John le Carré is the preeminent spy novelist of our time, and easily my favorite writer. His more recent works are sometimes treated dismissively — primarily, it seems to me, for the sin of not precisely measuring up to his classics. But I still find him to be a marvel, every new book providing its own unique insights and pleasures. Sure, not all of his books are iconic masterpieces – they can’t all feature the devious, intricate plotting of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, or the legendary, fascinating mole-hunt of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But in my book, even “lesser” le Carré is superior: his writing never fails to thrill me, and he never stops evolving, each new work a dialogue with its era, conveying a different kind of message about its time and its people.
His latest is Our Kind of Traitor (2010), and in my book it’s not at all a lesser le Carré novel – far from it. It’s either a fantastic book, or a very, very good one that struck a particular chord with me. Either way, it’s well worth reading, and for readers unfamiliar with the author’s work, it may be a great gateway book.
The story begins with a young British couple vacationing at a tennis resort on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Perry Makepiece is an English professor: smart, fiercely competitive, an athlete and outdoor enthusiast. Gail Perkins is an up-and-coming laywer: gorgeous, insightful, spontaneous. Fate throws them into the path of Dima, a burly, gregarious Russian man with a vast retinue of friends and family always in his orbit. After Perry and Dima share an innocent tennis match, Dima and his family mysteriously insinuate themselves ever more thoroughly into the couples’ vacation. Ultimately it becomes clear that Dima – a money-launderer with inextricable ties to the brutal Russian mafia – is secretly attempting to enlist their help. Young, idealistic, reluctant but determined to do the right thing, the young couple dutifully carries Dima’s request for aid to British intelligence, thereby entangling themselves as amateur spies in an operation to save Dima, his family, and his information. But the professionals with whom they ally — including the wily mastermind Hector Meredith and his fading field agent lieutenant Luke Weaver – have an uphill bureaucratic battle to fight to pull off their daring plan.
Le Carré’s writing is as compelling as ever, from its wide-lens, omniscient openings in Antigua, to its ever closer focus on Perry and Gail, and their separate, internal struggles in the face of the decisions and sacrifices they make on Dima’s behalf. Then, just as the novel looks to be streamlining into a straightforward adventure centered on the amateurs, the viewpoint leaps to the professionals: Hector and Luke, whose backgrounds and insights peel back new layers of information. In the wrong hands, these wild viewpoint transitions would be awkward and jarring, but le Carré pulls it off, using each set of eyes to shepherd us gradually deeper into the complex mysteries of the scenario. And just when this pattern seems set to continue, the narrative surprises again, by delivering something of a created family to close out the book– two British civilians, a Russian criminal and his endangered family, and a handful of misfit spies, caught in the malicious gears of shady international powers with ulterior motives. I think this is where the book won my heart. Le Carré often delivers well developed, nuanced characters, but I can’t remember him ever assembling such a likeable team, working together under desperate circumstances – from the adventurous good samaritans Perry and Gail, to the vicious and desperate but also loyal and loving Dima, to the tilting-at-windmills Hector and the hopelessly romantic Luke. (And you can’t leave out Dima’s moody, beautiful daughter Natasha, or Hector’s brave whistle-blowing accomplice Yvonne, or, perhaps especially, the team’s ultra-competent, soft spoken utility man Ollie Devereaux – memorable figures all.) Spy stories are often filled with dubious characters of questionable morals and uncertain allegiance, and in general le Carré’s books are no exception to this rule, but in Our Kind of Traitor, he really gets behind his team of heroes, and makes you fall in love with them. You want them to succeed, and their heroics in the face of desperate circumstances are moving, suspenseful, heart-breaking, and inspiring.