reaction, to galvanise his audience and sell newspapers and make money. But he is pushing at an open door of right-wing conspiracy theories, xenophobes, bigots and at the paranoid door of the US Army.

Thus, as the novel climbs to dizzier and dizzier heights of unreality, Luxmore flies to the Pentagon where he has a meeting with ‘senior generals’ who he persuades that BUCHAN’s ‘intel’ is the real McCoy and, ‘Gentlemen, we must move swiftly to protect our vital interests’. Luckily, the Americans have both a very big army and air force which, at the bloody climax of the novel, they send to bomb the crap out of Panama City. Again.

Mickie kills himself

While all this has been happening, rumour and gossip about Mickie Abraxia have leaked out and spread, not least via a vile gossip columnist ‘Teddy’. The police arrive on Mickie’s doorstep, threatening to send him back to prison, the same prison where he was brutalised and gang-raped. With Harry’s help and money, Mickie leaves Panama City and drives to Guararé, another Panamanian town, which is having a carnival – lots of fireworks, lots of bangs. One of the bangs is the sound of Mickie shooting himself in the head; he couldn’t face being sent back to gaol. Mickie’s girlfriend, Ana, rings up Harry in hysterics, and he honourably decides to drive to the town to calm the distraught woman, smuggle Mickie’s body into his 4 by 4, and drive it to an ancient religious site, out in the woods where, heart-broken, he arranges and leaves it.

Louisa gets drunk

Meanwhile, Harry’s wife, Louisa, suspects from all his furtive behaviour that he is having an affair. When he gets a phone call from a hysterical woman and insists on driving off into the night with no explanation, she becomes convinced of it and first of all drinks a lot, far too much, crying, shouting and swearing against her unfaithful husband. In this state she breaks into Harry’s desk and finds all the documentation about the made-up spy network, including the paperwork incriminating her as a major source.

Appalled, she drives over to confront the man who seems to be at the root of all the problems, Osnard. She interrupts his meeting with Luxmore where Luxmore had been explaining about the small fortune he’s brought from London to fund the uprising of the ‘Silent Opposition’, and how it’s to be co-ordinated with the US attack. Osnard farcically smuggles Luxmore out the back way, then lets in the extremely drunk Louisa. Unfortunately, she is wearing only a flimsy housecoat and in their tussle all its buttons ping off so she is naked and, well, guess what happens next.

In the morning she awakes humiliated and ashamed in Osnard’s bed to find him packing. Osnard realised his number was up when Luxmore arrived in Panama City and he and the Ambassador announced they wanted to take over the running of BUCHAN. The secret of the con will be out in days, if not hours. Osnard takes the bags full of money which Luxmore had brought with him and left the night before, and absconds. Louisa borrows underclothes, t-shirt etc and makes her way home.

But they are not reconciled. They hear the drumming of the American helicopters overhead and know that history is repeating itself: once again they will stand on their hillside balcony and watch the quarters of the poor be carpet bombed by the warlike Americans. Disgusted with himself and the world, Harry sets off down the hillside, past the injured and screaming people fleeing in the other direction, walking into the bomb blasts and the flames.

If the novel was ever intended to be a comedy, this fatalistic, doomed, heart-broken savage ending is a very sour note to end it on, and eclipses whatever levity preceded it.


After the Cold War

Decades ago critics wondered what spy novelists like Len Deighton or John le Carré would do when the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed and – according to Francis Fukuyama – history ended. The orthodox answer is that le Carré seamlessly transferred the mind set and worldview of the intelligence agencies over into the numerous other issues and conflicts which carried on troubling the world – regional conflicts, the iniquity of multinational corporations, drugs and arms smuggling.

Posh

My impression is that le Carré’s response was to go posh.

The world of his early novels, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is cold and shabby, down at heel, a world of losers.

Around 1990 the feel of le Carré’s novels changes, they start to feel considerably buffed up and to focus on formidably posh circles of chaps who went to major public schools, are members of the right clubs, and bonk foxy gels fresh from finishing school. There’s more sex, a lot more sex, in these later novels, and the business of espionage, of recruiting your own agents and persuading chaps from the other side to cross over, is described more and more in the language of love and seduction. There are more warm bedrooms in South America with naked women in them, than cold alleyways in Berlin with armed guards.

Above all, the figures at the centre of the novels increasingly talk in a distinctly posh, upper crust manner, complete with public school slang and Oxbridge banter.

Thus Ned, the retiring intelligence officer narrator of The Secret Pilgrim, appears at first to be a caricature of an old posh buffer – except I think we’re meant to take him seriously. The circle of friends, lovers and fixers surrounding the British arms dealer, Richard Onslow Roper, in The Night Manager are extraordinarily posh, from his jolly hockeysticks girlfriend to his sideman, a gin-swilling retired colonel, what, what. The narrator of Our Game is another unbelievably posh bloke whose CV reads ‘Winchester, Oxford, British Intelligence’, who inherits a pile from a rich old aunt and a West Country vineyard from Uncle Bob, terrific fellah, did you know Uncle Bob? A long way from the back alleyways of Berlin.

Now, whatever the location, be it Panama or the Caucasus, le Carré’s characters carry the indelible mark of upper crust, élite, public school and Oxbridge attitude and locutions along with them.

In his earlier novels the fact that he spent five years working for the ‘Foreign Office’ is probably the most relevant part of le Carré’s career, giving him unparalleled insight into the realities of interviewing, vetting, interrogating suspects; in these later novels, by far the most important fact is that he taught at Eton.

Lots of people have made up spy stories, but not so many have drowned them, like le Carré does his later stories, in torrents of public school slang and banter. For Eton isn’t just a school. It is the apex of an educational system devised to run the greatest empire on earth, and still has extraordinary cultural and political dominance in this country. As the Evening Standard pointed out the other day, if actor Damien Lewis is selected as the next James Bond, it will be the first time that the current Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury and James Bond all went to the same school. Eton. Where le Carré was socially, intellectually and culturally distinguished enough to be acceptable as a master and to teach our future rulers.

The author’s experience at the heart of British snobbery and elitism seems to me to underpin the dominant tone in these later novels, where almost all the characters not only went to public school, but soak their talk and dialogue and thinking in confident, arrogant public schoolboy banter and slang.

Posh English

So although The Tailor of Panama is indeed set in Panama and although – in its first hundred pages or so – it contains convincing descriptions of the buildings, layout and geography, of the roads and rush hour traffic jams, the street beggars, the heat and noise of Panama City, the characters are strangely insulated from it all, carrying everywhere with them the class-conscious attitude and argot of the public school-educated Englishman.

Thus the novel opens with the tailor of the title, half-Jewish Harry Pendel, waking, breakfasting with his wife and kids before driving to his shop, and here he is visited by a new chap in the country, one Andrew Osnard. And although it is set in Central America, the reader is transported to a timeless scene – the seigneurial relationship between a posh Englishman and his canny tailor, a scene that could be from Thackeray.

Pendel regards his quiet and civilised shop and fitting room as an oasis of calm in a busy world. But it is much more than that. It’s an oasis of old-fashioned pukka Englishness, with its cucumber sandwiches, copies of the Times and Country Life strewn about, and the servile tailor serving the insouciantly superior cad, who murmurs on in his upper class drawl:

‘Bravo… thing is, old boy… little local difficulty… splendid… frankly, a bit of a facer… good show …’

Which public school did you go to?

My heart sank and I began to withdraw even more from the novel when, around page 150, we’re introduced to the (senior) staff at the British Embassy in Panama who are, at first, annoyed by the imposition of an Intelligence agent on them. In thumbnail portraits of the Embassy staff we learn that the ‘Ambass’ went to Harrow, the first secretary, Stormont, to Shrewsbury (then Jesus, Oxford: a disappointing Second in History). They are both a bit jealous of Osnard who, we now find out, was educated at Eton. Eton. Harrow. Shrewsbury. It’s a broad social mix, I suppose.

The only woman on the team, Francesca Deane, is depicted from word go as a sex object (‘A body to kill for, the brains to go with it’ -p.138. Or, as Luxmore describes her, ‘That prim Sassenach virgin with large attachments and come-hither eyes.., Is she what in my young days we called a cock-teaser?’ p.393)

Fran is lusted over by the Ambassador, and most other men who meet her, but resists all offers until she is swiftly seduced and bedded by Osnard. She is the daughter of a Law Lord and ‘in London she had spent her weekends with a frightfully handsome hunting stockbroker named Edgar.’ (p.218). She knows a bit about Osnard because her simply weird half-brother, Miles, went to Eton too, and tells her about old Andy’s chequered career there. Apparently he doesn’t like to talk to his time there and refers to England’s most prestigious public school as ‘Slough Grammar’. What a wit. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Luckily for Francesca, fat, sweaty Osnard turns out to be a demon lover, tactfully not referring to his previous ‘conquests, although ‘many and varied’, and touching her in a special way only he knows how, taking her

without a word, endlessly, wonderfully, tirelessly, hours, years on end, his thick body skimming weightlessly over her and round her, one peak after another, something that till now had only happened to Fran in her schoolgirl imagination. (p.222)

Yes, as Stormont tells Maltby, ‘He’s shagging Fran’. Lucky old Andy, eh.

Public school comparisons

One of the most tedious thing about people who went to prep school and then a bloody good boarding school is the way the total institutionalisation of their childhood and youth follows them to the end of their days so that whenever they think of their childhood they think only of their odd and unusual circumstances as if they are common. In these books, when comparisons and similes are made, so so often the old schooldays are the ones that come to mind.

Chance favours only the prepared mind. It was the favourite dictum of a science master at  his prep school who, having flogged him black and blue, suggested they make up their differences by taking off their clothes. (p.230)

Osnard had assumed his head prefect tone, though he had only ever been on the receiving end of it, usually before a beating. (p.257)

His voice had acquired the saw-edge of schoolboy sarcasm. (p.258)

‘Gave him the carrot, then waved the stick at him, sir,’ he reported in the Boy Hero voice he kept for his master. (p.268)

[All Fran can think of when Osnard takes her to a casino] was her first gymkhana when her pony which like every other pony in the world was called Misty took the first fence perfectly then bolted down the main road to Shrewsbury. (p.327)

‘We shall need an enormous amount of stuff,’ Maltby went on, with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy looking forward to a new train-set. (p.356)

‘Intelligence is like exams. You always think the chap sitting next to you knows more than you do.’ (p.365)

Maltby, sitting like an obedient schoolboy at Mellors’ right hand… (p.376)

For a moment Fran is in her old school chapel, kneeling in the front pew and watching a huddle of handsome young priests as they chastely turn their backs to her… (p.381)

Legendary

Now in this kind of school, everybody is famous for something, for being top at games or lessons or having a Duke for father or a Princess for a mother or being heir to some great business fortune. This attitude carries over into these later novels, where all the main characters are the well-known this or the legendary that. It is one of the strategies of the books to make you think that, in a country of 60 million people (Britain), only about 200 or so people really count and they all know each other and they’re all frightfully clever; that in Panama there may be swarms of blacks and half-breeds cluttering up the place, but there are only really a handful of chaps like you and me who appreciate the finer things of life, who understand the value of a well-made alpaca suit, appreciate buttons made from genuine tagua, wear shoes hand made by Ducker’s of Oxford (or possibly Lobbs of St James’s, p.120), who enjoy cucumber sandwiches and a spot of tiffin.

The scuffed leather porter’s chair, authenticated by local legend as Braithwaite’s very own. (p.42) [Braithwaite being the other partner in the tailoring firm of Pendel and Braithwaite, a legend in Savile Row and then a legend when they came out here to Panama.]

[Pendel’s assistant Marta made the cucumber sandwiches.] ‘I don’t know whether her renown has reached you.’ (p.44)

[When approaching the brothel where he is to meet Harry, Osnard finds ‘the fabled pushbutton’ of room number 8] (p.251)

[Rafi Domingo and Mickie Abraxas make] ‘a famous playboy pair’. (p.313)

Allow me to introduce a Brother who needs no introduction, so a big hand, please, for our wandering sage and longtime Servant of the Light, diver of the deep and explorer of the unknown, who has penetrated more dark places – dirty laughter – than any of us round this table today, the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah! (p.287)

Now we are in the tailor Pendel’s cutting room, known to customers and employees alike as the Holy of Holies. (p.385)

Of course, simply everyone in Panama knows who Harry Pendel is. Similarly, he introduces his friend, jailbird Mickie Abraxas, as ‘one of Panama’s few real heroes’ (p.85) and later as ‘Mickie Abraxas, the great underground revolutionary and secret hero of the students’ (p.121). We know the important people. We know what’s really going on. For the simple reason that we ourselves are the only important people: the only people who went to Eton or Winchester or Harrow or Shrewsbury…

Thus, Stormont is appalled when he hears that the committee back in London in charge of the project is being chaired by a certain Geoffrey Cavendish. Of course he knows him. They all know each other, that’s the point.

