British writer David Cornwell, who for decades has published under the pen name John Le Carré, is the indisputable master of espionage fiction. Le Carré fans find his portrayals of the spy trade to be impeccably authentic. His experience in Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, while a student at Oxford and his later employment by MI6 in Germany during the height of the Cold War have equipped him well for the creation of fictional spies. Above all, these experiences allowed him to witness first hand the moral ambiguity inherent in espionage, a characteristic that he would masterfully depict in his fiction.
Yet in an interview Le Carré pointed out that first and foremost he has always been a writer. “In the old days,” he explained, “it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. 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.”
Le Carré’s latest offering – his 22nd novel, Our Kind of Traitor – proves that he is still at the top of his game. The novel’s deftly drawn characters will remain with the reader long after the book is closed. There is Perry Makepiece, an Oxford don in his early 30s, who is already bored with his field, English Literature. An avid athlete, he plays tennis at a professional level. Perry’s girlfriend of many years, Gail Perkins, is an intelligent, witty, rising young London barrister. The two jet off to a resort on the Caribbean island of Antigua for a week of sun, surf, fine dining, and – above all – tennis.
The hotel tennis pro arranges a match between Perry and another resort patron, a Russian émigré named Dima who turns out to have a killer serve. Le Carré describes Dima: “…a muscular, erect, huge-chested, completely bald man wearing a diamond encrusted gold Rolex wristwatch…”
Despite his intimidating demeanor and poor command of English, Dima befriends the young British couple, inviting them to meet his wife Tamara, their twin sons, and an attractive teenage daughter, as well as two little girls who are the offspring of one of Dima’s associates killed a week earlier in a mysterious “car smash.”
Early in the narrative we learn that Dima isn’t just a flamboyant rich man with ties to dubious Caribbean banks; he is the leading money launderer for the Russian mafia. One of the many ways in which Dima launders money accrued illegally is by operating “black” hotels. Opulent resort hotels, lavishly landscaped and dotted with majestic fountains, exquisitely furnished right down to the last bedspread, are built along a sea coast in a warm climate. They are staffed and their bookkeeping departments keep meticulous records. However, not one guest ever checks in. The bushels of money these places should have taken in are deposited – along with copies of receipts – in banks all over the world. After a few years of operation, a black hotel might be put on the market for sale. And because it would be in pristine condition, never having been inhabited, it would be sold on very profitable terms.
In these and other underground operations on behalf of the Russian mob, Dima is shadowed by the “Seven Brothers,” a ruthless group that presides over the murderous Russian underworld and it international alliances. Increasingly, he is falling out of favor with the malevolent and vicious Seven Brothers.
No wonder that Dima wants out. At the core of the novel is his wish to defect to British Intelligence in exchange for England’s permission for him and his extended family to reside permanently in England. He passes an astounding note – written in his pidgin English – to Perry, a missive meant to be delivered to the British Secret Service:
“Dmitri Vladimirovich Krasnov, the one called Dima, European Director of Arena Multi Global Trading Conglomerate…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.”
Furthermore, Dima stipulates that Perry must be present for each negotiation related to the exchange. When Perry and Gail return to London, they deliver Dima’s letter to the British Intelligence Office. A mysterious phone call then directs them to the basement of a non-descript terrace house in Bloomsbury. Here they meet British spy operatives and are questioned relentlessly about their experiences with Dima and his hangers-on. One of their interrogators is a field operative named Luke. He is not only a deftly drawn character, but arguably the most appealing of all the book’s fictional people.
Early in his career, La Carré created master spy George Smiley, certainly one of English fiction’s most memorable characters. In Luke he conjures another unforgettable spy, one who resembles Smiley in his deep-seated decency. Yet, like Smiley, Luke is, at the same time, a flawed and guilt-ridden man.
Looking very much like a “gentleman jockey,” 43-year-old Luke possesses a wandering eye when it comes to women and “an armory of upper-class charm.” It emerges that he is long-married, rather unhappily, and the father of a 10-year-old boy whom he does not know how to parent. He has recently returned from a lengthy assignment in Bogotá, Colombia, where he underwent torture and imprisonment in a jungle stockade. He regrets the extra-marital philandering that was an element of his tenure in Bogotá.
Le Carré conveys the fact that Luke is good at his job, particularly excelling at parrying questions during key interrogations. Luke’s boss sends him to Paris and on to Switzerland to take his place in the Secret Service contingent shadowing Dima in the final days before the defection takes place. Luke finds out that a man named Aubrey Longrigg, until recently a member of the British Parliament, is not only involved with Dima’s enterprises, but is engaged in nothing less than treason. Luke vows to “nail Longrigg to the mast.” Longrigg’s betrayal of the British economy so offends Luke that he begins to have sincere patriotic thoughts, even admitting to himself that he loves the secret service: “The Service was his mother and father and his bit of God as well, even if its ways were sometimes imponderable.”
When the moment of the actual defection takes place, when the “Crown Witness” is to fly from Switzerland to England, Luke is adamant that Perry and Gail not accompany Dima on the flight. As La Carré puts it, “…untrained, enthusiastic amateurs flying escort with a high-value defector simply didn’t fit into [Luke’s] professional scheme of things.”
Le Carré’s narrative never falters. Loose threads are tied at the end, yet the suspense and excitement prevails to the final period.