SINGLE & SINGLE (1999) by John le Carré

John le Carré (born David Cornwell on 19 October 1931) is 86 years old today – and to celebrate here is a quick review of a title that is perhaps unfairly neglected. This is one of the later books that sees the author stretch beyond his standard spy environment, though in truth what we have is a pretty close equivalent for a story dealing with international finance and the way that it shields criminals by creating impenetrable money-laundering structures and how a man goes undercover to thwart it.

I offer this review, one day early, for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Death and I simply aren’t made for one another”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, even before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union (at the end of 1991), the Cold War as it was understood in the West was more or less consigned to history. While that may have eased tensions with the Eastern Bloc in terms of  possible nuclear Armageddon, it ushered in an equally cutthroat regional conflicts across  ex-Soviet satellite states and on the commercial sphere within Europe’s Economic Union. Was this the end of contemporary spy fiction as we knew it? Len Deighton stopped publishing fiction in the 90s after the completion of his massive ten-volume series dedicated to the family of Bernard Sampson, while others – such as Charles McCarry and Frederick Forsyth – resumed activities in depicting the ‘war on terror’ with varying degrees of success.

He preferred to re-enter the world as it stood, to be absorbed and hidden away and forgotten.

John le Carré has continued to thrive by looking at the ‘new world order’ as well as keeping a beady eye on what happened to those, post-Cold War, who previously worked in intelligence community. He has looked at Big Pharma (in the splendidly successful, The Constant Gardner) as well as the arms trade (the popular, but to my mind lesser novel, The Night Manager), and also looked at nations emerging from the old Soviet Union in Our Game, a book conceived on a noticeably smaller scale that, increasingly to me, seems to be one of the author’s most accomplished works. Single & Single is closer in style to that work, though on a broader canvas with a story that begins in Turkey, then moves to England with episodes set in Switzerland and Russia.

“There’s no white horse,” Oliver mumbled. “More a sort of merry-go-round.”

Our protagonist is Oliver, a children’s entertainer in his mid twenties separated from his wife, who gets picked up by the authorities when, out of the blue, £5 million is deposited in his bank account. How is this plot strand connected with the stopping by the Russian authorities of a cargo ship carrying illegal goods, an investigation into money-laundering by British Customs and Excise, a crooked British cop, Georgian businessmen with a sentimental attachment to their homeland and the bizarre murder of a lawyer in Turkey who worked for the British firm of Single & Single? And why has the head of the firm, Tiger Single, gone missing? All the strands are eventually tied together extremely satisfactorily, with the author pulling off an especially pleasing narrative coup around the hundred-page mark.

“He’s dropped Tiger down a hole.”

The author would return to the banking world in his later book, A Most Wanted Man, though Single is much closer to Our Game in its depiction of one man’s quest to assuage the guilt of a betrayal among the mess following the Soviet Union’s collapse of 1991. In comparison with that book, Single comes across as second best, its main characters less distinctive (the main investigator, Brock, even sounds like Burr, the equivalent character from The Night Manager), and the depiction of local politics decidedly thinner and relying on stereotypical views of Eastern Bloc corruption that lack nuance. But the plot is superbly constructed, with everything falling brilliantly into place, with the author always in absolutely control.

For my microsite devoted to the fiction of John le Carré, please visit:

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in England, Espionage, John le Carre, London, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to SINGLE & SINGLE (1999) by John le Carré

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    It takes a clever and talented author, Sergio, to make a novel that features banking and high finance really engaging. But if anyone has the skill to do it, it’s le Carré. I give him credit for ‘stretching’ himself and really tapping what’s going on in the world. Glad you enjoyed this, and thanks for the (as ever) fine review.

    • Thank you Margot (also as ever, especially as we retreat into the shadows at Fedora). It is a really eell-plotted thriller, very much in his recognisable style. Not his best perhaps but very good all the same.

  2. tracybham says:

    I am glad you reviewed this, Sergio. I have this book and did not know much about it. Based on your thoughts here, I think I will like it.

  3. mikeripley says:

    I found the new Le Carre – A Legacy of Spies – rather disappointing but perhaps I was expecting too much. It was good to be reacquainted with characters from 50 years ago, but some of the new (younger) characters did not convince. To get the most out of the book I would urge anyone, if they have not already done so, to read Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People. The trouble is they will then realise how much better those books are

    • Thanks Mike. I have not read Legacy of Spies yet, probably will have to wait until Christmas the way things are going. If I had to play favourites, I would probably, after Cold, skip the Karla trilogy entirely (ducks for cover) and probably go for the later novels The Russia House and The Constant Gardener.

  4. I have LEGACY OF SPIES on my Read Real Soon stack. My first Le Carre novel was LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL.

  5. Mathew Paust says:

    Now I have two new (for me) le Carré novels to read. I’d have only one, but somehow I missed your review in March of Our Game. Especially glad to know it’s a short one.

    • Thanks Matt – they are both decent-sized books (400 pages on my editions, but pretty large font) and both well worth reading. SINGLE has the better plot maybe, but I did prefer GAME in the end.

  6. I thought Dick Francis and Australian author Marshall Browne were unique in each writing thrillers with a banker as hero and now, here’s another addition to the list. I’ve only ever read one John LeCarre book which I liked (but it was the murder mystery one) and I’m not all that keen on spy thrillers. But this book sounds mighty interesting, Sergio.

  7. Well, your review of Our Game earlier this year really sold it to me, and I loved it, so you’ve convinced me to get hold of this one. I intend to read the new one at some point, but this sounds more tempting right now…

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