Cavendish the influence-peddlar, he was thinking. Cavendish the defence lobbyist. Cavendish the self-styled statesman’s friend. Ten per cent Cavendish… Boom-boom Cavendish, arms broker. Geoff the oil. (p.213)

And Luxmore doesn’t prepare one-page reports for his colleagues in Intelligence, he prepares ‘his famous one-page summaries for submission to his mysterious planners and appliers.’ (p.333)

Hell

‘Hell did the G stand for?’… ‘Hell’s the crest o’ the Prince of Wales hanging outside for?’… ‘Hell happened to that woman?’ (p.48) … ‘Hell did they give him that for?’  (p.51) … ‘Hell d’you do that for?’ (p.65) … ‘Hell did he swing it?’ (p.76) … ‘Hell’s that mean?’ (p.77)

Breviated words. Breviated sentences. Omit pronouns. Sound more pukka. ‘No time to dawdle, old man, Got an empire to run. Crack on. One more for the road? Won’t say no.’ Fat drunk merchant banker Jamie Pringle talks like this in Our Game. Most of the horrible drunks in The Honourable Schoolboy ditto. And this is how the central figure in Tailor talks, all the time – 458 pages of top hole, old chap, good fellah, hell you up to?

Public school tags & quotes

Like over-educated public schoolboys, characters in these later novels dress up their trite chatter and banal insights with tags and quotes, bits of Latin, rags of Shakespeare, religious stuff fondly remembered from morning chapel and the Founders Day service back at the old alma mater, what, what. Clichés. They talk in clichés.

‘Great wheel of time, eh?’
‘Indeed, sir. The one that spins and grinds and tramples all before it, they say,’ Pendel agreed. (p.47)

‘As I’m sure your good father will have told you many a time and oft.’ (p.54) Shakespeare.

‘For all the people to come to eat your sandwiches. So they increase and multiply and order up more suits.’ (p.110) Bible.

No gilded porticos or grand staircases to instil humility in lesser breeds without the law. (p.136) Kipling.

Pendel waited, as must all who only stand and wait. (p.155) Milton.

The quotes make the people using them feel and sound clever. But their real point is to emphasise that you’re one of the club, one of the chaps who’s at home with all these quotes and references and in-jokes and tags, one of us, people like us, properly educated at a bloody good traditional school, on the inside!

Fuck

In the 1990s le Carré’s characters passed through some kind of threshold of restraint and good manners and now all his characters liberally say ‘fuck’. At first in the novel it is just the sweaty middle-aged men, then a so-called expert on international affairs says ‘fuck’ in every sentence for 3 or 4 pages, then the media mogul Hatry says ‘fuck’ in every sentence (‘Let’s fucking do it’ p.334) as does his creature ‘Cavendish’ and by the end of the book it seemed like everyone was saying ‘fuck’ in almost all situations: Louisa says ‘ Fuck you, Harry’, Osnard says ‘fuck’ all the time (‘Fuck do I care?’ p.201), even Harry ends up saying ‘fuck’. The repellent gossip columnist Teddy, viciously tells Harry, ‘How you can fuck that faceless half-breed is beyond me.’ (p.324)

[Policeman] ‘He fucks you, doesn’t he?’
[Marta] ‘No, he doesn’t fuck me.’ (p.384)

Louisa asks Marta whether Harry gave her money ‘for fucking?’ (p.387)

So ‘fuck you’, ‘fuck this’, ‘fuck that’ it is, then. (‘Do you mind putting that fucking thing out, please.’ p.341) Not really very funny. (‘This is my fucking patch, not his.’ p.378) In fact, quite wearing after a while.

‘Fuck you, Harry Pendel! Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you! Wherever you are. You’re a fucking cheat!’ (p.399)

More than that, the novel is in danger of using hyperbole – in this instance a blizzard of ‘f’ words – to paper over the gaps in the plot. In Our Game the academic Larry Pettifer was promoted by the incredibly posh narrator as being the intellectual star of his generation at Oxford, a fountain of brilliant, incisive insights into geopolitics etc etc. But when we actually hear him talk, he says things like:

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (p.138)

Which is hugely disappointing, buffoonish, thick and he carries on talking like a crude dimwit to the end of the novel. In this book there are several places where we get to hear the ‘thinking’ of the shadowy powers behind the scenes – and they, just as disappointingly, also turn out to be full of men saying ‘fuck’, as if that makes the ‘arguments’ more powerful.

The first of these scenes takes us to one of le Carré’s characteristic milieus, an exclusive men’s club full of oafish, swearing ex-patriates, one of whom – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – is singled out as some kind of expert about the future of the Canal. But what he actually does is drone on for pages about the ‘fucking Japs’ and the ‘fucking Chinks’ and the ‘fucking Yanks’, as if such dismissive swearing improves his ‘insights’. But there are no insights, no intelligence and, like a lot of other le Carré experts, he sounds from the start like a foul-mouthed, drunken idiot.

Here is Jonah explaining that the Japanese have, supposedly, developed a new technology for converting their poor quality oil sources into good quality oil, thus turning them into a world-shaking threat:

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle… The Nips have found their magic emulsion. Which means that your tenure here in Paradise is scheduled to last about five minutes by the station clock. You pour it in, you shake it all about, and bingo, you’ve got oil like all the other boys. Fucking oceans of it. And once they’ve built their own Panama Canal, which is going to happen in the flick of a very small mayfly’s dick, they will be in the very happy position of being able to flood the fucking world with it.’ (p.290)

Bar room drunk. And, of course, wildly wrong: the Japanese were just about to embark on their twenty-year period of ‘stagflation, during which they have been eclipsed by other up-and-coming powers. ‘Then there are the prolonged scenes with the wicked media mogul Hatry ‘discussing’ his plans with his sidekick Cavendish – which amount to page after page of the crudest bar-room prejudices wrapped up in the coarsest swearing, in which they try to outdo each other with the potty-mouthed stupidity of their shouted opinions.

Quite possibly the men who run everything do shout ‘fuck’ at each other all the time, but as a rule of thumb, the more swearing there is in these novels, the less analysis or insight.

Religion

Religious imagery and vocabulary are also dragged in to help inflate events and descriptions, to make everything bigger sounding, louder and more significant.

The rows of ladies’ summer frocks like convent martyrs… (p.115)

The Blüthner household became his secret paradise, a shrine that he could only ever visit alone. (p.128)

In the beginning was the Hard Word, he told himself… Arthur Braithwaite, known to Louisa and the children as God. (p.277)

The Canal smouldered to the left of them and the mist coiled over it like an eternal dew. Pelicans dived through the mist and the air inside the car smelled of ship’s oil and nothing in the world had changed or ever would, Amen. (p.189). [Why the Amen? The opening phrases are brilliantly descriptive: why drag it round to a pointless orotund piece of bombast?]

When Harry goes to meet the US general in charge of the canal Louisa describes it as ‘a pilgrimage’. As he drives up the hillside of the US base he feels as if ‘he had experienced a vicarious promotion on his way to Heaven’ (p.196) When Osnard decides to try for the Foreign Office, he realises he has found his ‘Grail’ (p.233) Luxmore speaks of the righteousness of Osnard’s ‘high mission’ (p.245). When Maltby invites Fran for breakfast, that’s not how he phrases it; he asks

whether it would be an offence against Creation if he took her to the Pavo Real for a boiled egg. (p.382)

The rule of three

Classical authors writing about rhetoric formulated ‘the rule of three’. This is simply that, as a general rule in speaking and in writing, concepts or ideas presented in threes are more interesting, more enjoyable and more memorable than in ones or twos, while four is too many.

Again and again, as you read through the novel, you feel that le Carré doesn’t analyse situations or people: he massages and shapes them, using strings of synonyms, repetitions, high-flown comparisons. The repetition gives the impression of that analysis or understanding is taking place, but it is purely rhetorical. Sometimes more or less, but often in tell-tale threes:

[Harry] was Robin Hood, bringer of hope to the oppressed, dispenser of justice. (p.89)

‘The people the other side of the bridge… the hidden rank and file… the strivers and believers…’ (p.89)

‘The sham, Andy, the veneer, the beneath the surface…’ (p.88)

‘[Louisa] greets, she covers, she papers over the cracks.’ (p.81)

[Harry’s philosophy aims…] To make it tolerable. To befriend it. To draw its sting. (p.78)

A long slow complicitous, insinuating, unnerving policeman’s shrug, expressing false ease, terrible powers and an immense store of superior knowledge. (p.99)

I’m here for ever. Banged up. In the womb. Doing time. Turn off engine, turn off air-con. Wait. Cook. Sweat. (p.115)

Mickie my failure, my fellow prisoner, my spy. (p.315)

My suits are not confrontational. They hint. They imply. They encourage people to come to you. They help you improve your life, pay your debts, be an influence in the world. (p.315)

‘These men of the world understand that. They know what it is to be unseen, unheard, unknown.’ (p.332)

‘All that is being offered here is a helping hand – the counsel of wise heads – a steadying influence upon a brilliantly managed operation.’ Suck of teeth, sad frown of troubled father, the placatory tone raised to entreaty. (p.380)

Here, take this, it’s Osnard’s money, Judas money, Mickie money, now it’s yours… Undertaker money. Police money. Chiquilla money. (p.383)

I am chosen. I am blessed. I walk on water. (p.399)

[Of Osnard sexually ‘taking’ the drunk Louisa] Then he took her very slowly and deliberately, using all his skills and hers. To shut her up. To tie a loose cannon to the deck. To get her safely into my camp before whatever battle lay ahead. Because it’s a maxim of mine that no reasonable offer should ever be passed up. Because I always fancied her. Because screwing one’s friends’ wives is never less than interesting. (p.4110

In these examples the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation of rhetoric is pleasantly satisfying, filling, gives you the sense you’ve learned or grasped something. But you haven’t. It is fine-sounding wind.

‘The Silent Opposers. Mickie’s Boys. Waiters-in-the-Wings,’ I call them. (p.94)

‘We’re not asking her to plant a bomb in the Palace o’ Herons, shack up with the students, go to sea with the fishermen.’ (p.262)

The rule of threes (ie how to pad out your writing but also make it sound weighty and meaningful) also applies to paragraphs.

The imp again. (1) The one that pops up to remind us that nothing goes away; (2) that a moment’s jealousy can spawn a lifetime’s fiction; (3) and that the only thing to do with a man once you’ve pulled him low is pull him lower. (p.90)

It sounds fine. Is any of it ‘true’ or worth a second thought? At other moments the rule is applied to make life choices or situations sound profound and serious. For example, Marta refuses to move back to her old house:

Can’t because her parents had lived where this building now stood.
Can’t because this was her Panama.
Can’t because her heart was with the dead. (p.130)

Interestingly, the rule works fine if the prose is not straining for pseudo-profundity. Simple descriptions often benefit from the rule, when used to create atmosphere, a mood, a scene.

A silence for spies while the waiter replenished their water glasses. A chink of ice cubes like tiny church bells. And a rush like genius in Pendel’s ears. (p.93)

But either way, there is a strong compulsion on every page to exaggerate, over-write, big up, and repeat, repeat, repeat things numerous times in different ways. Which partly explains why these novels feel so very long.

But she didn’t answer, didn’t stir, didn’t turn her head. (p.428)

Like the ‘legendary’ status given to everyone in the books, like the profuse swearing, the tags and quotes and the fake religious vocabulary, the addiction to saying three times what could more crisply and clearly be said once, lends the characters and plot a spurious importance. But these threes are merely one sub-set of the dominating quality of this prose style, which is:

Bombast and exaggeration

Present in and dominating every paragraph, every page, every description and piece of dialogue, is the overwhelming use of bombast, exaggeration and hyperbole – high sounding but empty of information. Rich in attitude – poor in insight.

