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Sunday, 19 August 2012

Book review: Our Kind of Traitor, John le Carre (2010)

A couple of days ago I reviewed a 1974 book by John le Carre and because I had enjoyed reading it so much I decided to get hold of a more recent effort by the same writer and read it. How had his writing changed over 35 years? Had it improved? Or was he just riding on the coattails of his early success? The following shows what I came up with. It contains spoilers, so be warned if you haven't read this book yet.

Our Kind of Traitor is a kind of fantasy story where a couple of average Brits - young, professional, girlfriend and boyfriend - get involved in spying. Perry Makepiece and Gail Perkins are on a tennis holiday in the Caribbean when they meet a demonstrative, rich and slightly sleazy Russian businessman named Dima Krasnov who flatters them and engages their sympathies by displaying his oddly constituted family to them. Gail and Perry volunteer their goodwill in order to help the family enjoy the island, and Gail especially tries to get to know the two little girls who are not Dima's children, and Dima's beautiful, 16-year-old daughter Natasha; Perry plays cricket with Dima's two adolescent sons. It's an affecting picture, and Dima helps the relationships along by praising Perry's British "fair play" and Gail's good looks. He invites the two to dinner at his house on the island, but then surprises them outright when he divulges that he is a player in the Russian mafia who wants to defect to the UK: his secrets in exchange for protection and a new life for his family.

Hector Meredith is the spy put in charge of the case, and he conscripts Luke Weaver, a mid-aged spy with a tendency to philandering, a wife he doesn't love, and a son. He also brings on-board a woman with access to government information, Yvonne, and a practical fellow named Ollie. It's decided that they will use Perry and Gail to extract Dima. Hector's team has come up with a number of items of information that show that Dima could be useful to HM government; as a chief mafia money launderer, Dima is privy to a collection of organisational secrets. His testimony could lead to the investigation of many British citizens, including senior Opposition party members. So Perry and Gail are shipped off to Paris to meet Dima at the French Open. The link-up with Hector takes place in the dressing room of a Paris tennis club, where Dima makes a further pitch and hands over more documents to the British spies. A plan to extract Dima and his family from Switzerland is hatched. Dima will be in the country to finalise his handover of financial responsibilities to the new oligarch, an event which he fears will lead to his death. No longer of any use to the capo, Dima fears, he will be liquidated just as his protege Misha - father of the two little girls - had been.

When Dima is snatched away from his minders by Luke, however, the oligarch and his British establishment friends begin to suspect Secret Service involvement. The family is ensconced in a Swiss chalet but the go-ahead from London, where Hector is busy trying to get approval for the relocation from the relevant authorities, is delayed more than once. Perry and Luke are getting anxious, Gail tries to keep the children occupied. Finally a partial solution is reached: Dima alone will visit London to talk with those in charge. If his information turns out to be genuine his family will follow, he's told. At the end of a final, nighttime run through the mountains Dima and Luke board a small plane that takes off. There's an explosion and all passengers are killed.

The implication is that the lure of dirty Russian money for City bankers overweighs the justice of prosecuting British citizens involved in its accumulation and use. The oligarch's friends had convinced the Service to sabotage the plane, and Dima is killed so that embarrassing British secrets are not aired publicly through the courts. It's a cynical story where Dima's dream of British "fair play" falls victim to a stronger Western appetite for economic growth. And it's a good story, well told. It appears that le Carre's talents have survived those 35 years intact, and his ability to create sympathetic and credible characters has, if anything, strengthened over the years. This is a cracking tale.

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