After several globe-trotting excursions, including The Little Drummer Girl (1983), The Russia House (1989) and The Night Manager (1993), John le Carré got back to basics in this very compact spy novel which doesn’t set foot outside UK until the very end. It tells the story of Tim and Larry, two men bound by their past working for British intelligence but who, after being let go, are supposed to be living civil civilian lives in Somerset. But Larry just isn’t the quiet type and when he goes missing, Tim and his girlfriend Emma are dragged back into his old life …
I offer this review for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at her fab Pattinase blog.
“To kill without being killed is an illusion”
This is a very small-scale novel – our only point of view is that of Tim Cranmer, and our experience of the other two main characters is filtered entirely through him. But just how reliable a narrator is he? There is in fact a terrific twist about 100 pages in that really changes how we fell about the central character dynamic. The use of a strict point of view is very impressive and, when we learn that Tim’s girlfriend Emma has abandoned him for his oldest friend Larry, this starts to feel more like a Philip Roth tale of a man having a mid-life crisis than a spy caper as we experience his sense of loss, rage, jealousy and disappointment.
“Planned apathy is the best description I can think of: act natural and look the other way while the ethnic cleansers do their hoovering and restore what politicians call normality.”
Despite the male menopausal angst, which is brilliantly caught (and frankly gave me chills for its accurate dissection of what can happen when you start to question just where you are once youth is definitely behind you), this is a very typical work of its author. With its background in espionage and its ultra topical plot (involving the struggle of the people of Inigushetia within the new Russian Federation, the book completed just before the first Chechen War exploded), this acts as a very clear distillation of the classic le Carré scenario: we have two spies, one of whom is at odds with his own masters and the other a double agent, and a woman caught in between. This can be seen in most of the author’s books, from such early triumphs as Call for the Dead (1961) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) through to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) and The Little Drummer Girl (1983) and such later classics as A Perfect Spy (1986) and The Russia House (1989), and it is fascinating to see how in some the double agent, ostensibly therefore a traitor, is so often not the villain of the piece.
“Only by going after Larry could I fill that pit that for so long had done duty for my soul.”
So what kind of book is this exactly? Spy story, adventure novel, topical political rant, male menopause psycho drama, or all of theses combined? In terms of influences, Joseph Conrad gets name checked directly with a reference to Lord Jim, though Heart of Darkness is also a major influence as Tim is ultimately driven to leave everything behind in England and penetrate a foreign and mysterious land to find both Larry, amid a trail of bodies, missing millions and a conflict going back centuries and, or course, himself. Because what becomes clear as we progress is that these two friends / rivals are like two parts of an Aristotelian whole – Tim was the dull, dark encrusted oyster and Larry the shiny bauble inside. In this regard, with its story of two men and the woman between them involved in a political conflict and with one seemingly betraying the other, there is also very strong evidence of the influence of Graham Greene, most especially his 1955 masterwork, The Quiet American. Indeed, this novel really might have been better entitled The Quiet Englishman as the debt is very marked. But this is no criticism – le Carré handles his characters masterfully and his dialogue scenes are just as riveting as his plot. The story does slow down a bit as Tim closes in on Larry, but the ending is entirely satisfying so that this ultra-focused tale of old spies and international chicanery impresses from start to finish with its vivid scene-setting, end of Empire atmosphere of dusty decay and some very effective change of gears that keeps you glued to the page as the author, while seemingly drifting occasionally, proves that actually he never loses his tight grip on the plot.
Sounds good and I have ta copy of this, boxed up. Somewhere. I will get to it at some point but as I’m slowly and very occasionally working my way through the Karla trilogy (I finished off The Honorable Schoolboy back in the autumn) I want to read Smiley’s People before I tackle more le Carre.
That sounds very sensible to me -Reading his books in order is not a bad idea, even non series ones
It’s not a rule I cling to at all costs but those three books do go together – bit of a slog though, if I’m being honest.
