This is a spy novel that got great reviews from the get-go, but I somehow kept delaying actually reading it and despite several attempts, never seemed to actually crack on with it (I don’t mean that literally – cracking spines is not cool in my house). I almost started it last year, ahead of the TV version, but never got round to it in time so missed seeing the well-received adaptation too. Why did I keep delaying? Well, probably because my paperback copy (here on the left) is 700 pages long and I wasn’t sure I wanted to carry it around with me on the tube for a couple of weeks!
Finally after some prodding from an old mate (codename: ‘Soldier’), I’ve got round to reading the book. And ..?
I offer this review for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at her fab Pattinase blog.
“Roper is the worst man int he world”
The setting is 1991 at the time of the Gulf War and our eponymous protagonist is Jonathan Pine, currently working at a Zürich hotel, who gets mixed up with Richard Osgood Roper, an evil arms dealer (is there any other kind?) Pine used to be in the British army but after serving in Northern Ireland, and repulsed by their ‘shoot to kill’ policy, he turns inwards and retreats into working at overseas hotels where he can make use of his charm and language skills (he is also a dab hand at cookery when the need arises). In Cairo he meets and falls for the beautiful Sophie, who gives him documents relating to the activities of Roper, a sybaritic English arms dealer. When he shares these with a contact in British intelligence, this gets her killed as there is a leak. Pine is thus primed for an approach by Leonard Burr, who heads a small intelligence unit that would like nothing better than to bring Roper down.
Guns have their own silence. It is the silence of the dead to come.
Pine is trained and given a legend to hide behind – he will go on the run and people will believe that he stole money from his hotel and killed a man in a drug buy gone wrong. He will thus infiltrate Roper’s organisation and bring him down. Trouble is, Roper has fingers in many pies and is extraordinarily powerful thanks to links with the intelligence community,. Can Pine complete his mission? And, blaming himself as he does for Sophie’s demise, does he care if he makes it out alive? And what happens when he begins to fall for Roper’s girlfriend, Jed?
The liquidity of Jed’s hip movements becomes an outrage against public order.
This is a very elaborate and long book and finds the author in full globetrotting mode: we start in Switzerland, flashback to Egypt, then move to England’s Cornish coast before travelling to Quebec in Canada via Portugal and then end up in the Bahamas and then Panama, with stops in Washington, London and Louisiana too! At its heart though, the basic scenario is simple. Like Our Game, which followed it in 1995 (and which I previously reviewed here), when one boils the set up down to essentials, this is the story of two men and the woman in between them who get caught up in international conflicts. Indeed, while this was the author’s first post-Cold War novel, for all its beautiful decoration, the classic basic le Carré formula is intact here. We have a complex intelligence plan set in motion with the aim of putting the protagonist among enemies by having them believe he has been abandoned by his own side. This can be seen in most of the author’s best 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).
You give the air of looking for someone, Sophie had said. But I think the missing person is yourself.
The basic story breaks down into three sections – an introduction to Pine and his desire to bring Roper down; his recruitment by Burr to infiltrate the arms dealer’s organisation; and then what happens when Pine’s cover is blown by powers in the UK and US intelligence agencies, both of whom have too much to lose if Roper is brought down. To get there le Carré spends an inordinate amount of time setting up Pine’s new identity as a fugitive. It is often beautifully written though, and in fact the 30-page episode in Quebec, the entirety of chapter 9, could stand alone as a terrific short story in the Graham Greene mould. But the book is too slow to really maintain a sense of excitement and ultimately there is not enough plot – and, surprisingly, not really enough evidence that Roper is as evil as everyone says he is. Clearly this is meant to be ironic but it does also tend to hobble the sense of conflict.
… Burr’s sense of mission was beginning to throb like a war drum in Jonathan’s ear.
On the other hand, the expansive structure also generates great suspense. In the book we alternate between Pine’s infiltration activities and the politics in Washing and London as the honest Burr is let down by senior colleagues who want power and have much influence and money to lose if Roper is stopped. But when Pine is exposed, le Carré does something very smart – he switches all his attentions to Burr and for 5 chapters, 100 pages in my edition, we have no direct contact with either Pine or Jed. It is great to see just what Burr does to try and save Pine, even though the ending is very soft, it has to be said.
I understand that the TV version changed this completely (Burr being played by Olivia Colman suggests a very creative approach) and I look forward to seeing for myself.
Oh, and the tiger on the penguin edition? Refers to a paragraph quite late in the book but does not really tell you anything much about the story. Tut tut …
This is very good late le Carré, but not his best. For that, go to The Little Drummer Girl (1983), The Russia House (1989) and The Constant Gardner (2001).