The Club Unión is where the super-rich of Panama have their presence on earth. (p.73)

This kind of heavy-handed facetiousness was rampant throughout The Honourable Schoolboy, set among the ‘legendary’ hard-drinking journos of Hong Kong, but it becomes really ubiquitous, in fact it is the chief characteristic of the novels after The Secret Pilgrim. The tone of one, very narrow class or type. It is at its most pronounced when le Carré is describing actual upper-class toffs but it isn’t limited to them and in this novel extends, implausibly, to the other not-public school characters, such as half-Jewish Borstal Boy from the East End, Harry. When Harry is deciding whether or not to accept Osnard’s offer, he finds he can’t get into bed with his wife. How is this little decision couched? He

leaves his bed to the pure in heart. (p.124)

When Harry arrives at his office and goes out back to say hello to the girls who sew the suits, he exchanges words with them like ‘a great commander on the eve of battle’ (p.133). At the hotel where he introduces Osnard to his circle, he talks like this:

‘Allow me to present my good friend Andy Osnard, one of Her Majesty’s favourite sons recently arrived from England to restore the good name of diplomacy.’ (p.74)

When Harry really starts embellishing his reports, he is

now genius, now slavish editor of his imaginings, master of his cloud kingdom, prince and menial in one… An explosion, Harry boy, an explosion of the flesh. A rage of power, a swelling up, a letting go, a setting free. A bestriding of the earth, a proving of God’s grace, a settling of debts. The sinful vertigo of creativity, of plundering and stealing and distorting and reinventing, performed by one transported, deliriously consenting, furious adult with his atonement pending and the cat swishing its tail. (p.318)

And when he confronts the body of the dead Mickie, he knows that

Harry Pendel, tailor, purveyor of dreams, inventor of people and places of escape, had murdered his own creation. (p.427)

It is almost like a challenge, like a party game where you have to talk for a minute converting every single phrase you use into the most bloated, pompous, pretentious, overblown, hyperbolic bombast you can think of – and score double if you can slip in an old tag from the Bible, Shakespeare or the more obvious English poets, along with as many public school idioms as possible – ‘good chap, stout fellow, good man, plays with a straight bat, sound chap, wonderful fellah, she’s a bit of alright, shouldn’t mind old boy’.

I laughed out loud when Harry is driving back from talking with Osnard, having decided to work for him, and the text therefore describes him as ‘the Great Decider.’ Not an atom of text must go uninflated. The next day, in his cutting room, Harry begins work on a suit and le Carré does – what? – take the mickey? express affection? – when he describes him as:

The Mature Man of Affairs, the Great Weigher of Arguments and Cool Assessor of Situations. (p.134)

A set of three grand abstract nouns, in capitals. Even little details are inflated. The scrambler phone to London is known as ‘the digital link with God’ (p.228). Luxmore has a phone in his office which ‘links him with other immortals on Whitehall’s Mount Olympus.’ (p.241)

There is an explosion of this kind of thing when Harry is called to an audience with the President of Panama to measure him for his new uniform. The capitalised epithets fly so thick and fast I realised that this scene and their use are meant to be funny.

The Sun King himself, the All Pervading, the Shining One, the Divine Misser of Hours…His Sublimity strode forward… the Immortal One.. his Radiance…his Supremacy… his Immensity… His Transparency… the World’s Greatest Leader… the Master of the Earth… the Lord of the Universe, the Grand Master of Panama’s political chess-board… the Keeper of the Keys to Global Power… His Luminosity… (pp.154-57)

So is that why they’re used so liberally elsewhere? Is this kind of laboured facetiousness what my English teacher used to call ‘attempts at humour’? Thus, when Osnard becomes ‘the official Canal Watcher’ is that, in and of itself, supposed to be funny? Or when Cavendish explains that drinking booze at lunchtime is frowned upon these days in America, he doesn’t put it like that, he says:

In today’s Born Again Washington, said Geoff Cavendish, alcohol at lunchtime was regarded as the Mark of the Beast. (p.338)

Why the hyperbole, why the grandiose reference to religion/the Bible? Why can nothing be simply said? If it’s intended to be funny, it isn’t – it’s tiresome.

Mealy mouthed

Defined by the dictionary as ‘not willing to tell the truth in clear and simple language’. Le Carré’s verbosity, his fluency, his unstoppable torrent of lyric descriptions and multiple descriptors, amounts eventually to a sustained evasion of telling it straight. Here he is being characteristically facetious about an important politician in Panama.

The peerless Ernesto Delgado, Washington-approved straight arrow and Preserver of the Golden Past. (p.108)

The prose gets up on stilts and uses capital letters, legendary nicknames, religious quotes, public school banter and exaggeration to such an extent that it eventually becomes quite hard to understand what’s going on. I read the three pages which describe the media mogul, Hatry’s, plan to support the US invasion of Panama several times, but it is depicted in such a sweary, hyperbolical and overblown dialogue that I still don’t really understand his motivation. And at moments like this the suspicion arises that the bombastic style and dialogue is deployed so widely because there often is no reason behind the conversations or the plot. (It is telling that the entire character of sweary, shouty Hatry, his entourage and conspiracy, is dropped from the movie. The plot doesn’t, in fact, need it.)

These later novels are written in such a tone of permanent sarcastic facetiousness that it begs the question: if the author doesn’t take his own characters or stories seriously – if, in fact, he devotes a good deal of energy to taking the mickey out of them, exaggerating, stylising and mocking them – why should we?

Conclusion

Whether you like le Carré’s later novels comes down to whether you enjoy the ponderous facetiousness, the heavy humour, the showy bombast and the slang and banter of the tremendously posh public school characters which they describe. If so, you will enjoy the hundreds of pages in which you are marinaded in their pukka prose style and upper-class attitudes.

The plots are clever. The background research pays off. The locations are colourful. The tradecraft is very believable. The sophisticated structuring, the use of flashbacks, memories and key moments to create depth and colour to the characters, all work really well. And there are felicities of description and phrasing on every page. But for me these achievements are cancelled out by the heavy-handed and over-the-top style, by the permanent boom of the upper-class bombast, which outweighs the book’s many, many virtues.


The movie

The novel was made into a movie, released in 2001, directed by John Boorman and starring Pierce Brosnan as Osnard and Geoffrey Rush as Harry Pendel, with Jamie Lee Curtis as his American wife, Louisa. Interestingly, le Carré co-wrote the screenplay and was Executive Producer.

The most obvious change required by the movie version of any novel is to transform the lead characters so they can be played by bankable stars, and to trim and simplify the plot so it can be understood by teenagers in Iowa. Thus vast swathes of the upper class content and attitude is ditched; Osnard is no longer an impossibly posh, fat, sweating old Etonian: he is Pierce Brosnan. My son watched it with me and made three penetrating observations:

1. Why do they have to swear so much? Brosnan effs and blinds all the way through, setting the tone of the film early on when he watches a pretty girl dancing in a hotel and says, ‘I’d fuck that.’ When Harry is reluctant to go along with his plans, Brosnan says, ‘Don’t be a cunt, Harry.’ And early on, explaining spying, he says, ‘It’s like oral sex – it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it.’ Funny? No. Embarrassing? Yes. Lowering? Very.

2. It’s a bit ‘rapey’. Both my kids use this word to describe men who are creepily lecherous, constantly making suggestive remarks, touching, looking or talking inappropriately. Thus Brosnan talks about ‘fucking’ more or less every woman he meets and – very improbably – he does. Posh Law Lord’s daughter Francesca is the only woman on the embassy staff and has maybe two minutes of screen time before she is being fucked very hard standing up in his apartment, later on being seen being fucked very hard lying down on his bed. It must be very depressing being a female actor. Two or three moments of rolling her eyes at Brosnan’s suggestive banter and then we are watching her boobs bobble about as he ruts her.

Brosnan tries to chat up Jamie Lee Curtis (as Harry’s wife, Louisa) every time he sees her, creepily stroking her back on a family outing with Harry and their kids, and then grabbing her breasts when she comes to his apartment late at night, before pushing her forcefully onto the bed into a pre-rape position.

Both Francesca and Louisa are supposedly highly intelligent professionals – a senior embassy official and a senior figure in the Canal Administration, respectively. But their main role in the film is to swoon when the male hero comes in sight and then get their breasts out. The ease with which they are both seduced is so unlikely as to make the whole film seem a preposterous male fantasy. When this film was released, the writer (le Carré) and director (Boorman) were both about 69 years old. It seems like a blast from an old-fashioned, much more sexist past, as my son was quick to point out. But it is true enough to the spirit of the book in which various lecherous old men try to seduce young, old, married or single women. At Louisa’s dinner party one of Panama’s eminent men spends his time working his shoeless foot up Louisa’s legs towards her crotch, while ogling the married woman opposite,

squinting down the front of Donna Oakley’s dress which is cut on the lines of Emily’s dresses, breasts pushed upwards like tennis balls and the cleavage pointing due southward to what her father when he was drunk had called the industrial area. (p.175)

Lovely.

3. Is it meant to be funny? Like the book, the film thinks it is funny, but is so heavy-handed, crude and violent as to be gobsmackingly humourless. When Harry measures Osnard for his suit there’s a moment when he asks whether Osnard ‘dresses’ to the left or the right. As in the book, Osnard says, ‘Never know where the bloody thing is. Bobs about like a windsock’ (p.61) and the film pauses there for the audience to laugh its pants off. In fact the film likes this joke so much that it has Harry repeat it down the phone to his wife, Louisa, who laughs like a drain. But is it funny? No. Just crude.

Brosnan insists on having his secret meetings with Harry in a brothel. Here he can lie on a bed and watch porno films while Harry spins his lies. At one moment Brosnan pops a coin in the slot and the whole whorehouse bed starts vibrating and the miserable Harry has to continue recounting his stories while his voice oscillates absurdly. My son and I discussed this: presumably the writer and director thought this made for a funny scene. But in fact Harry’s unhappiness, Brosnan’s coarseness, and the hard core porn film which we see a lot of in the background, are the opposite of light and witty. They are crude and heavy. It is the regular recurrence of scenes of sweaty lechery, interspersed with scenes of sickening violence, which dominate the film’s mood and undermine attempts at lightness or humour.

In the very last scene Brosnan has made his getaway with the money and is on a charter plane flying out of Panama. The pretty stewardess plumps down in the seat in front of him and Brosnan uses the same line he used to chat up Francesca from the Embassy: ‘There are two ways we can do this, wait until the last minute to have a passionate affair and not regret having done it sooner; or go for it now and find out whether we like it or not.’ a) Those alternatives are not really relevant to a short air flight b) presumably we’re meant to smile and tut at the old dog up to his waggish tricks; presumably it is meant to be a sharp, witty ending to the film. And it is an appropriate end to the film, but not in the way its makers intended – instead it tends to confirm the uneasy feeling you’ve had all along that this is an out-of-date, dingily lecherous, middle-aged man’s fantasy.


Credit

The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré was published in 1996 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes and references are from the 1997 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 public school and Oxford and personally recruited – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities of 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 seduced his girlfriend, Emma, too, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three, expensively-educated but stupid 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)
  • 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)

Our Game by John le Carré (1995)

‘I’d adore to live without him, Diana! I’d give my entire bloody fortune to be rid of Larry and his works for the rest of my  natural life. Unfortunately, we are inextricably involved with each other and I have to find him for my own salvation and probably for his.’ (p.185)

Tim Cranmer

A first-person narrative told by Tim ‘Timbo’ d’Abell Cranmer (p.54), educated at Winchester and Oxford, and recruited into British Intelligence, where he served for twenty years or so before being pensioned off aged 47. His uncle Bob left Tim a winery in Devon where he now makes a nice living, keeping up his collection of eighteenth century barometers and Chinese Chippendale footstools. He was married to Diana, who also worked for the Service, but she divorced him years ago. More recently into his life has moved a highly-strung young female composer, Emma, half his age, temperamental, sexually inventive.

Larry Pettifer

The novel is about a chap Tim was at Winchester with, a few years younger than him, one Larry Pettifer (‘Larry was a new boy the same term I became a prefect.’ p.97). Tim meets up with Larry again at Oxford, where legions of women swoon to his good looks (‘Blast the fellow, he landed an outright First against my rather shaky Second,’ I said with a sporting laugh. p.100), before bumping into him again in Venice, where he was cutting a swathe through the middle-aged women tourists he was guiding around the churches and galleries. Tim recruits Larry into the Secret Service and subsequently runs him as an agent or ‘joe’, angling for him to be ‘recruited’ by the Soviets, which he duly is, by Konstantin Checheyev based in the USSR’s London embassy. And so Larry embarks on some years working as a British double agent.

After the Berlin Wall comes down along with the USSR, Tim retires and helps Larry get a job at the nearby University of Bath, as a left-wing politics lecturer, tiresomely bleating on about the failings of the West and espousing various good causes. But Larry makes a pest of himself, inviting himself first to Sunday lunches at Tim’s, then for the whole Sunday, flirting with Emma, then seducing her with his radicalism, dangerously dropping hints about Tim’s former career, of which Emma knows nothing. One day she leaves. Maybe he seduced her, the beastly cad.