I am a big fan of le Carre in general, but not especially of the Karla trilogy to be honest (Julian Symons found them overlong and a bit tedious and I tend to agree) and prefer the earlier Smiley books – I much prefer Call for the Dead and its sequel, Spy Who Came in from the Cold (in which Smiley barely appears, admittedly)
Well, with two of the three books under my belt, I think I’d probably agree with you and Symons – I like to keep good company. 🙂
The other le Carre stuff I’ve read so far worked much better, and more concisely, for me.
It is a minority view, and now le Carre I have read is without real merit (though I have managed to avoid THE NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL LOVER – of if I ever did read it have removed it from my poor vary …)
I think he writes exceptionally well and with feeling – it’s just some of the larger volumes are just that, large.
Yup! Mind you, my original paperback edition of NIGHT MANAGER is over 700 pages but the new Penguin is a much slimmer 400 …
700 pages is… considerable. I haven’t read that but I’m assuming there’s a fair bit of story to tell in that one.
Yeah but they also used a big font. I guess they wanted to look like a King-size blockbuster!
Hmm, I’m not sure I like that approach. Tiny fonts are annoying but those blown up ones being used just to make a book look bigger get me a bit too – I mean it’s a book, not a sack of potatoes!
Well, I guess when paperbacks got more expensive it was about giving the impression of more bangs for your bucks?
Almost certainly. The thinking behind it, form both publishers’ and consumers’ perspectives rankles with me though. I remember someone, a reader anyway, saying that she felt a book was poor, not because of the quality of writing, plotting, the characterization – no, because there were too few pages in terms of what she’d paid!
That is absurd and yet I know plenty of people who think like that. Shame, innit?
You could probably develop some sort of thesis on the perversion of value and values in modern life based on such thinking. 🙂
“Dense vs thick: an exploration of defoliant tendencies in paperback publishing in the pre ebook era” – I could do that …
That’s a catchy title anyway. It would fly off the shelves I tell ya!
Hell Yeah! 😉
That’s le Carré for you, Sergio. Such a master plotter, and very good at presenting real characters, with flaws, strengths, and angst. Interesting, too, how he can go from sprawling to compact; plenty of authors can’t do that. Thanks, as ever, for the excellent review.
Thanks Margot – I think he really is in a class of his own now.
This is a title I was not familiar with and I am glad you reviewed it, Sergio. I will have to be on the lookout for it, it sounds like my kind of book.
I would have to concur 😉
I came to this one rather late in the day and thought it was going to be yet another example of male bonds broken – something le Carre is very good at but has done several (many) times before. I was, however, quickly hypnotised – as usual – by le Carre’s prose and apart from what seemed to be a bit of a rushed ending, this was vintage stuff although still not as good a A Perfect Spy in my not-so-humble-opinion.
Thanks for that Mike 🙂 I suspect A PERFECT SPY, because of its strong autobiographical elements, will always be impossible to top one way or another – though I really rate THE CONSTANT GARDNER.
I’ve read most of Le Carre’s spy novels and enjoyed them. I’ve listened to audio books that Le Carre has narrated. The man’s voice and performance are brilliant!
Thanks for that George – I have not heard any of those audio books.
Great review Sergio. OUR GAME might not be one of the most well known Le Carre novels but I really enjoyed it. I am surprised that it hasn’t been given the television series treatment. Maybe after the success of THE NIGHT MANAGER it will happen.
A patently Coppola briefly toyed with producing an adaptation …
Excellent review, Sergio. I’m a little behind on my le Carre–quite a bit, actually, and this just might be the one to jump back in with.
Thanks Matt – really hope it does the trick 🙂
Like Matt, I’m behind on le Carre too. I like the way he makes his characters realistic and jump out at you as you read, and often filled with angst.
Hope you get round to it Prashant
I’ve read a fair amount of le Carre but this one has passed me by completely, don’t think I’ve heard of it – but it sounds excellent, just the kind of thing I like. I’m off to look it up and probably order it.
Ah, well, hope it stands up to my hype 😀
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