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Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré
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Dec 14, 10

Read in December, 2010

The twenty-one novels written by John le Carre over the course of his fifty year career can be rather neatly divided into two distinct categories: the Cold War espionage tales of East versus West, followed by the post-Soviet explorations of conspiracy and corruption played out in the morally murky world of unbridled capitalism. The pinnacle of the first era is generally acknowledged to be the “Smiley Trilogy”, comprised of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, “The Honourable Schoolboy”, and “Smiley’s People”. Le Carre’s latest book, “Our Kind Of Traitor” (Viking) may prove to be the crown jewel of his latter work.
The elements of the story are relatively straightforward, especially when compared with some of the author’s more Byzantine novels. A young English couple, Perry and Gail, are vacationing in Antigua when they’re approached by Dima, a garrulous Russian who insists on having a tennis match with the athletically gifted Perry. Dima, however, turns out to be a vor – the Russian Mafia’s version of a made man – and he wants much more from Perry and Gail than holiday companionship and some friendly competition. Claiming to be the world’s top money launderer, Dima hopes to trade his secrets to the British Intelligence Service in exchange for asylum for himself and his large, complicated family. For reasons that are never entirely clear to Perry and Gail, Dima has determined that they should act as his representatives in presenting his offer to the authorities. Those authorities, as it turns out, are also eager to enlist the couple’s services in bringing Dima and his explosive knowledge into the fold. For reasons of their own, which the author manages to make plausible, the couple agrees to cooperate. Their subsequent efforts to deliver the gangster and his family safely to Britain make up the surface events of the plot.
But, as with all of le Carre’s writing, the true artistry lies between the lines. As the story unfolds, the author moves deftly from one character’s point of view to another, revealing the evolving relationships among them in elegantly nuanced prose. During the course of their covert operation, Perry and Gail and their spook supervisors, Hector and Luke, become increasingly involved not only with each other, but also with Dima and his family, especially his beautiful but troubled fifteen year old daughter Natasha. Le Carre’s portrayal of these various emotional undercurrents is both touching and heartbreaking.
Among the press materials Viking has sent out with “Our Kind Of Traitor” is an article from The Guardian newspaper alleging that certain cash-strapped banks kept themselves afloat during the 2008 global financial crisis by effectively laundering $352 billion in criminal proceeds, most of it drug money. Without revealing details, suffice to say that le Carre introduces several characters who have a strong interest in making sure Dima’s secrets remain exactly that. The novel’s final sequence describes the attempt to smuggle Dima from a safe-house in Switzerland to London. Using masterfully oblique, understated language, le Carre creates an atmosphere of foreboding and suspense that quite literally had my heart pounding.
To borrow a metaphor from one of this fine book’s several tennis scenes, John le Carre has once again served up an ace. Game. Set. Match. – David Nichols
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