The missing £37 million

A few weeks later the police come to interview Tim and tell him Dr Pettifer has gone missing. Tim is then summoned up to London by his old colleagues in ‘the Office’, who interview him aggressively before revealing that young Larry was not just a double agent working ‘for’ the Russian head of station, Konstantin Checheyev. In the last few days it has emerged that he and Checheyev embezzled the Russians for some £37 million! Tim swears complete ignorance, in fact amazement, at this fact. He is told to keep his mouth shut and packed off back to Cornwall.

It is only at this late stage that the narrator reveals the rather startling fact that he actually tried to kill Larry a few weeks earlier, around the time he ‘disappeared’. Furious at Larry for seducing Emma, Tim lured him to a deep and legendary small lake – Priddy Pool – where he fell on him, battering him unconscious and dragging him by the feet over to the pool and throwing him in. But he was in such a state that he can’t clearly remember whether Larry was dead or not. Apparently not, as the evidence builds up that Larry not only survived, but persuaded Emma to run away and join him on his quixotic crusade.

The Ingush

‘Crusade’? Yes, because as the novel inches forward through a blizzard of memories and reminiscences, as Timbo mulls over scenes from his former life – his long working relationship with Larry, the birth, flowering and end of his affair with Emma – and then as he is interrogated again by the police, and again by Intelligence officers, it becomes clear that Larry didn’t just steal the missing money: he was in league with Checheyev to funnel it towards one of his ‘good causes’, the long-oppressed Ingush people of the south Caucasus, a people neighboured by the Chechens and Ossetians and oppressed for centuries by Tsarist and then communist and now neo-capitalist Russia.

Quest for Larry

To borrow Timbo’s own semi-religious Victorian terminology, he sets out on a ‘quest’ to track down Larry and Emma. Using a fake identity, passport, driving license and bundles of cash he’d kept hidden for just such a rainy day, he spends the second half of the novel driving around England, digging up material from former Intelligence colleagues, quizzing a Foreign Office chap whose wife he once had an affair with, and tracking Larry and Emma down to a shabby house (9A Cambridge Street) in Bristol which they obviously used as a base before abandoning it.

Here Tim discovers a trove of paperwork supposedly connected with a carpet import-export company, which he naturally concludes is a front for laundering money and transporting arms to the heroic Ingush freedom fighters. In the novel’s most gruesome sequence, Timbo motors to the house of the owner of the import-export company, who tells him her husband hasn’t been home for a week, but explains that he’s often away on business trips. Timbo drives up to the firm’s isolated house-cum-warehouse in the hills to discover it has been thoroughly ransacked, and then follows a trail of blood up to an outhouse further up the hill where he discovers the bodies of the owner and the two locals who cleaned for him, tortured and murdered.

Paris

Tim catches a ferry to France and drives to Paris to interview an aged lady who knew both Larry and Emma – the Contessa Ann-Marie von Diderich – and there, to the reader’s surprise, finds Emma living quite contentedly, still practising the piano, unrepentant about dumping Tim for Larry, convinced that the embezzlement and money laundering and gun running they helped orchestrate is righting one of the world’s injustices. After the hundreds of passages in which Tim has described his affair with Emma in purple prose, it’s surprising when he simply says goodbye and walks away.

Moscow

Tim flies to Moscow, following contacts and phone calls which lead him to Checheyev via other contacts from the Soviet years. Entering a night club where he’d been told to go, Timbo finds himself being bundled downstairs to confront the sinister owner. It is a terrifying milieu. (An unfortunate man has been tied to a chair and obviously tortured, and bleeds and moans in the corner of the office throughout the meeting). After a cursory questioning, Tim is taken away from the office, shoved downstairs into a makeshift cell and locked up for ten days. He can hear the sounds and smell the cooking of the Ingush families above him. Two young men with Kalashnikovs come and chat and smoke with him.

Eventually he is dragged out of the cell, given his coat and gloves back and dragged upstairs, outside and through deep snow to a van, then driven for miles beyond the ruined outskirts of Moscow to a shabby settlement where he meets Checheyev. Shabby, exhausted, Checheyev wants to know who Tim is working for and doesn’t believe his protestations that he is on a solo mission, simply to find his old friend.

The dénouement

Who cares.


Bombast

One dictionary definition of ‘bombast’ is ‘speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful’.

This novel overflows with bombast – with the confident public school assurance that Tim and his schoolchums and their tiny circle make up the whole world; that their public school nicknames and their public school mindset and their public school whimsy, the jocular exaggerations, the way simply all of their friends are legendary and well-known and famous and awfully bright (Emma is ‘warm hearted and brilliantly clever’ p.281), the in-jokes at their club and the banter between chaps who were in the Service together – that these are the centre of the world. As a small example, the narrator refers to

The famous Pettifer forelock, now shot with grey but still swinging across his brow in immature revolt. (p.66)

Is the Pettifer forelock famous? Have you heard of it? No. Has anyone heard of it? No. Then what does it mean to write that it is ‘famous’? It is a rhetorical strategy to incorporate the reader into this tiny, precious, self-reinforcing, self-important world. ‘In our world his forelock was famous. And what other world is there, old boy?’ Again:

We were seated around the famous Pringle boardroom table. (p.150)

Is the Pringle boardroom table famous? No. Have you heard of it? No. This is the kind of self-aggrandising rhetoric of white middle-aged chaps down the golf club or gentleman’s club or old boys club, swapping yarns about famous Johnno or old Jumbo or the legendary Biffo, remember old Biffo?

This kind of coercive, blustering, shallow myth-making about the chaps occurs on every page.

Calm down. That wasn’t Zeus talking, that was Jake Merriman, lightest of the Top Floor lightweights. Any lighter he’d blow off the roof, we used to say. (p.50)

A typical piece of bombast and un-humour in one sentence. a) Not exactly a gut-busting joke, is it, though it’s probably the best one in the book. And b) I never for a moment was at any risk of thinking his boss in the Service was Zeus. Zeus was the father of the Greek gods. Jake Merriman was his boss in the Intelligence Service. Not hard to tell the difference. The sentence tells me nothing about the plot or the world, nothing except for the narrator’s tendency to melodramatise his own banal and self-important observations.

I do my Head Prefect number, the way I used to speak to him at school when Larry was a parson’s son in revolt and I was King of Babylon. (p.51)

Was Tim ever the King of Babylon? No. Typical of the kind of schoolboy exaggeration, of giving each other over-the-top nicknames, of striking heroic poses and exaggerated attitudes, which sometimes lingers on into university and then most people grow out of. But not these characters. The entire toolkit of immature schoolboy affectation, facetiousness, silly nicknames and affected superiority appear to stay with them for life.

–When we were students doing student summer jobs, a friend of mine pointed out that whenever you started working somewhere and someone who’d been there for ages told you, ‘We’re all mad here!!’ you could guarantee it would be the most boring office in England. Self delusion.

Or remember the sign which you used to see on people’s desks saying – ‘You don’t have to be crazy to work here – but it helps!!!!!!!!’ – without fail indicating that this will be the dreariest, saddest, dullest place you have ever worked in.

The self-dramatisation of le Carré’s narrators reminds me of these old anecdotes and, like them, the more his characters protest their earth-shattering importance, the more trivial and silly they seem. The more they come over as boring middle-aged losers pathetically dramatising and legending each other.

He has been on one of his heroic voyages, and now he’s going to boast about it. (p.58)

Larry… in his role of Secret Protector of the Righteous once more, goes through his paces like an angel. (p.54)

But Larry is not a Secret Protector of the Righteous, is he? No such position in fact exists. Larry is a narcissistic and tiresome ex-intelligence agent. He is certainly not an ‘angel’. And who or what are ‘the Righteous’ in this sentence, anyway?

And what I see is Larry, seated before the gasfire, clutching his goblet of hot wine to his breast, a Byron of his own imagining… (p.242)

I have locked her in a hollow mountain in the Caucasus, he replied. I have seduced her in accordance with my blood-feud against the infidel Tim Cranmer. I have swept her away on the white stallion of my sophistry. (p.255)

Instead of thought – bombast. Instead of psychology – melodramatic and somehow childish exaggeration.

Gone the dreary stories of academic lowlife. Instead we have Larry redux, Larry the world-dreamer and Sunday sermoniser, one moment raging against the shameful Western inertia, the next painting treacly visions of altruistic wars conducted by a United Nations strike-force empowered to put on its Batman uniform and head off tyranny, pestilence and famine at a moment’s notice. (p.61)

Posh friends

Winchester and Oxford, the Intelligence Service and then inheriting money (lots of money) to set up as a gentleman wine grower in Devon, Tim’s circle of acquaintance is narrow, smug and crushingly posh, chaps to banter with and a seemingly endless sequence of chapesses to bonk.

  • Celia, one his local ‘conquests’, is (inevitably) the inheritor of a large estate near him in Devon and rides to hounds, of course.
  • Timbo chats at the train station to ‘a forlorn baronet known locally as Poor Percy’ (p.148).
  • The banker Jamie Pringle’s secretary went to Roedean, natch.
  • ‘Kids are doing splendidly, Tim, thank you. Marcus is captain o’ Fives, Penny’s coming out next spring.’ (p.153)
  • When in town he repairs to his Pall Mall club, home of many a retired admiral. (p.166)
  • ‘She lifted her elbow sideways, suggesting country girl and public school.’ (p.74) Is there, in this imaginative universe, any other kind of woman?
  • At ‘the Office’ ie headquarters of MI6, he is interviewed by a woman Marjorie. ‘I imagined uncles in the Cabinet and blue-rinsed aunts who were the backbone of the Tory right.’ (p.87)
  • When he visits Simon Dugdale, another posh mannered chap, this one in the Foreign Office, he gets a good groping and ear-chewing from the wife, Clare Dugdale (‘You’re still terribly yummy Tim. And Si says you’ve found an absolutely super, frightfully young girl.’ p.278) who – of course – he once had an affair with. Poor Timbo, he can’t help being such a terrific babe magnet. Mind you, Clare read Philosophy at Cambridge. A better class of posh totty.

‘I lunched at my club… Afterwards I bought a few shirts in Jermyn Street…’ (p.71) ‘I was wearing good brown country shoes by Ducker’s of Oxford, hand-made and rubber-soled.’ (p.314) Nothing but the best for this narrator.

Emma

Hundreds of pages are devoted to the special qualities of his lover, Emma Manzini, who comes over as anything but special, rather as a self-obsessed, self-righteous nincompoop, but who prompts in the narrator an endless stream of gushing schoolboy, sub-Keatsian rhapsody and narcissistic self-dramatisation. ‘Emma didn’t talk to me at breakfast – it is the end of the world. Emma made me a cup of tea – the heavens reveal their splendour.’ If over-ripe cheese could write, it would be like this:

It is my Dark Age. It is the rest of my life before Emma. (p.65)

My Emma. My false dawn. (p.165)

Is she wise? Is she plain dumb? Emma defies theses categories. Her beauty, like Larry’s, is its own morality. (p.173)

Emma as artist. Emma as mistress of the Freudian doodle. Emma as echo of Larry’s eternal outcry against a world he can neither join nor destroy. (p.238)

These colours, why had I never painted them? Emma, you were all these hopes. (p.307)

Whenever he starts singing Emma’s praises I am reminded of my parents’ Charles Aznavour and Sacha Distel records:

Sheeeeeeeeeeeeee may be the face I can’t forget
A trace of pleasure or regret [and so on…]

It goes without saying that Emma is gorgeous and, handily, half Tim’s age (every middle-aged man’s fantasy) and he is not shy of describing the sexual advantages of having such a young squeeze. She is not only beautiful, we are told, but very ‘flexible’. You lucky dog, Timbo! But do not jump to gross assumptions, impatient reader: Timbo is not any old middle-aged shagger, he is a shagger with soul, soul enough for endless maudlin soliloquies about his lady love, in good times and bad. Even when they are arguing, when a shadow falls between their spirits, why – even then she makes sweet midnight forays to his boudoir!

