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Le Carré's mission keeps changing, but not his mastery

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By Dennis Drabelle
Monday, October 11, 2010

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR

By John le Carré

Viking. 306 pp. $27.95

No shortcuts for John le Carré. The acknowledgments at the end of his splendid new novel indicate that in writing it he consulted experts on the Russian mafia, the Mumbai stock market, tennis, Swiss geography and several other topics. The guidance he received, combined with his longstanding knowledge of spycraft and the British Secret Service, makes for a tale that rings with authenticity at every stage.

The protagonists are three: Perry Makepiece, an Oxford tutor on the verge of switching to the more demanding job of secondary-school teacher; his girlfriend, Gail Perkins, a young hotshot lawyer; and Dima, a loud, bearish Russian whom they meet while on holiday at a Caribbean tennis resort. Dima first challenges Perry to a match, then yanks the couple into his boisterous family circle, and finally divulges his ulterior motive in coming on so strong. He has been laundering money, a trade he would like to drop -- except that he knows so much, including facts that would incriminate a high official of the British government, that he believes his life is in danger. Surely, he presumes, an Oxford don and a rising barrister can put him in touch with the right parties to help him make a safe exit and put down new roots in England.

And in fact, Dima has chosen well. Perry and Gail are indeed well-connected, and Dima's story captivates them both. Gail has another incentive for coming to his aid: her blooming friendship with Dima's troubled teenage daughter, Natasha. The action now shifts from Antigua to London, where Perry and Gail get a thorough grilling on exactly how the overture was made, what they think of Dima, and whether they are willing to continue serving as go-betweens. Their interrogators are Hector, a rogue agent who washed out of Her Majesty's employ some years back but has been rehired after making a fortune as an investment banker; and Luke, whose womanizing has nearly destroyed his career and for whom this case is a last chance to redeem himself.

Le Carré supplies credible backgrounds and motives for all five main characters. Luke in particular exerts a complex appeal. His disgrace stems from his folly in sleeping with the boss's wife at his last overseas posting. Luke loves his own wife, wants to do well by his son, but has a habit of falling in love with attractive women, who tend to return the favor. Since Gail is a knockout, Luke must patrol his own libido while balancing Dima's demands against Britain's needs.

Hector also bears watching. His bumptious candor can be disarming, as when he explains what's being asked of Perry and Gail: "Are you as a couple, attracted to the idea of doing something . . . dangerous for your country, for virtually no reward except what is loosely called the honour of it, on the clear understanding that if you ever bubble about it . . . we'll hound you to the ends of the earth?" But often Hector seems overly sure of himself, so hard-charging as to awaken forebodings in the reader.

Le Carré pulls the various threads together cunningly. Hector and Luke must extract enough preliminary information from Dima to convince their superiors that he will be valuable to them; Dima has to worry about giving away too much before he's sure that he and his family will be given sanctuary; Perry and Gail have to keep both sides happy -- and Natasha complicates matters by getting pregnant and refusing to confide in anyone but Gail. Nonetheless, everything seems to be falling into place -- until the spy bureaucracy threatens to ruin the deal.

Le Carré will turn 80 next year, and he's written a score of novels. Some of his later works have suffered from tendentiousness (his characters' objections to U.S. foreign policy can sedate even readers who agree). Perhaps his main fault as a novelist, however, has been a certain muddiness in the narration. The otherwise admirable "Absolute Friends" (2004) struck me that way: a novel in which the author's storytelling skills did not quite measure up to the depth of his vision. Happily, nothing of the kind mars "Our Kind of Traitor." There are no speeches or convolutions, not even when, toward the end, le Carré ratchets up the suspense by cutting quickly from Dima to his handlers to Perry and Gail. The denouement comes as a shock, but not an unjustified one.

With so many other le Carré novels to compare this one with, one hesitates to give it a ranking. But if we narrow the time frame and widen the scope, I have no hesitation in saying this: If a better thriller than "Our Kind of Traitor" has been published this year, I'd like to see it.

Drabelle is mysteries editor of Book World.


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