Our Kind of Traitor
John Le Carrė
Le Carrė's British spy world looks a bit different after the end of the Cold War. Le Carrė is 80, Berlin now is the subject of cool travel magazines rather than the battleground of the Cold War, Britain's importance in the global spy market is a bit long in the tooth. But Our Kind of Traitor proves there is no questioning the competence of this man in writing suspenseful thrillers.
This time the context is the global financial markets and the dubious antecedents of the immense amounts of money that drive it. The Russian mafia has its tentacles everywhere, including the Mumbai stock market and the high end British banking establishment. And the opposition is a maverick spy with a conscience in MI6.
Dima is the Russian money launderer who wants to come in. And his choice of the messenger is downright strange. Perry and Gail. The blonde and beautiful Oxford professor of English and his equally blonde and beautiful girlfriend lawyer. Or barrister as the English say. They are on a tennis holiday (who goes on tennis holidays???) in the Caribbean when the Russian with his sons, daughters, his second wife and his bodyguards accosts them with a proposal that has them scurrying to the British spy system. It makes Perry and Gail enter the shadowy world, eager to escape their more mundane existences; and we the readers get to see this new murky world through the eyes of excited newbies.
The spies are Luke and Hector. Luke is the background man, the spy we see in all of Le Carrė's fiction, a quiet ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances fighting a war far bigger than his personal exigencies. Hector is the man running this particular show, a maverick in the system, out to nail the ones who make a mockery of the system. All a tad old-fashioned in the new world order driven by politics and money.
The gift is in the narrative. And the precision of the characterisation. We are drawn into the Luke and Hector narrative, men with personal foibles and problems, yet driven to their dangerous jobs with a sense of something bigger than themselves. Nothing pretentious or jingoistic, just some good old-fashioned British understated sense of fair play.
Le Carrė's signature was his injection of moral ambiguity into the spy thriller. His world was never a James Bond like evocation of sheer evil and implausible good. The moral ambiguity is alive and kicking here as well, where political expedience fights and wins against personal morality. That is Le Carrė's lasting legacy. And in his later novels, these become more pronounced - institutional corruption and governments doing wicked things are becoming more the norm rather than the exception. It is reflective of a less innocent world than the one Smiley encountered.
Our Kind of Traitor has its low moments - Perry and Gail's initial encounters with Dima are terribly drawn out and boring. But Le Carrė makes up for it as the story goes along, gaining tautness and a dark foreboding sense of menace. There is truly no greater pleasure than surrendering yourself to the competent hands of a master storyteller.