Sometimes in the depth of night she creeps into my room like a thief and makes love to me without saying a word. Then creeps away, leaving her tears on my pillow before the daylight finds her out. (p.68)

There are hundreds of passages of pompous lyricism like this, the book overflows with them, repeating over and over how in thrall he is to the wonderful, quixotic, paradoxical Emma. Timbo

lavished jewels and freedom on her, made her my clothes-horse and my love object, my woman to end all women, icon, goddess, daughter and, as Larry would say, slave. (p.164)

What a berk. None of this erases the scene where he describes their first meeting – in the waiting room of a physiotherapist because they both have back pain – where Tim begins to fancy her before making it his mission to stalk her (‘Meanwhile I stalk her…’ p.172). I think – I hope – that Timbo is meant to be a deeply unreliable narrator, that we are meant to find him a creepy, pervy, pompous, self-satisfied, lecherous middle-aged man, who creates a weird love nest for the troubled young woman, who – he persuades himself – ‘loves’ him in return (at his big house in Devon, she is given her own wing with a door separating his and her corridors). But if he is deluded about this, what else may he be getting wrong?

Sexual boasting

Interspersed among the scores of passages of overblown lyricism are moments of quietly smug sexual bragging which are cringe-inducing and embarrassing.

I saw her naked on her stomach with her chin in her hands, turning to look at me over her shoulder as she hears me enter. (p.221)

I remembered the kiss she had given me at the Connaught that had woken me from my hundred-year sleep, and how her instinctive ingenuity as a lover had taken me to regions I had not known existed. (p.338)

But it is not just Emma Tim brags about; he takes various opportunities to remind that he is a bit of a Casanova, counting a number of his poshest neighbours among his ‘conquests’.

Celia was one of my local conquests from the days before Emma… She lived in penury on a large estate near Sparkford and rode to hounds… (p.112)

She is neither of the age nor category from which my usual conquests are selected: the compliant female colleague or senior secretary; the sporting adulteress of the English country round. (p.171)

‘His usual conquests.’ When he goes to meet Simon Dugdale it is laugh-out-loud preposterous that Timbo turns out to have bedded his posh, glamorous wife Claire. Of course he has. And she still fancies him like mad!

Not content with alerting us to his own sexual conquests, Tim also bathes in the reflected glory of his one-time protégé, the legendary Larry, who is also described as a great swiver of women.

Oxford fell in love with him. He was very good-looking. The girls rolled over for him in droves. (p.98)

He was ticking over at about three a week. Women and bottles. (p.134)

When did Larry ever have two of anything except women? (p.223)

Women came to him naturally, he just had to reach out for them and they hopped into his hand. (p.340)

Of course they do. Fat, repellently posh drunk Jamie Pringle, owner of a merchant bank, tells Timbo after a ‘good lunch’ (ie a room full of posh chaps getting pissed), about a girl he used to screw in Manchester. ‘Cindy. Worked in the silk trade. Silky Cindy.’ (p.157). Fnah fnah. A little later, and even more pissed, Jamie recalls legendary Larry turning up to suggest an improper financial deal, accompanied by an absolute stunner, black hair piled up on her head,

‘… waiting for you to let it down. Absolute fatal weakness of mine. Love a black bush.’ (p.159)

Who doesn’t love a black bush, eh? Obviously Pringle’s quote is not the narrator’s, his lechery is part of his character as a repellent fat banker. But it is cut from the same cloth as many of Timbo’s comments about Emma positioning herself for his rear entry on their ‘love nights’, about her wonderful ‘flexibility’, and the other moments when he can barely conceal his glee at bedding a woman half his age. Sweaty lecherous men.

Self dramatisation

Just as he devotes hundred of passages to establish Larry’s legendary qualities, and painting the full Victorian sentimentality of his relationship with Emma, the narrator is not backwards in dramatising his own role: in countless places he takes a leaf from Julius Caesar’s book and talks about himself in what we can maybe call the ‘public school third person’:

We were alone, Merriman and Cranmer, blood brothers as always. (p.107)

It is years since Cranmer has stepped outside the limits of his self-confinement, played the brave game, waited impatiently for evening, lain awake till dawn. (p.171)

Cranmer is free! Cranmer has paid his dues! (p.173)

I, Cranmer, evader, closet romantic, veteran of a raft of futile love affairs, had fallen cloak-over-dagger for the oldest trick in the book! (p.164)

We are arguing, Cranmer versus the rest of England… This time it is Cranmer’s temper that snapped, not Larry’s. (p.258)

But Cranmer had filed. Cranmer had filed and forgotten. Cranmer in his criminally negligent myopia had consigned the cause of the Ingush people to the dustbin of history. (p.267)

I was part of them, propelled by my past as they were, ignorant of my future. I was a fugitive, homeless and stateless, a small nation of one. (p.346)

Timbo is, as the old phrase has it, a legend in his own lunchtime. A man convinced of his own vast self-importance, a man who takes 420 pages to tell us this fairly simple story, because it is so larded and padded out with prolonged sequences about jolly old Larry and ever-flexible Emma and, at its centre, Cranmer the hero, Cranmer the fool, Cranmer the innocent, Cranmer the cynic, Cranmer the whatever adjectival phrase you have to hand.

But that is all I say, because that is how Cranmer’s part is written for him. (p.255)

Humourlessness

The narcissistically self-obsessed have no sense of humour because they have a very poor sense of other people.

‘Expect you’re looking forward to your Senior Citizen’s any day now.’
‘Thank you, Tom, I have a few years to wait and I’m glad to do it.’
Laughter in which I share… (p.147)

‘He’d had an accident. Fallen downstairs, he said…
‘There’s no accidents round here, darling. Everything’s deliberate.’ She giggled at her own wit. (p.217)

‘I inherited a bit of a problem, quite honestly. My Uncle Bob, who founded the business for love, put a lot of trust in his Maker and rather less in science.’
Clare gave a hoot of laughter. (p.280)

Old school tie

It is a truism that public schoolboys never seem to outgrow their schooldays, the clothes it taught them to wear, the jolly japes and smug banter it taught them to consider funny, the network of other public schoolboys which comprises the only world that matters. Everything, ultimately, ends up being compared back to those jolly halcyon (or beastly) days.

‘When Larry was with CC he was on holiday. When he was with me, he was at school.’ (p.86)

‘The school [Winchester] was still in the Dark Ages. Fagging, flogging, bullying galore, the whole Arnoldian package.’ (p.97)

Crossing the footbridge at Castle Cary station, I was confused by the clatter of young shoes in the Victorian ironwork and fancied I smelt steam and burning coals. I was a boy again, lugging my school suitcase down the stone steps for another solitary holiday with Uncle Bob. (p.112)

Crammed against the stone wall stood the old school trunk I used as a filing box for my CC archive. (p.260)

‘And they hated the Ossetians,’ Larry says keenly, like a schoolboy wanting to be top. (p.263)

I remembered that this was how we had always eaten, when we ate our frightful meals together: potatoes boiled to a sludge and school cabbage floating in a green lake. (p.279)

From nowhere an old man appeared at my car window, and his gnarled face reminded me of the groundsman at my first boarding school. (p.307)

I had been slapped at school too often. (p.360)

[Timbo asks legendary Larry what it was like being imprisoned and interrogated in Havana?] ‘After Winchester? A piece of cake. I’ll settle for a Cuban prison over House Library any day.’ (p.365)

In fact, the title of the book is taken from the phrase masters and pupils use to refer to the special (obviously) brand of football they play at Winchester public school – ‘our game’, taken from a one-page paean to the old place. Which obviously has the not-so-subtle double meaning that extends it to refer to espionage as ‘our game’ – the British Intelligence’s ‘game’ of deceiving and cheating – and then also on to the ‘game’ which Larry, Timbo and flexible Emma are ‘playing’ throughout the book.

Religious rhetoric

Another way the sensibility and language of the novel are permanently inflated is via the liberal use of religious quotes and references. This throwaway hijacking of religious rhetoric denotes not an ounce of genuine religious feeling; it is just one more way of bigging up, exaggerating, and dramatising his ego:

I was standing arms outstretched in crucifixion… (p.250)

[Tim describes agreeing to work as an agent as] ‘taking the veil‘. (p.101)

I choose the Grill Room at the Connaught, my shrine for great occasions. (p.175)

Now it was Cranmer, her saviour, who scrambled after her, calling stop! and wait! and come back! (p.239)

I smelt roast beef and wood smoke. I was blessed. (p.300) [This phrase is describing coming across a country pub which does decent food. Not relieved or happy. Blessed.]

I was being conveyed, never mind whether the Forest, or the whole valley of the shadow, was watching me pass by. (p.301)

The hill’s gorse summit rose behind her like the green hill in a hymn.

The tracks mounted a concrete path and thereafter held their peace. (p.312)

Dee’s a saint, she is saying from the window of my bedroom. (p.328)

She was wearing a crushed linen smock and it had the appearance of a habit: of a deliberate renunciation of the flesh. (p.336)

Only by going after Larry could I fill the pit that for so long had done duty for my soul. (p.343)

There is no God, soul or system of salvation, there is no religious belief in the book, these are just more quotes and tags and references picked up at school and university which lend the ambling plot and the hyperbolic thoughts of the pompous protagonist a spurious profundity.

Insight free

As Professor John Sutherland pointed out in his London Review of Books review of The Secret Pilgrim, le Carré frequently tells us his characters are full of wit and wisdom and insight… and then we actually hear them speak and they sound like public school buffoons. They are revealed as bores. The acuteness of le Carré’s descriptions – which are often marvellous – absolutely doesn’t carry over into his dialogue, which is weak to put it mildly.

For example, legendary Larry is supposed to be a lecturer at quite a good university (Bath). In one scene, he arrives at Tim’s place in a bad mood after a seminar with some other academics:

A coven of middle-aged Russian analysts – the term Moscow-watcher is already out of date – has left him at odds with the approaching daylight. He is talking about the world: our part of it.

So you might expect this politics lecturer to deliver some sensible insight into global politics circa 1994, about the shifting power relations between the United States and Russia and the dire consequences of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. For example, how Bill Clinton’s wish to intervene in Kosovo was stone-walled by an EU dominated by a pacifist Germany. But what this politics lecturer – who’s had the additional advantage of having played a minor role in Cold War espionage – actually says is:

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (p.138)

Is that it? God. What an imbecile.

On another occasion Tim remembers a conversation when Larry made tentative enquiries about contacts in banking; looking back, Tim realises this may have been the start of the embezzlement project he carried out with Checheyev. You might reasonably have expected the conversation between these two professional intelligence officers to convey some detail about the SIS’s banking operations, maybe not the pages of detailed organisation structure and process you’d get from Frederick Forsyth, but the kind of grown-up and interesting insight you might get from, say, Len Deighton or Robert Harris. But this is what follows:

‘Well, there’s always the great and good Jamie Pringle,’ I suggest cautiously… Pringle was our contemporary at Oxford, a rugger-playing scion of Larry’s Unbearable Classes.
‘Jamie’s an oaf,’ Larry declares, swilling his English Breakfast Tea…
‘Pringle’s an arsehole… Was. Is now. And ever shall be. Amen.’ (p.141)

This makes Larry look and sound like an idiot, with the intelligence of a surly 14-year-old. It is impossible to take him or the other characters seriously. (By the way, note the way Larry uses a quote from the Bible to give a patina of respectability to what is in fact the crudest language and the dumbest attitude – dressing up idiocy in fancy quotes and Latin tags.)

Many exchanges and much of the dialogue in these later le Carré novels are quite meaningless. They contain no factual information at all, even about the characters themselves, but reek with this smug ‘one of us’ attitude, a permanent tone of airily superior facetiousness which gets very, very wearing.

Ideas-free

Above all, this over-the-top and facetious style is a poor substitute for thought. The three Robert Harris thrillers I’ve just read may be melodramatic, but they are instinct with political intelligence at all levels of detail, and are genuinely thought-provoking. When characters talk, they offer genuine insights into their own and other characters’ motivation, showing that Harris has thoroughly thought through his characters. The dialogue crisply reveals intentions and schemes which the intelligent reader can interpret and map out, like a chess diagram, and map the changing plans and schemes, as the plot unfolds.

By contrast, the dialogue in le Carré most often consists of character assassination dressed up in buffoonish schoolboy abuse. Thus we are given a thumbnail profile of Eduard Shevardnadze, a key historical figure who was Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, until the collapse of the USSR when he became president of an independent Georgia. A fascinating man who played a pivotal role in the international diplomacy and Russian power politics of the period.

Question from Thatcherchild Talbot, who has decided to grow a beard: Please Larry, why did the West fall for Schevardnadze?
Answer, dear Talbot, because Shevers has a sad, bungey face and looks like everybody’s Daddy, when actually he’s a KGB dinosaur with a background of deals with the CIA and a disgraceful record of repressing dissidents. (p.250)

Thump. How lowering. How dumb. How stupid. And this is legendary Larry writing, the man the novel tries to persuade us is the intellectual star of his generation at Oxford, a first class mind and unstoppable babe magnet. But he sounds like a moron.

