Our Kind of Traitor – John Le Carre

Setting: The action moves from the Caribbean, to Britain, France and Switzerland.

Story: Perry (a teacher) and Gail (a barrister) are taking a break in Antigua, when they meet Russian ‘businessman’ Dima. Dima challenges Perry to a game of tennis as the first concrete step the Russian takes in trying to contact British Intelligence, the goal being to inform on his criminal co-conspirators. Perry and Gail return to Britain and are thrust into roles at the sharp end of a modern spy adventure. The spooks – complete, of course, with factional infighting – play the game through the newly recruited Gail and Perry, as Dima tries to plot the escape of him and his family without tipping off his deadly enemies. He has a little time, but will it be enough? Will the fair-play Brits come through for him?

Good Stuff: There’s a distinct impression of Le Carre enjoying himself, here. It’s an environment he is completely at home in, and the prose flows beautifully. He knows these people.

He knows Perry:

Last term he had delivered a series of lectures on George Orwell under the title ‘A Stifled Britain?’ and his rhetoric had alarmed him. Would Orwell have believed it possible that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addiction to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement, were happily in place in 2009?

Receiving no response from the blank student faces staring up at him, he had supplied it for himself: no, Orwell would emphatically not have believed it. Or if he had, he would have taken to the streets. He would have smashed some serious glass.

He knows Gail:

It was unclear to Gail why she was doing the lion’s share of the talking. While she spoke, she listened to her voice rattling back at her from the brick walls of the basement room, the way she did in the divorce courts where she currently had her professional being: now I’m doing righteous indignation, now I’m doing scathingly incredulous, now I sound like my absent bloody mother after the second gin and tonic.

He knows Dima:

‘You’re a goddam fair-play English, hear me, Professor? You’re a goddam English gentleman, like in books. I love you, hear me? Gail, come over here.’ For Gail the embrace is even more reverent – and cautious, for which she is grateful. ‘You take care this stupid fuck, hear me? He can’t play tennis so good, but I swear to God he’s some kinda goddam gentleman. He’s the Professor of fair play, hear me?’ – repeating the mantra as if he has just invented it.

To add to the fine central characters (and there are others), Le Carre releases the storyline with carefully measured, firm and resolute steps. Like an experienced fisherman slowly reeling in his catch, Le Carre draws the reader in to this world. And while there is action and suspense, there are no high tech gadgets upon which the story depends, nor near impossible feats of athleticism.

Le Carre also does a super job of making the spooks, and the world they live in, believable. And so British. (Maybe that should be English.) Given Britain’s rank in the world of today, and its secondary status alongside the real superpowers, Le Carre creates a niche for the Whitehall mandarins that gives them a chance to reprise their earlier role of major players in the spy game.

Not So Good Stuff: There are one or two loose ends. It may be that they are deliberate, and intended to deliver a message beyond my powers of understanding. Or it may be that they are not loose ends at all, and I have missed the explanation. But, they are very minor and of no consequence.

Score: 8/10

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