It’s a Mystery: “As we say in the trade, we’re going in barefoot”
By John le Carré
David John Moore Cornwell turned 79 this year and published his 22nd novel, Our Kind of Traitor. Cornwell is, of course, better known among thriller fans as John le Carré, the name to which all others in the field are compared. Almost from the publication of his first book in 1961, Call for the Dead, he has ranked at the top of his class. That first novel introduced George Smiley, professional agent for the British Secret Service. Short, fat, perpetually middle aged, he is the decent—and therefore incongruous—spy, the antithesis of the smooth-as-silk, glamorously indecent James Bond. In le Carré’s hands, the tale of espionage became considerably more than escapist entertainment. It showed us, in human terms, something frightening and true about the world we live in. When Smiley entered the game, as it were, the days when you took your orders over a glass of port in your rooms at Oxford were gone forever. The inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, underpaid men had given way to the “efficiency,” bureaucracy, and intrigue of a large governmental department. Le Carré recently told a fledgling novelist: “Times might change, but spying will always remain the same.”
When Call for the Dead made its debut, it was hailed by many members of the British press as, “the best spy story I have ever read.” If I had a dollar for every time a book has been labeled that way in the last fifty years, I’d be retired to a Villa on the Italian Riviera. Similarly, all the authors dubbed the “new John le Carré” – said to write like him, sound like him, be as talented as him – could fill a large stadium. After the second novel starring Smiley, A Murder of Quality (1962), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) erupted upon the scene. A huge international success, this terse, chilling, and powerful story of multiple deceptions and betrayal explores the rhetoric and ethics of the Cold War. For the Circus, le Carré’s fictional equivalent of MI5, the end justifies the means, as it does for its Marxist counterparts. More bitterly, and somewhat more explicitly than the earlier novels, it again presents the secret agent in his deforming role of victim and victimizer. Between two savage bursts of gunfire at the Berlin Wall, Alec Leamas, Smiley’s colleague, plays out the essential tragedy inherent in all espionage, up to and including Our Kind of Traitor.
After The Looking Glass War (1965) and A Small Town in Germany (1968), le Carré abandoned spies for a self-consciously literary novel, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971) which was not well received. He immediately returned to Smiley, the Circus, and Cold War espionage with the dynamite Quest for Karla trilogy written during the 1970’s: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1980), the last summoning Smiley from what is termed “dubious retirement.”
These books cemented his reputation as one of the most important of the post-war English novelists. The trilogy was not exactly le Carré’s farewell to Smiley, however, who is the unifying figure in The Secret Pilgrim (1991). In the interim (1979-80), it must be noted that there was an enormously successful television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People. Alec Guinness portrayed Smiley so brilliantly, so perfectly, so absolutely on target that le Carré once confessed he was never able to see Smiley as anyone but Guinness from that point on. This makes The Secret Pilgrim all the more interesting. It’s not only Smiley’s swan song, but the dedication, “FOR ALEC GUINNESS with affection and thanks,” speaks volumes.
All of le Carré’s other novels since 1980 have broken new ground. Until now, my personal favorite was A Perfect Spy (1986). As a father-and-son story, it’s his most autobiographical, relating the extraordinary English childhood of a con man and a spy to his later success as a “perfect” double agent. When last year’s A Most Wanted Man appeared, I called it “a quintessential spy story” and declared “le Carré is at the top of his form.” Without diminishing the others, it must be said at the outset, Our Kind of Traitor is a smashing roller coaster of a thriller, part vintage le Carré, part Alfred Hitchcock. I savored every minute of it.
Our Kind of Traitor takes place more or less in the present. Characters send text messages and cannot visit the Jardin des Tuileries because Michelle Obama and her children have gotten there first. Plus, the bad guys are gangsters, flocks of bankers and money launderers, not the K.G.B. Even so, the plot involving British intelligence officers and Russian operatives has a nostalgic feel. Its depiction of two innocents caught in a web of intrigue, who find themselves forced to play a dangerous, high stakes espionage game, summons memories of the author’s most trenchant previous novels. At its best, it also evokes early Hitchcock: Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat, handcuffed together, reluctantly fighting foreign spies in The 39 Steps; Ingrid Bergman going under the sheets with Nazis in Notorious and getting Cary Grant as her reward; and the stylish North by Northwest with Grant again, as a victim of mistaken identity, and Eva Marie Saint as the cool blonde secret agent, both up against some really nasty types.
In this case the innocents are Peregrine Makepiece, otherwise known as Perry. (True to le Carré form, the derivation of Perry’s name makes for an aside of charming but monumental unimportance.) Perry is a former tutor in English literature at Oxford who has decided to ditch the groves of academe to save the world. As he confides to his lady love Gail, the other innocent in this equation,
About the only thing that would really keep me in this country is a bloody revolution.