Hundreds of pages go by, crammed with upper class attitude, Latin tags, Bible quotes and embarrassingly unfunny jokes, all blissfully untroubled by anything you could call an idea or a thought. What ideas there are in the books are trite: the end of the Cold War didn’t mean the end of power politics; the world is still a violent and nasty place; the Russians have behave appallingly to the Ingush, and are continuing to repress ethnic minorities both within and without their borders.

420 pages of public school bombast is a lot to read for such a thin return.

Anne Frank

Do you know the apocryphal story about the terrible off-Broadway production of a play about Anne Frank? Having sat through two hours of awful script and dreadful acting, when the Gestapo finally knock on the front door, a member of the audience shouted out, ‘She’s in the attic!’

I felt the same way about this novel. By page 100 I was heartily sick of Timbo and Larry and Emma and their self-dramatising self-importance. In the final hundred pages, as Timbo leaves England and sets off on his ‘quest’, I think we are meant to feel along with the narrator a tense and urgent need to find Larry before harm comes to him, to rescue him from his own quixotic imaginings, to redeem this Byron of the Caucasus, to … and so on.

But I had my fingers crossed that both Larry and Emma would be found shot dead and, ideally, that the narrator himself would meet his come-uppance for his unbelievable pomposity and self-importance, and in the end I was so repelled by the characters I couldn’t finish the book.

Unreliable narrator – or pompous twit?

Ceaselessly bombarded with the drunken banter of Tim’s impossibly posh pals, with his own immature public school bombast, with his self-congratulatory sexual bragging, and with the posturing stupidity of the two other characters of this appalling ‘game’, it is difficult to know how much of this is meant to be serious and how much satirical.

Is the character of Timbo meant to be a devastating satire on his type of self-important snob? Is Timbo meant to be a contender for Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit of the Year? Is the whole thing meant to be a satirical portrait of the kind of self-satisfied, rich, posh shagger that used to run British Intelligence? Is it an extended joke?

Or does le Carré mean it literally? Are we genuinely meant to sympathise with the absurd Timbo, with his lecherous infatuation with a woman half his age, are we meant to take the idiot Larry seriously as some kind of intellectual, are we meant to regard this small circle of ‘people like us’ as epitomising the best of ‘England’?


Credit

Our Game by John le Carré was published in 1995 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1996 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, after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside he disobeys orders by falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Retired SIS agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at public school and Oxford – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia. And has seduced his girlfriend. Tim sets off on a quest to uncover the true story and try to rescue his ‘friend’.
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • 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)

The Night Manager by John le Carré (1993)

Jonathan Pine, orphaned only son of a cancer-ridden German beauty and a British sergeant of infantry killed in one of his country’s many post-colonial wars, graduate of a rainy archipelago of orphanages, foster homes, half-mothers, cadet units and training camps, sometimes army wolfchild with a special unit in even rainier Northern Ireland, caterer, chef, itinerant hotelier, perpetual escapee from emotional entanglements, volunteer, collector of other people’s languages, self-exiled creature of the night and sailor without a destination. (p.57)

Jonathan Pine

Jonathan Pine is a haunted man. He was in the British Army in Northern Ireland, where he killed two IRA men in an ambush. He still has nightmares about their heads blowing off (pp.129-30) and flashbacks recur scores of times throughout the text to emphasise just how haunted he is. He quit the forces and hid away as the manager of a luxury hotel in Cairo. Here – in a very flimsy scene – Sophie, the beautiful Arab moll of a powerful Cairo criminal, Freddie Hamid, asks him to keep some incriminating documents in the safe overnight: Hamid is doing a big arms deal with some Brit called Roper, Richard Onslow Roper.

Intrigued, Pine reads the documents, photocopies them and – despite her warnings that Hamid is jealous/watching her/has contacts in British Intelligence – Pine gives a copy to a man he knows is British Intelligence in Cairo, Mark Ogilvey. Although Pine then spirits Sophie away to Luxor, where they fall passionately in love, have lots of warm weather sex etc, he returns to the apartment one day to find her brutally murdered and disfigured. Hamid caught up with her and punished her for her betrayal. A guilty, haunted man he flees to another hotel, Meister’s, far away in the Austrian Alps, where he now suffers from flashbacks of killing the IRA men and memories of murdered Sophie.

In other words, he is the stereotypical thriller protagonist – the psychologically wounded, self-pitying, hard drinking, no-nonsense, loner hero of a thousand spy novels.

Then, one day, into the Austrian hotel arrives the very Richard Onslow Roper he’d heard so much about, and his creepy entourage of accountants, fixers, bodyguards and the (inevitable) over-glamorous dolly bird, Jemima (aka ‘Jed’), who flirts dangerously with Pine. Worried they might know or discover his association with the murdered Sophie, that they might realise he knows about Roper’s activities, Pine makes his way to the British Embassy in Zurich and, after passing a message to the consul, finds himself being handed on to an Intelligence officer named Leonard Burr.

Here begins the plot proper, for Burr wants to recruit Pine and infiltrate him into Roper’s inner circle in order to nail the man who, we now have it confirmed, is a major league international arms dealer.

Exaggeration and self importance

And it’s about here that le Carré’s particularly inflated style, his mannered worldview and approach really kick in because as we find out more about them, Burr and his small team – mandarin Rex Goodhew and pipe-smoking Bob Rooke – are treated as legends in their own lunchtimes. Rex was once called ‘Whitehall’s Talleyrand without the limp’ (p.82), Bob Rooke ‘was Burr’s restraining hand, a retired soldier with grizzled hair and a rugged, weather-beaten jaw’ (p.82), ministers are always ironically referred to as ‘our masters’. The Pine Case soon becomes a ‘legendary’ business, for Roper isn’t just a criminal under investigation, he is Burr’s ‘personal Antichrist’. After all ‘there were few insiders who did not remember Burr’s vendettas’ against various crooks — in fact, Burr himself is so legendary that there are people in the Department who the narrator calls ‘Burr-watchers’ (p.86), who study and ponder his every move.

But it is not just Burr who is a legend: When the American team arrives to co-ordinate the investigation into Roper, the first to land is ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’ (p.93). Strelski’s assistant is Pat Flynn from US Customs and ‘legend attached to Flynn’ (p.94). Of course it does.

Even old Pearl, the lady who trundles a trolley with files about ‘the Antichrist’ along the dirty corridors, well, it turns out that ‘they’ – ie Burr’s legions of adoring fans – even give her wonky squeaking trolley a legendary name – ‘They called it Roper’s tumbril.’ (p.87)

Nothing goes unlegended or just simply, factually reported. When Burr gives Pine a radio to keep in touch, it isn’t referred to as a radio. It is ‘the magic box’ (p.396). Everything seems overblown, turned up too loud, exaggerated – the sense of careful detail slowly accumulated which gave the classic Smiley novels of the 1970s their plausibility, has somehow been lost.

Thus the Americans are never the Americans, nor the CIA the CIA: they are ‘our gallant American cousins’ (p.91). The illegal arms traffickers are ‘Burr’s declared foe’. The people who know about Burr’s plan are not just in the know, they are in ‘the charmed circle’. Strelski’s source isn’t just a source, he is ‘his most sacred and delicate source, and this was holy ground.’ (p.95) The civil servants at MI6 aren’t the civil servants at MI6, they are ‘the wayward barons at the River House.’ (p.101) Saddam Hussein isn’t Saddam Hussein, he’s ‘the Thief of Baghdad.’ (p.106) Sophie isn’t the girl he loved who was murdered, she is ‘his accusing angel’ (p.161). The arms dealer Roper is ‘the Roper’, if not (frequently) ‘the worst man in the world’.

When Pine stays in Madame Latulipe’s guest house in a remote Canadian town, she is of course the famous Madame Latulipe, who knows everything that goes on in the small town and who everyone knows and loves. When Pine is working as a cook in a restaurant in the Bahamas, the owner is, naturally, a legend on the island who every night performs for the rich tourists in ‘his famous black basket and riding crop.’ (p.275) Later, on Roper’s private Caribbean island, there are stories about Woody, old Woody, you remember old Woody, ‘Everybody knew who Woody was.’ (p.388). When Pine asks Corky where Roper met Jed, Corky replies: ‘Legend has it, at a French horse sale.’ (p.391) Because all these larger-than-life characters can’t move without myths and legends attaching to them.

Thus Pine, once ensconced in Roper’s circle, is less and less referred to by name, and more and more referred to as ‘the close observer’. Now it becomes clear what the whole Army and Ulster back story was for – all the flashbacks to Ulster showing us Pine lying ‘doggo’ in ditches and hides for days on end waiting for the bad guys to appear. It is to create and justify the attitude of the detached observer which is what le Carré really wants to convey: the book is less about the ‘plot’ than exploring the psychology of being ‘the close observer’ of the shenanigans of a disreputable crew, about being an ‘outsider’, a detached, trained, tough observer. And haunted.

Even when Pine is hiding out in a tiny Cornish coastal village, le Carré immediately makes it a club or school where, once again, everyone knows everyone and has jolly nicknames for each other, old William down the pub, he’s always got a tale or two worth the telling, there’s hunting and shooting and fishing, the woman he stays with is legendary, as is her randy daughter. When Jed reminisces about her youth back in Shropshire, going to horsey events, gymkhanas and such, she tells the story of a certain local named Archie because, inevitably, ‘Everyone loved Archie.’ (p.446). When Corky takes Pine on a bar crawl in Nassau, ‘Everyone seemed to know Corkoran’ (p.455). There are no anonymous characters. Everyone is famous and well-known and a legend and tells cracking jokes and the whole room explodes in jolly laughter.

The actual Britain, the country of big anonymous cities, crappy council estates, windswept shopping centres, of the millions of people who commute to jobs in factories, offices, hospitals, supermarkets, of huge alienated environments, of loneliness, is nowhere in these novels. Instead le Carré’s novels recreate again and again small, self-contained and self-important communities, awash with dashing characters who all bathe in each other’s admiration and play out their romantic and improbable plots in isolation from the rest of the world.

Public school mindset

A lot of the exaggeration is schoolboy – specifically English public schoolboy – slang, and the entire book is dogged by this tone of exaggerating, mocking, superior banter. When there’s a long pause in a phone conversation, Rex doesn’t say, ‘Leonard, are you still there?’ he says, ‘Leonard, art though sleeping there below?’ quoting the poem Drake’s Drum (1897) by the late-Victorian poet, Sir Henry Newbolt, author of the quintessential public school and Empire poem, Vitaï Lampada, with its refrain, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game.’ They’re all chaps together and they all get the same spiffing jokes and references.

In my review of Le Carré’s previous novel, The Secret Pilgrim, I pointed out how the self-congratulatory, self-mythologising tone of Ned the narrator, an about-to-retire Intelligence officer, sounded just like Mr Chips, like a senior master at a jolly public school reminiscing about some of the rags and japes he got up to as a young master, albeit tempered by more mature respect for the old school and its legendary senior masters: ‘It may have its faults, but St Bede’s is not such a terrible place, you know, I think you’re going to like it here, young Chalmondeley.’

As rugged old Bob Rooke takes the pipe from his mouth to respond to another jesting sally from the legendary Leonard Burr, the scene is straight out of the Common Room of a provincial public school, circa 1950. You expect Ian Carmichael to come running through the door, asking if any of his fellow masters can help out at this afternoon’s upper-fifth rugger match.

Thus Burr and the chaps in his close circle have the habit of referring to the bad guys not by their names but as ‘brother this’ and ‘brother that’ and the police aren’t the police, but the ‘heavy-footed brethren’. And Corky turns out to have the same habit, referring to ‘Brother Harlow’ (p.358) and ‘Brother Meister’ (p.361). When Pine thinks back to the period before the mission began he doesn’t call it the period before the mission began, he calls it ‘the days of his youth.’ (p.452). When Rex Goodhew considers his career in Whitehall it isn’t described as his career in Whitehall, it is his ‘quarter-century before the Whitehall mast.’ (p.465) The Foreign Office Registrar doesn’t have an office – he has a lair. Like a dragon in a fairy tale.

Public school slang. Self-mocking grandiosity, Latin tags and scraps of Victorian poetry – the book and its characters are saturated in it.

I was especially staggered on page 98 when Rex Goodhew ( ‘Whitehall’s Talleyrand without the limp’) is at his Whitehall club, taking a bit of chafing from the other chaps, senior civil servants, Tory MPs, you know the sort — until one of them particularly needles him and Rex replies: ‘Sheer balderdash!’— Sheer balderdash? Maybe these characters aren’t from the 1950s, they’re from the 1920s. Or the 1880s.

