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Bookends: LeCarré performs true to form February 17, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, mystery, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: LeCarré performs true to form

By Dan Davidson

December 7, 2016

our-kind– 780 words –


Our Kind of Traitor

By John LeCarré

Penguin Books

429 pages



I admit to being a few books behind on the work of David John Moore Cornwell, better known as John LeCarré. When I was using The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in my English classes, I made a point of always reading his latest novel as soon as it came out in paperback. As a result, I’ve actually had this one for a few years and, for some reason, just wasn’t getting to it. In this case, a review of the book that I read somewhere, put me off. I should have known better.

I was motivated to pluck it off the shelf by the news that there was a movie with a rather impressive cast that seems to have preserved all the most important characters. I can see Ewan McGregor as Perry, the disillusioned Oxford don, and Damian Lewis and Mark Gatiss as the British agents who play games with his life.

Not unlike The Spy, and several other novels, this book involves an attempt by someone, a Russian mafia oligarch named Dima, to break away from a personal situation that has become intolerable. He approaches Perry and Gail, an unmarried couple who are on vacation in Antigua (changed to Morocco in the movie for some reason) and strikes up an acquaintance with them. This eventually leads to him proposing that they assist him and his extended family in escaping to England.

Dima is a gifted money launderer, a financial wizard and, after the murder of his protégé and his wife, he is convince that he is marked for death as part of the schemes of another mob boss known as the Prince. His offer is to turn over everything he knows about the Russian mob’s finances in return for sanctuary.

Perry and Gail take his offer back to London, where they meet with agents Hector, Luke and Ollie, and it is during the scenes where they are being questioned by British agents, where the narrative flits back and forth between these Q&A sessions and the original events, that the book begins to get good.

The basic idea of the plot is thin, but the meat of the book is all about relationships. Just when I thought we were going to spend most of the story with Perry, Gail, Dima and his family, playing tennis and dancing around spy-like intrigue, the focus shifted and I found myself charting relationships within the agency that LeCarré has called the Circus in the half dozen books that feature George Smiley.

This isn’t quite the same thing, but it’s an agency under severe scrutiny by both its political masters and other agencies. Indeed, this is a rather small group; it almost seems to be something that has gone rogue and is struggling to justify its own existence.

Relationships are everything in this story, Perry and Gail are working out the dynamics of their commitment to each other. Both of them have bonded to a certain extent to their Russian “friends”, Perry to Dima, and Gail to his teenaged daughter, who has gotten herself into “trouble”.

Luke has a roving eye, which has him in trouble on the home front. We never meet his family, but he thinks about them a lot, and we know he suffers from the fear of losing them. Hector has been in and out of the agency, and while he was out he managed to save his family’s fortune against a corporate raid instigated by the man he now must report to as his superior. Tricky.

The narrative style is an odd mixture of things. Sometimes we seem to be within the viewpoint of a particular character, but then the author’s voice steps out to deliver a commentary and let you know who’s in charge.

LeCarre’s escape novels generally work one of two ways. In The Spy (1963) the liberated Alec Lemas is killed trying to escape East Germany. In the The Russia House (1989), nearly 30 years later, “Barley” Blair manages to get a woman named Katya out of Moscow to safety at some personal cost, but he survives the adventure.

I’m not going to tell you how this one works out.

LeCarré has a knack for misdirection, perhaps an inheritance from his con man father, or perhaps a hold over from some of his years as an actual intelligence officer, and can manage to tell stories that have certain similarities without being boring or exactly repeating himself. This book is an excellent read. The other reviewer must have been having a bad day.

LeCarré has recently published a memoir. The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, under his real name. I look forward to finding a copy.