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Posts Tagged ‘Our Kind of Traitor’

Word is that Moscow Central has put out a hit on the colonel who defected to the U.S. this past summer and then allegedly blew the covers of the Russian spy ring that included a flame-haired party girl.

It is, news anchors have been quick to point out, like something out of a John le Carre thriller. Yes and no. Yes, in that le Carre has always been best with Russian adversaries, especially when terms like “moles” and “double agent” are in play, and betrayal is his favorite theme. No, in that le Carre despises U.S. intelligence and his turncoat colonel would be whisked to safety by the British Secret Service. Unless, of course, the whole thing is a cover story, or a cover-up, by MI5, who are using the Americans to their own ends, and the party girl is actually the former lover of a both a powerful MP and a naive British diplomat. Or something even more complex.

As proof, we have Our Kind of Traitor, le Carre’s best book in years, although not up there with those of the Smiley/Cold-War era. But at least readers are spared the partisan rants, unsympathetic characters and Third World woes of recent novels that have beeen more earnest than entertaining.

The layered narrative begins somewhat slowly with a tennis vacation in Antigua, where young Brits Perry and Gail, a professor and a lawyer, become entangled in the affairs of the outsized Russian businessmen/crook Dima and his large family. Almost before they know it — as they later recount to British intelligence — Perry and Gail have been entrusted by the world’s No. 1 money launderer to negotiate his safe passage to England, where his sons will go to Eton, Dima will reveal his secrets, and all will live happily-ever-after. Oh, if it were only that simple.

But events soon become deliciously complicated as le Carre flexes his storytelling muscles and introduces some characters that might well have worked at the Circus in the old days: Hector, the veteran, flamboyant spymaster and loose cannon; his trusted lieutenant, Luke, loyal to the Service if not his wife; Ollie, the best back-door man in the business; Yvonne, demure, clandestine researcher; and ambitious Matlock, who the others must convince of Dima’s worth. With idealistic, athletic Perry and the smart, secretive Gail as go-betweens, it will be a barefoot operation — no logistical support, deniability all around — at the French Open in Paris, then Berne and the Swiss countryside. Dima’s criminal cohorts have him under tight surveillance and a probable death sentence. One errant text message, or misplaced memory stick, or nosy train conductor, and the whole thing could blow up. And that’s even before the warring factions of intelligence and London finance decide to referee.

Le Carre’s writing is fluid, his pacing nimble, his comparison of tennis to the great game apt and timely. Yes, he’s done the money-laundering thing before (Single & Single) and the innocents abroad (The Night Manager), the Swiss and all their rules (Smiley’s People), the entire hall of mirrors (20 previous espionage novels). But that’s what makes Our Kind of Traitor vintage le Carre — and my kind of thriller.

Open Book: A good friend gave me John le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor (Viking) for my birthday. Thanks, Dean.

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