Public school characters

Pine is meant not to have come from a traditional professional upper-middle-class background. It is carefully explained that his father was a sergeant in the Army, who died a hero in some hush-hush operation and who Pine has always tried to live up to – and his mother died of cancer, after which he was brought up by various aunts. But when he is recuperating from a beating, he remembers the chaps ragging him at his boarding school and various beastly tricks they played on him. Jed’s voice as he lies in bed sounds like the matron. Matron? When he visits his ex-wife he remembers she’s now married to a chap who’s something in the local hunt. The local hunt? His unpublic school persona keeps slipping, to reveal the basically privileged, elite worldview of the narrator.

And the circle of bad guys he is sent to infiltrate is overwhelmingly, stiflingly posh. Roper (not a cynical arms dealer, remember, but ‘the worst man in the world’) affects an upper-class drawl. And so does his sidekick, Major Corkoran (‘I’m rooting for you. So’s the Chief. This isn’t England. Men of the world, all that.’). And Roper’s moll, Jed, is described as ‘an upper-class waif’ (p.164) who ran away from her posh boarding school, got in with a crowd of Hooray Henries in London, before being picked up by ‘the Roper’. And one of the Roper’s key associates is fellow posh British arms dealer, Lord ‘Sandy’ Langbourne and his phenomenally posh wife, Caroline. At one remove is Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw, Roper’s man on the ground in the UK (and who we were introduced to in the very last pages of The Secret Pilgrim) posh, very. All these frightfully upper-class chaps means that the majority of the conversations are in the slurred, dismissive, entitled, exaggerating tones of the very posh English upper classes. Slightly different characters, slightly different takes on it, but all within a very narrow range.

Reading this novel is a bit like being stuck in a garden party thrown by a millionaire at his Berkshire mansion during Royal Ascot: occasionally you hear the rough voices of the servants or some state school oik, but overwhelmingly the sound is of the guffawing and braying of the ruling classes behaving disgracefully. 700 pages is a long time to have to spend in their company.

Jemima, also known as Jed

‘Gosh, Arno! But, darling, you’ve lost pounds! Georgina, darling, how are you? Super! Gosh Hullo!‘ (p.404)

Daniel, Roper’s 8-year-old son, known as Dans

‘Why’s Roper in a bait with Jed?’ (p.413)

‘Corky’ Corkoran

‘Message from the Chief for you, Mr Pine. H-hour is upon us. Prepare to kiss Crystal and everybody else goodbye. Firing squad assembles at dawn.’ (p.453)

‘Sandy’ Bradshaw

‘Fuck should I take orders from you, Christ’s sake?… No executive powers, lot of wankers on the touchline.’ (p.634

‘the’ Roper

‘Whole things a stag hunt… You trek, you wear yourself out. Things pull you down, trip you up, you press on. And one day you get a glimpse of what you’re after, and if you’re bloody lucky you get a shot at it. The right place. The right woman. The right company. Other chaps lie, dither, cheat, fiddle their expenses, crawl around. We do – and to hell with it! Goodnight gang. Thanks, cook. Where’s the cook? Gone to bed. Wise chap.’ (p.562)

Was this really the face, the voice, of international arms dealing in the 1990s?

Humourless

Le Carré often has his common rooms laughing at jokes which aren’t really funny at all. Burr asks Joe Strelski to stop going for daily jogs because just thinking about it is giving his team heart attacks. ‘Everyone laughed.’ (p.94). Is it that funny? The only woman in the team running Pine is an American called Katherine Dulling but in this little self-congratulatory world she is nicknamed ‘Darling Katie’. At the one big meeting with the ‘gallant American cousins’ she accuses an attending senator of calling her a femagogue and claims she is as harmless as a mouse. ‘Jolly laughter fills the room’ (p.180). Really? That funny? (Jelly’s off p.486) In the guerrilla camp in the jungle Roper is the centre of attention and holds court at the evening, telling humourless jokes which have everyone roaring. ‘Remember Mickey?’ he asks Langbourne.

‘Oh too bloody well,’ Langbourne drawls, and once more earns the merriment of the house: these English lords, you’ve got to hand it to them! (p.560)

Funny? Nope. Like the legends and nicknames and tags, it is all exaggeration. Le Carré asserts that his characters are funny; but they never are. There’s a lot of chafing and ragging and people telling duff jokes ‘to the helpless mirth of all’ (p.560) but in fact, nobody says or does anything remotely funny in the whole 700 pages. It is a remarkably humourless book.

Pompous

In a similar gap between promise and delivery, le Carré has a regular manoeuvre of describing someone’s pronouncements (particularly Smiley’s) as profound, insightful, the fruit of years of legendary experience – but when they’re actually quoted so that we can read them for ourselves, these pithy sayings all too often turn out to be disappointments: ‘The Russians are only human, you know.’ John Sutherland, in his London Review of Books review of The Secret Pilgrim, declares that Smiley’s lectures to the young students reveal him, alas, to be a bore – ‘Like other old-boys, his speech-day truths sound pompous and self-important’. The same is true of too many of the characters in this book, as well as the smug and sentimental narrator.

Self pity

Pine’s self-pitying self-image seems scandalously overblown: repeatedly we overhear him thinking, God, I am such a tough guy, I am a loner, every woman I touch is doomed.

‘Stay away from me. I betray. I kill. Go home.’ (p.165)

‘That’s what I do for a living, he thought: I obliterate faces.’ (p.253)

And in the last few pages, despite having been beaten to a pulp, he is still self dramatising:

I kill, I do wrong, there is good and bad and I am bad! (p.706)

Must be hard being such a tough guy. And yet so sensitive. So stricken with sensitive guilt.

Catholic

But just in case the Pine character didn’t seem sufficiently self-important and doomed and tough and haunted, the narrator and character add in a dollop of Catholic guilt and Christian imagery. The night before he and Burr’s team are going to stage manage the ‘death’ of his business partner and his own flight from the little Cornish village (all part of giving Pine a convincing criminal back story for when he infiltrates Roper’s setup and they check his background), Jonathan knows that ‘the ordeal that awaited him was a mere foretaste of a lifetime of penance.’ (p.167) When he goes to see his ex-wife one last time because he knows he’s going to end up either dead or with a new identity, it is a journey ‘in search of atonement’ (p.174). He practices what he’s going to say to her until it becomes ‘a heroic song in his mind’ (p.174). Earlier in this review I quoted references to the Antichrist, to holy ground, to Sophie the accusing angel. When Pine meets  his ex briefly and they discuss her attempts to become an artist, he doesn’t make a reasonable assessment of her skills, her strengths and weaknesses, whether she had any shows or sold anything, nothing factual and, potentially, interesting – no, everything is cast in a tone of Victorian melodrama as he remembers how:

they had both worshipped her great talent, how he had abased himself in order to elevate it, cooked and carried and swept for her, believing she would paint better for his self-denial. (p.175)

At a late stage Burr discovers Joyston has been ripping off Roper, as he goes round Europe buying up illegal arms, but Burr doesn’t set about tabulating the embezzlements, he sets about ‘the length record of Joyston Bradshaw’s sins.’ (p.615) Similarly, when Jed confronts Roper with the truth of his activities as an arms smuggler, she ‘taxes him with his sins’ (p.489). When Roper takes Pine to see the actual shipment of arms in their vast containers in the port, he stands in the darkness of one of the containers surrounded by ultra modern weaponry and

He was in the presence of his own accomplishment. He was in a state of grace. (p.521)

And the last word of the whole novel is souls.

But I don’t think there’s any theology in these statements. There isn’t the slightest sense of religion or the numinous. It’s just another rhetoric, another set of tags and quotes and exaggerations, like the bits of Bible and bobs of Victorian poetry, which can be used to over-egg the situation, a self-mocking inflation of language.


Like the jokes which aren’t funny and the wisdom of Smiley which is banal and the protagonist who thinks he’s a medieval crusader but is in fact just an ex-soldier going undercover – in a similar way the narrator talks up the plots themselves in these later novels, plots which take hundreds of pages to describe and yet which, on closer examination, don’t really live up to their own billing.

The plot

Jonathan Pine is an ex-British soldier. He is recruited by a section of British Intelligence led by legendary Leonard Burr to infiltrate the social circle of British arms dealer, the Roper. They name it Operation Limpet. To build up a back story as a bit of a crook he is sent to live for a while in a small Cornish community where he makes just enough impression – especially on the good looking and willing local totty, Marilyn – before disappearing after having, apparently, murdered his partner (an actor put up to the job, just as the local police are recruited to make the whole elaborate scam look real). Then he is sent to a small town in Canada where he makes just enough impression before being chased out of town by the hotel owner where he’d been working, for seducing his beautiful and very willing daughter, Yvonne.

Then – still part of the elaborate scheme – he gets a job at a restaurant by the beach in some island in the Bahamas where Roper’s cruiser often puts in for meals. Here Burr’s team pull off an elaborate scam: on the night the Roper and his entourage dine there, the team arrange for two CIA-arranged goons to stage a phony hold-up of all the guests; the goons not only relieve the guests of all their jewellery and money but begin to make off with the Roper’s 8-year-old son, Daniel as hostage. This is Pine’s cue to intervene and heroically save Daniel. Unfortunately, the red mist descends – suddenly his mind is full of flashbacks of those IRA men through the night scope of his rifle, and the look of Sophie’s badly beaten face – and he overdoes it, breaking one of the ‘friendly’ goons’ arms, whereupon the other goon goes nuts, hammers him in the face with his gun, knocks him to the ground and kicks him in the head and balls, before they both run off.

As he lies bleeding he hears Roper and his entourage come running up and Roper ordering his sidekick, Corkoran, to ring up his private helicopter to take the man who saved his son’s life to a private hospital where his private surgeon will fix him. Thus, at around page 320, Pine has finally arrived in the Roper’s world, and his mission can begin.

Plot part two

Pine recuperates on Roper’s island in the Caribbean, observing the luxury lifestyle of posh Roper – the Roper – glamorous girlfriend Jemima ‘Jed’ Marshall, camp ex-military fixer Major ‘Corky’ Corkoran, Roper’s son by his first marriage Daniel ‘Dans’, several security guards (even the security guards have schoolboy nicknames, ‘Frisky’ and ‘Tabby’), Lord ‘Sandy’ Langbourne and an ever-changing population of the international elite, the elite of arms smuggling, that is.

His controller, Burr, told Pine on no account to break into Roper’s inner sanctum nor to have an affair with his dolly bird, Jed, but Pine, inevitably, does both. For just at this moment Jemima has suddenly realised what a crook Roper is and what a fool she’s been! And immediately responds by sneaking out of the big mansion and down to Pine’s quarters for soulful conversations and snogs. Obviously Pine has never seen a James Bond movie or he’d know that plooking the billionaire bad guy’s dishy girlfriend is always a bad idea. And he is a 1,000% aware that’s he’s repeating the pattern of Sophie – screws billionaire crook Hamid’s dolly bird; she is beaten to death: screws billionaire Roper’s dolly bird.. what do you expect?

A Darker plot

Meanwhile, a major new thread and theme emerge. The team back in London running Pine become aware that another Intelligence section, the Procurement Studies Group, run by a man named (rather ludicrously) Geoffrey Darker, has embargoed many of the files and much of the information about Roper, under the codename of an operation ‘Frigate’. It turns out, without much probing, that leading people in British Intelligence and US Intelligence are directly involved in Roper’s latest, biggest deal – the selling of a huge shipment of European, American and British arms to Colombian drug cartels in exchange for vast amounts (‘tens of tons’ p.481) of cocaine, which will be shipped back to Europe.

It’s odd this storyline, because there’s no suspense in it. After a routine meeting with ‘the Cousins’, one of them takes Goodhew for a walk down to the Embankment and there tells Goodhew to back off Roper or they’ll kill him. No suspense whatsoever. A different novel might have focused on the slow revelation of this dark secret, with an investigator peeling away layers over hundreds of pages. Here it is tossed away in a few paragraphs.

