master shows how it's done
Our kind of traitor John Le Carre (Penguin €25.05)
When the Berlin Wall came down, admirers of John Le Carre's spy fiction wondered what he would do next. But Le Carre knew that there was more to international intrigue than the Cold War machinations of Smiley's People, and in the nine novels he's written in the last two decades he's turned his beady eye on everything from cynical manipulators of coups to villainous pharmaceutical companies.
In Our Kind of Traitor, he turns his attention to Russian oligarchs, specifically to Dima, a portly multi-millionaire gangster who, fearing the wrath of murderous rivals, seeks to spill the beans to the British secret service in exchange for asylum and a good public school education for his children.
He chooses as conduit an innocent abroad named Peregrine Makepiece, an idealistic young university lecturer who's holidaying on Antigua with his lawyer girlfriend Gail. Dima challenges Perry to a tennis match -- the first of three in the book -- and confides his planned scheme to him.
Perry turns out to be a shrewd choice as go-between. Although vaguely left-wing by inclination, there was, as Gail notes, "a slumbering romantic in him waiting to be woken when selfless dedication was on offer, and if there was a whiff of danger in the air, so much the better". And so he trots off to the secret service, whose operatives train both him and Gail for their role as mediators.
This involves a further meeting with Dima at the final of the French Open in Paris, an episode that allows Le Carre to eulogise at length about the artistry of Roger Federer, and it's there that Perry encounters some slippery British lawyers and politicians, including a thinly-veiled Peter Mandelson, who seem more familiar with shady Russian moguls than national interest would warrant. And the story ends in Switzerland, where the deal with Dima is to be included.
Seventy-nine years old this year, Le Carre writes with the elegance and drollery of someone half that age. The photo of a man in police custody reveals "the smashed and swollen mouth of somebody who has just made a voluntary statement"; while a venal politician possesses a "haughty sub-Byronic gaze of sensual entitlement, a pretty pout, and a posture that manages to look down on you however tall you are".
The characterisations of other figures -- notably Perry's handlers Hector and Luke -- also enliven proceedings. Indeed, the book is never less than pleasurably engrossing, though it ends rather abruptly, leaving the reader to wonder about the effect of the climactic action on some of the main players.
Not Le Carre at his absolute finest then -- not as compelling or haunting as The Constant Gardener -- but sprightly and absorbing nonetheless.