Serious readers know the exquisite thrill of discovering that a writer whose work you esteem and enjoy has returned to top form.
With his 22nd novel, Our Kind of Traitor, John le Carré — our greatest living master of espionage fiction — definitely is back at the top of his form, which is a heady place to be, indeed. The author, who turns 79 this month, is actually David Cornwell; le Carré — in literal French, "the square" — is a wry pseudonym, since there are no true right angles in his fiction, even when there seem to be.
It's convenient to classify him as a writer of espionage fiction, because most of his protagonists are spies or people whose lives somehow have been redirected by contact with the secret world. In fact, he is one of our great writers of moral ambiguity, a tireless explorer of that darkly contradictory no-man's land that spread out during the last phase of the Cold War — when both sides had surrendered their illusions about themselves — and of the inchoate, fragmented geography created by the East Bloc's sudden implosion.
Though intelligence professionals tend to rate le Carré as a favorite novelist because they find his descriptions of their "tradecraft" so true to life, in recent years he has been quick to minimize the scope, if not the influence, of the time he spent spying for both Britain's domestic intelligence agency, MI5 — while a student at Oxford — or for MI6 abroad in Bonn and Hamburg during the most frigid years of the Cold War. "In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer," he has written. "I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British intelligence."
Cornwell/le Carré also had the triumphant good fortune to be one of those writers who — like Conan Doyle with Holmes — created a character who remains immovably lodged in his readers' imaginations and against whom all his future characters are bound to be compared. His conflicted, self-doubting but preternaturally skilled British master spy, George Smiley, is one of late 20th century English fiction's most memorable characters.
Our Kind of Traitor brims with deftly drawn characters navigating a treacherously uncertain landscape that seems ripped from yesterday's papers and re-created with an absolutely certain hand. Perry Makepiece is an Oxford don bored with his field, English literature, who also happens to be a top-notch sportsman: tennis, mountain climbing, running. His girlfriend, Gail Perkins, is a quick-witted, rising young barrister, as the British call their trial lawyers. While they are enjoying a resort holiday in Antigua, the hotel tennis pro arranges a match between Perry and a local Russian emigre, Dima, who has a great serve and is "a muscular, erect, huge-chested, completely bald man wearing a diamond encrusted gold Rolex wristwatch . . . "
The on-court match blossoms into a social invitation, and Perry and Gail soon meet Dima's wife, Tamara, their twin sons and a beautiful teenage daughter, as well as two young girls who are the daughters of one of Dima's associates killed a week before in a mysterious "car smash." It emerges that Dima isn't just a rich man with ties to several dubious Caribbean banks: He's the money launderer par excellence for the Russian mob. More than that, he is a survivor of more than a decade in the old Soviet gulag, but tied to the "Seven Brothers," who are oath-bound to preside over the murderously turbulent Russian underworld.
He also wants to defect to British intelligence and passes a note to Perry: "Dmitri Vladimirovich Krasnov, the one they call Dima, European director of Arena Multi Global Trading Conglomerate of Nicosia, Cyprus, is willing to negotiate through intermediary Professor Perry Makepiece and lawyer Madam Gail Perkins mutually profitable arrangement with authority of Great Britain regarding permanent residence all family in exchange for certain informations very important, very urgent, very critical for Great Britain of Her Majesty."
Perry and Gail soon find themselves working with Hector Meredith, a senior intelligence operative, and his field operative, Luke, who is one of le Carré's wonderfully realized spies. Hector, it begins to emerge, may have his own reasons for wanting to engage Dima, and it just may be that this potential defector's secret is too big for anybody to comfortably or safely handle.
Perry and Gail, meanwhile, are enthralled by the secret world, but perhaps are in over their heads. As one official tells them, "Catch the minnows, but leave the sharks in the water. A chap's laundering a couple of million? He's a bloody crook. Call in the regulators, put him in irons. But a few billion? Now you're talking. Billions are a statistic."
The breakneck pace of le Carré's narrative in the race to see whether Dima and his family will find safe haven never falters, nor does the author's evocation of the contemporary immorality of international finance.