After casually blowing the secret at the centre of the story, Le Carré goes on to mention that various senior bankers and other Establishment figures are piling in to invest in the deal — the widespread corruption of the Establishment is not any kind of revelation, but a given. On page 478 the upright civil servant Rex Goodhew learns that his contact inside the Procurement Studies Group, a lily-livered, alcoholic, civil servant lawyer named Palfrey has made a gross error. Palfrey has revealed to Darker the secret that one of Roper’s associates – a Latino named Apostoll – is working for the CIA, is in fact the key source and lynchpin of the US project to penetrate Roper’s operations. And Palfrey further revealed to Darker that Apostoll was briefed specifically to blacken Corky’s name, to discredit Corky so that the infiltrated Pine will be installed in his place, thus giving Pine access to full details of Roper’s operations. In the last 100 pages Burr’s efforts to nail Darker and expose Operation Frigate become a lot more prominent in the story.

This ought to be exciting, there ought to be something at stake: but the novel fails to generate any real tension: it is much more interested in the psyche of Pine, the orphaned child and lonely watcher, the detached observer, his tortured soul and his doomed love affairs, and the garden party atmosphere of Roper’s private island, than in conventional mystery, suspense and so on.

On around page 520 Burr, who has flown to Miami to be closer to the operation he’s running, realises it is going badly wrong. First of all he is called in by ‘the Cousins’ to a crime scene packed with ambulances and cops to find that Apostoll has – almost certainly as a result of Palfrey’s blabbing – been blown, and promptly tortured to death (along with the unlucky girlfriend they found him with). Confirmation that the supposed Brit intelligence officer Darker is passing secrets straight on to Roper’s gang. And which ends the close working relationship Burr had forged with ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’.

But worse, the rattled civil servant Goodhew reveals to Burr that he tried to stir his minister to action by showing him a detailed list of all the investors in Roper’s big deal (p.528). He innocently assures Burr that he changed the page layout and implied it came from a different source, but Burr is horrified nonetheless. There was only one source list and Pine photographed it when he broke into Roper’s office and Roper’s gang will realise that immediately. Should Burr signal Pine to pull out immediately? Yes. But he doesn’t.

So the last 150 pages or so are spent wondering whether the bad guys will realise Pine is a spy sent to gather incriminating evidence and foil the scheme and, if so, whether he’ll be beaten and tortured like James Bond always is, and whether the Baddy’s moll he’s seduced, Jed, will also be roughed up, maybe staked out for the crabs to eat as in Dr No.

Deal in the jungle

Blissfully ignorant of these murky doings back in Whitehall, back in the Tropics Pine is taken by Roper, Langbourne and various fixers to locations deep in the Panama jungle. There is a guerrilla training camp run by Latinos but staffed by mercenaries from round the world – renegade Russian special forces, pissed-off Israelis, bored Europeans. Here, in a vastly improbable but typical scene, Roper holds court at the evening meal, he and Langbourne reminiscing about arms dealers they have known in their languid London clubland voices and – this is the improbable part – holding the whole room of dirty killers from the world’s warzones, holding them enthralled, ‘delighting their admirers’ and making priceless quips ‘to the helpless mirth of all’ (p.560). Even though most of them can’t speak English? Yes, because wherever le Carré’s characters go they quickly install the atmosphere of a self-congratulatory and superior staff room.

The purpose of the visit is to fly on the next day to a good imitation mockup of an airbase complete with tanks, cars and a tame plane which flies overhead, all of which are shot up and exploded by the mercenaries demonstrating the effectiveness of the weapons Roper is selling, to an invited audience of potential buyers. After the war games Roper moves among the rich guests, pressing the flesh with Pine in attendance as his new fixer. But at the end of the day everything changes. Roper receives a telegram from Bradshaw back in England, confirming the information Goodhew and Palfrey had leaked ie that Corky was framed by (the now dead) Apostoll and Pine is a spy. Pine is bundled into a car by Roper’s heavies and they all drive to the Canal Zone.

Having had the scene where the buyers view the arms, now there is a scene in a vast warehouse where Roper and  his people test the cocaine packed into innocent-looking crates labelled with coffee ads. It is the scene from a hundred drug dealer movies where the drug tester is wheeled in for one appearance, slashes packs of white powder taken from a random selection of crates, tastes it, subjects it to a few tests with his arcane equipment, and nods at the Head Baddy, getting to deliver his one, clichéd line: ‘A1 stuff’, or ‘Weapons grade’, or ‘100% pure’. Whereupon the Head Baddy nods wisely, the expert takes his wad and disappears, the two sides exchange suitcase stuffed with dollars or, in this case, sign the elaborate bills of lading and bankers drafts.

After which Pine is hustled away. He has a last few moments in a disgusting toilet where he scribbles a message, hides it in an envelope slipped into a pocket, planning to stash it with address and money to be found by whichever taxi driver drives them away from the warehouse. He knows now that Roper knows about him, and that he is going to die.

More Darker

That’s on page 587. For the next 80 pages we hear nothing more of Pine. The point of view cuts to London, to Whitehall and to Leonard Burr worrying about his agent and his operation. Over the next few days they learn that ships are leaving the docks Pine indicated and passing through the Panama Canal, ships Burr is convinced are carrying weapons to the Colombian drug cartels and cocaine to Europe. But he meets dead ends as he tries to find out more: even old colleagues say they can’t help out, as the entire operation Limpet has been sequestered by the Joint Steering Committee, under a new operational codename, Frigate.

This conflict escalates to a formal meeting of the Joint Steering Committee, attended by the Minister, at which Goodhew, defending the independence of the Enforcement side of the Department, and Burr’s Operation Limpet in particular, takes on Darker, head of Pure Intelligence, and comes as close as he can to accusing Darker of squashing the investigation.

This long scene is a set-piece depiction of a high-level Whitehall meeting where opposing views clash before an innocent Minister while we, the reader, know Darker’s agency to be actively involved in a massive crime. And Darker and his sidekick win the contest by successfully blackening Pine’s name, by reinterpreting his record as that of a psychopath fantasist who murdered two Irishmen, beat his Egyptian girlfriend to death, was seriously involved in drug running and has been trying to hawk intelligence agencies rubbish information for years. And this, they say, is the source, the evidence, the basis for arresting foreign-owned ships in international waters? Goodhew is ridiculed and in fact stalks out of the meeting. The minister is persuaded. Darker has won.

Paralleling this scene, across the pond in Florida ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’ is called in by his boss who has received much the same briefing from CIA Langley ie rubbishing Pine as a source, a scene which leaves Strelski incandescent with rage. Strelski and Burr are the good guys. They are up against profoundly corrupt organisations.

Burr’s sting

Which is why Burr, hearing about Goodhew’s defeat at the Joint Steering Committee meeting, takes matters into his own hands. He arrests the alcoholic lawyer Palfrey, and beats him up in an MoD cell until palfrey agrees tearfully to sign three phone intercepts, each to one of Darker’s offices. Then Burr drives out to Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw’s run-down country pile where he confronts him with the complete lie that Darker and his sidekicks have been arrested for treason and corruption: he makes Bradshaw phone Darker’s numbers, calls which are intercepted by Burr’s assistant, Rooke who, at the first address, impersonates the police and confirms Darker is under arrest; a further call to Palfrey himself has the wretched man quailing and reciting his lines that Darker’s under arrest, the game is up.

Burr goes on to tell Bradshaw the Americans are closing in on Roper, he expects Bradshaw himself might get off with ten years. What does he want? He wants Bradshaw to phone Roper’s yacht, the Iron Pasha and tell Roper that he will drop all charges if Roper releases Pine and the girl.

Pine in prison

On page 672, we rejoin Pine aboard Dicky Roper’s luxuriously appointed yacht, as it sets out for a cruise round the Bahamas, accompanied by various celebrity and high life guests, while Pine languishes in a secure room in the bowels of the ship being beaten to a pulp by Corky and his assistants. There are some intense pages describing Jed’s fear and guilt as she continues to perform the role of Roper’s hostess to the rich guests, and even lets him screw her every day. But all the time she is trying to find out where they’re keeping Pine and how to free him. Then there are several pages describing Pine’s state of mind, kept chained in the dungeon cabin, regularly beaten, punched, kicked, chained in agonising positions. Things look bleak for our heroes.

And then Roper is woken by the phone call from Bradshaw we saw him making under duress from Burr 30 pages earlier, the call claiming Darker has been arrested and the Yanks are onto Roper, but Burr will call all the arresting agencies off if he just releases Pine ‘and the girl’. So Jed finds herself told to dress in practical clothes and Roper orders the goons to unchain Pine, dress him in something clean; in a delirious semi-collapsed state the pair are loaded into the yacht’s dinghy and ferried over to the nearest island, presumably to contact the authorities.

Happy ending

The last chapter cuts away to a completely different scene, to the yokel-ish inhabitants of the little Cornish village where Pine had hidden out during the creation of his backstory. We don’t see or hear him or Jed, we just hear the matriarch of the village explaining to the denser inhabitants that, although it looks a bit like him, this is definitely NOT the Jack Linden who left under such suspicious circumstances all that time ago, that was explained to her very clearly by the senior policeman from Yorkshire who had a word (obviously Burr, the man whose sting appears to have freed Pine and saved his life).

The unnamed couple now living in the old cottage are going to breed horses and paint and lead a quiet uneventful life. She concludes her lecture to the yokels: ‘So I’ll trouble you never to talk out of turn again, because if you do, you’ll hurt two precious souls.’ (p.714)

What happened to Roper? What happened to the shipments of arms and drugs? What happened to Burr for breaking rules around phone tapping? What happened to Darker (did he just win?)? We are not told. All that matters is the happy couple are returned to Eden.

This is such a sentimental, consequence-free and improbably happy ending, that it brought a tear to my eye. Though whether at the Disney ending or simply from having made it through these 714 long pages, I’m not sure.


Le Carré and sex

Le Carré’s initial branding and positioning was as a gritty, realistic, street-level antidote to glamorous James Bond heroics, typified by the classic The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963) and easily contrastable with Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, published the same year. But thirty years later, le Carré is writing about a flashy international arms dealer, glamorous dolly bird on his arm, and the lone spy sent to bring him down – exactly as in a James Bond movie.

And the soulful-but-tough hero has a James Bond-like way with women as well: Pine’s ex-wife is gorgeous; he has an affair at the drop of a hat with the spirited Arab woman, Sophie; in Cornwall his strong silent good looks attract gorgeous young Marilyn; in Canada his strong, silent good looks lead to him having an affair with gorgeous young Yvonne. And once in the Roper’s circle he is immediately drawn to the flirtatious and stunningly attractive Jed, who he ends up having an affair with. Everywhere he goes women throw themselves at him.

This is pure Bond, isn’t it? Middle-aged male fantasy. And yet, the book is quick to point out, he is no normal shagger. Dear me, no. He is a soulful, sensitive shagger. A haunted shagger. A shagger with a dream of higher things.

He remembered his early women, no different from his later ones, each a bigger disillusionment than the last as he struggled to elevate them to the divine status of the woman he had never had. (p.163)

‘Divine status’? Pine is a sentimental, self-important James Bond.

But in fact everybody’s at it in this book. On the plane from his island to the mainland, we watch Roper flirt archly with the stewardess, praising her service and patting her bum. Later, at the hotel, Pine overhears Roper screwing her. Posh sidekick Langbourne is making his wife miserable by openly having an affair with the nanny; he comes down to Roper’s shack and asks to borrow his bed for some shagging. Corkoran generously informs Pine, when he first arrives on the island, that he is free to screw any of the women servants, just ‘no touchee Jed’. Corky is himself gay and free with his references to screwing and shagging and ‘having’ various partners.

Towards the end, even after they’ve had a fierce argument in which Roper doesn’t deny he’s keeping Pine prisoner and having him tortured, Jed still has sex with him. Really? And her memories are all sexual: she remembers being deflowered by a village tough, she remembers being raped by two brutes in Hammersmith, she remembers the orgies among the Hooray Henries. When he needs an example of Jed’s intuition about the atmosphere on board the ship, he cites the pretty Filipino maid and the eerie way Jed knows whether she’s been screwing the captain or the bosun or even ‘Sandy’ Langbourne. In fact, whenever a woman is mentioned in the text there is the strong possibility that it is her sexuality which will be described, humorously referred to, exploited.

If you add in Pine’s obsessive flashbacks/memories of lying next to a naked Sophie in the apartment in Luxor or, later on, his memories of Jed’s soft hands on his face (‘He remembered a morning when Jed wore a yellow blouse, and touched him with her eyes.’ p.554), the text is marinated in a particular kind of male fantasy eroticism.

Eventually, it’s hard to tell which is more tiresome, the soft porn atmosphere or the upper class banter. Both completely swamp the plot. This is le Carré for devoted fans only.


Credit

The Night Manager by John le Carré, published 1993 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1994 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 to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. 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, after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside he disobeys orders by falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • 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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