Wednesday, October 29, 2008

John Le Carre – Hodder & Stoughton - $38.99

Reviewed by The Bookman on Radio New Zealand National’s Nine to Noon programme, October 28.

John Le Carre, now 77 years of age, originally worked in the British Foreign Service and then in M16 as a spy. He wrote his first novel while still with M16 hence the pseudonym John Le Carre, his real name is David Cornwell. When Kim Philby, the famous British double agent defected to Russia he blew the cover on many British agents including Cornwell, so Cornwell the spy became le Carre the writer and there is no doubt in my mind that he went on to become the greatest of all spy thriller authors. with some of his titles becoming household names – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, his third novel, the one that made his reputation, was made in to a movie featuring Richard Burton as the protagonist from the novel, but then there is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People, The Little Drummer Girl, A Perfect Spy and a host of others, more than 20, many of them made into movies or television.He sets the standard for this genre.

And now along comes A Most Wanted Man and you know I have the feeling that this may be one of his very best. It is absolutely unputdownable. In the main Le Carre’s earlier books had particular emphases on the Cold War, this was after all his area of practical experience, but with the Cold War ending in the late 80’s/early 90’s his books now have a new slant.

This one for example is very definitely a post-9/11 novel set in the city of Hamburg where of course the Muslim extremist Mohamed Atta & others plotted the 9/11 attack.

The story starts with a young, tortured fugitive, half Russian, half Chechen, smuggled into the German port city of Hamburg. (Just as an aside Le Carre in his spy days worked as the British political consul in Hamburg so he is on familiar ground here). Our fugitive’s name is Issa, he seems confused and lost and he may or may not be a Muslim.
He has previously been jailed by both the Turks and the Russians who both tortured him, he escaped from both places and from Sweden but the torture seems to have psychologically ravaged him. He carries in a bag around his neck a considerable sum of money for a refugee, US$500, and a key and password to a secret account at a small private Scottish Bank based in Hamburg. This account proves to hold over 12 million dollars the proceeds of money paid to his late father who was a crooked Russian colonel and an informer for the British secret service. The money by now has been well and truly laundered. Issa doesn’t want a bar of the filthy money but he is hoping the head of the banking house whose name he has been given will help him obtain German residency and a passport so he can become a medical student.

The likeable but somewhat muddled & inept banker, with the unlikely name of Tommy Brue, has inherited the bank from his father who had made most of his money by being the banker of choice to a bunch of dodgy Russian gangsters.

The third major player in this early part of the story is Annabel Richter, a young lawyer from a prominent legal family, who works for Sanctuary North a charity that attempts to help illegal immigrants.

In addition to these three there are a number of spies, from the German, British and American intelligence agencies, supposedly working cooperatively but in fact all putting their own interests and reputations first.

Le Carre is in his element here and these characters are especially well drawn providing one with a scary look inside the workings of these secret organisations. His principal German spy, the Hamburg-based Gunther Bachmann is a really interesting, strangely likeable character and along with the three aforementioned –the fugitive, the banker and the civil-rights lawyer – you have the major players all emotionally detailed in typical superb Le Carre style.

It is a cracker of a read and I guess in the end you can read it as a straight spy thriller or as something of a moral tale with a quite scathing attack on the US approach to security in the post 9/11 world.

An extraordinary novel that I read far into the night long after others were asleep.

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