John le Carré’s righteous anger ignites his fast-paced new novel, but it can’t make up for a cast of unconvincing charactersby Julian Evans / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre (Viking, £18.99)
Just short of his 80th year, John le Carre is a prodigy, producing his last five novels in less than a decade, a higher average even than in his more youthful years as our nonpareil spy novelist. It may be anger that supplies his energy, for he gives the impression of having got more wrathful as he’s got older: of having become, to borrow the description of a character in his latest novel, “a late-onset, red-toothed radical with balls.” In the past decade he has stepped outside the cloisters of espionage to take shots at dirty capitalism (The Constant Gardener), the Iraq war (Absolute Friends), western neocolonialism and the war on terror (The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man).
As a result his late novels often return to a model perfected by his mentors, Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, a story of innocence abroad whose generic title might be The Accidental Agent. So it turns out in Our Kind of Traitor, his 22nd novel.
The target this time is the City of London, whose indiscriminate thirst fails to baulk even at the billions derived from organised crime. The reluctant agent is Perry Makepiece, a bored 30-year-old leftist Oxford academic on a once-in-a-lifetime tennis holiday in Antigua with his barrister girlfriend. His foil is a middle-aged Russian from Perm named Dima, “a muscular, erect, huge-chested, completely bald man wearing a diamond-encrusted gold Rolex wristwatch and grey tracksuit bottoms,” who demands a game of tennis. Dima is a banker of a type swiftly identifiable to anyone familiar with the extra-legal structure of post-Soviet capitalism (which means all of us by now): a structure so successful for the winners that almost its only inconvenience is the size of its profits.
Dima’s task is to clean these profits for Russia’s biggest syndicate of criminal brotherhoods. An acknowledged genius at his job, he has fallen out with the syndicate’s unscrupulous new boss, “the Prince,” who recently ordered the drive-by murder of both Dima’s protege and his wife. Glimpsing that there is no longer honour among thieves, and suspecting he may be next, Dima seeks sanctuary for his family in London in return for full disclosure of the syndicate’s crimes and billions.
The syndicate’s portfolio covers the usual frauds: rebranding and trading embargoed middle east oil, illegal logging, conflict diamonds, phoney medicines and…