And Gail, a sparky young barrister on the rise, blessed with looks and a quick tongue–sometimes a little too quick for her own comfort as well as Perry’s–assured him that no revolution would be complete without him. …Two people past their first youth but still in the bloom of life, Perry and Gail made a strikingly attractive pair.
They have been together for five years and have yet to get married–much to the chagrin of every male character in the book who thinks Perry better hurry up and marry her. The two have treated themselves to a Caribbean vacation, a tennis holiday at the best recession-hit resort in Antigua. Perry is an accomplished athlete, excelling in mountain climbing, cross country running, and tennis. He plays qualifiers for Queen’s and made it to the Masters, which makes him a bit of a tennis stud and gets him some heavy duty attention. Mark, the tennis pro “casually” introduces him to Dima:
A muscular, erect, huge-chested, completely bald, brown-eyed Russian man in his middle fifties. He is wearing a diamond-encrusted gold Rolex wristwatch, and gray tracksuit bottoms kept up by a drawstring tied in a bow at his midriff, topped off by a crimson blouse and leather espadrilles.
The guy is clearly a very wealthy Russian crook or Gert Frobe! Actually, Mark explains, Dima is a mega-wealthy Russian businessman, connected with several banks that have recently opened on Antigua:
“Wanna game?” Dima inquired, without taking his brown, apologetic gaze off Perry…” Mark says you play Queen’s,” Dima said, the dolphin smile still directed at Perry, the voice thick and deep and guttural, and vaguely American.
Game on. Perry wins. Dima is more than gracious in defeat because all he really wants is help defecting to England. He’ll spill some Russian underworld secrets in exchange for safety for his extended family. They are a motley crew: Tamara his half-crazed zealot wife, who looks like a charter member of the Addams brood, wears a dour expression and a “bishop-grade Orthodox cross” around her neck; their twin sons, “flaxen-haired boys chewing gum as if they hated it”; their beautiful half sister Natasha, no surprise, detested by Tamara; and two little girls, daughters of Dima’s best friend Misha, who was supposedly killed in a “car smash,” along with his wife the week before. The question becomes is Dima for real? What kind of damning information does he have access to?
Once back home, Gail and Perry find themselves getting very chummy with the British secret service, and they discover that Dima is very much the real deal. He’s involved, at the highest levels, in the money laundering that has gone on for years and reached its apex in the recession—as the banks are being saved. To hear him tell it, he is the money launderer in chief of a huge criminal enterprise, and an esteemed member of the vory, the Russian Mafia.
Gail and Perry’s contacts in intelligence are Hector, one of the Service’s top men: “He’s going to save the world before he leaves it if it kills him.” Luke, his underling, is one of le Carré’s perfect spies: a man not entirely sure of his own identity but eager to belong to something larger than himself, and really only in his element when he’s at work. And there’s Ollie, ostensibly chief cook and chauffeur – that’s ostensibly. Their code names: Tom, Dick and Harry. Gail and Perry: code names Doolittle and Milton. Hector’s advice to the duo as they are about to shepherd Dima’s sullen progeny around Europe: “So lean back, think of England, don’t maunder and don’t fuck up.”
Here, need I say it, is when the going gets good, Mr. le Carré has his tongue firmly in his cheek. Take Dima’s invitation to tennis:
“We play,” he says stating a proven fact. “Club des Rois. Tomorrow twelve o’clock. I book already. Get a fucking massage after…. Number six court. The best. Play an hour, get a massage, lunch after. I pay.”
Over dinner Hector returned to the precise wording of Dima’s invitation. “So we’re assuming that the message is in the massage, he said.
“The massage was practically part of the challenge,” Perry agreed.
“Sticks out a mile to me. How many times?”
“Three,” said Perry. “Three messages about the massage.”
And on the Service’s word:
Perry finally lifted his head.
“Save England how? From what? All right, from itself. What bit of itself?”
Now it was Hector’s turn to reflect. “You’ll just have to take our word for it.”
“Your Service’s word?”
“For the time being, yes.”
“On the strength of what? Aren’t you supposed to be the gentlemen who lie for the good of their country?”
“That’s diplomats. We’re not gentlemen.”
“So you lie to save your hides.”
“That’s politicians. Different game entirely.”
Fun aside, le Carré is right on the money, so to speak, when it comes to the vory and international banking. The narrative conspiracy is that drug money saved the banks in a global crisis (a conspiracy very much in the real headlines in England in 2009).
John le Carré’s prose is peerless. He is a master at plotting the perfect suspense story: in Our Kind of Traitor there is danger, triple double crosses, and grisly revenge, all served up with a delicious, gentlemanly veneer of sophistication. As for the ending, well, I repeat, it plays out the essential tragedy inherent in all espionage.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.