"Our Kind of Traitor: A Novel" by John le Carre
By John Le Carre Viking, $27.95, 310 pages
From our current cadre of fabulous novelists working in English, I would suggest immortality for John le Carre, who I believe one of the most intelligent and entertaining writers working today. Are you listening, all you gods who can make this work? Just look at what he has given us since he left the British spy service and began to write novels about the Cold War including "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "The Honourable Schoolboy," which are all books that stand out for their cool style and enlightening subject matter. Of course when the Cold War wore out, Le Carre's productions wobbled a little as he searched for new subject matter. Then he found his niche in informative fiction about the changing and transformed political conditions in international politics and finance: "The Little Drummer Girl: A Novel," "The Constant Gardner: A Novel," "A Most Wanted Man," and others.
Will future generations of readers want to take up these books? I can't say. I have been so busy keeping up with his present output, which is so sturdily made that you march relentlessly through the pages and wait dutifully at the end of the book for the next one to appear.
"Our Kind of Traitor," his latest contribution, has, as his best books do, kept me looking to the present. It opens in a slightly out of the way location, a Caribbean island getaway, with a mostly unlikely event, a tennis match between Perry, a youngish former Oxford don and, as we soon discover, one of the kingpins of the Russian mafia.
The don has a great serve.
The Russian money-launderer (his illicit international specialty) has a great return.
The match ends but as it turns out the game has only just begun. The Russian, a physically powerful man with a limp and an overbearing personality, draws the suave professor into a plan for defecting to the west and saving his family's lives in the process. The British spy service, which has been watching these moves, draws the don and his attractive girlfriend into the plan to evaluate, and work with, the Russian.
The transformation of the English couple, don Perry and lawyer girlfriend Gail, from ingenues to full blown participants in an espionage operation holds the book together rather tightly. The plot keeps you wondering enough so that midway through the novel you really don't know how it is all going to turn out. Even a page away from the end you think you know how it is all going to turn out, but you will only have your expectations completely overturned. At the end, the story widens from a focus on trade-craft to a deep glimpse of the moral depravity that lurks behind the engines of government.
Le Carre's style in this venture seems to accommodate, as we hear them described, both approaches presented by the intelligence officer who trains Perry and Gail for their great adventure with the Russian Mafioso's entourage - and his enemies. The spy rallies "his facts and observations," we hear, "presenting them with all the accuracy and precision he can muster. But nothing can quite douse the glint of excitement in his eyes, or the flush of his gaunt cheeks...And perhaps the self-editor in him is aware of this, and troubled by it: which is why, when he resumes, he selects a staccato, almost offhand style of narrative more in keeping with pedagogic objectivity than the rush of adventure."
The rich, thick mix of this blended approach to telling a modern spy story gives Le Carre's new book a place among his best. Chicanery and larceny never sleep. May he write forever! But if the man doesn't last, future generations will want someone like him, that's for sure.