John le Carré is a phenomenon. Well into his eighties, he is still regularly cranking out his unhappy novels about the dysfunctions of espionage and the skulduggery of corporations, thrillers that often move slowly and which are more concerned about the emotional stakes than the physical ones. When his characters triumph, they do so at immense cost and we have to question whether it was worth it. When they don't triumph – which is most of the time – it is even more bitter. And yet his books are consistently bestsellers, which is a testament to his immense skill. Writers are in awe of his descriptions, which are never tedious and leave you feeling like you have had a glimpse of the character's soul, not just his suit. The characters feel like living, breathing human beings, not cardboard cutouts, even when they conform closely to stereotypes. As for plot, well, he not only knows how to tell you what's happening, but what not to tell you and how to tell you what he's not telling you so that you really want to know. He is a master of negative space.
Our Kind of Traitor deals with a Russian thug, the man known as Dima, at the pinnacle of money laundering, wanting to defect to Britain before the Russian crime syndicates dispose of him. His revelations of financial improprieties reach right to the heart of British government. But at the core of the story are the young British tourists that he approaches to bring his offer to the attention of British authorities, how they are drawn into the underworld of espionage and the price they pay for it.
It has not received the best of reviews, and I must confess, I am mystified. I thought it was magnificent. It took only a couple of pages before I was in awe and thinking this was by far the best book I had read in recent months. We quickly realize that Perry and Gail, already at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives, have been pulled in over their heads, that their relationship has been strained to the breaking point, that Gail is keeping secrets from both Perry and the spymasters, and that nothing will ever be the same again. And as we start to understand the reasons for all this, we are drawn into the unlikely affection that develops between a Russian crime lord and a high-minded British academic, and watch as all of them are pulled into the treacherous undercurrents and backstabbing of the British intelligence establishment. There is a great deal more love in this story than is typical of le Carré, perhaps because there are more children involved. Dima has a family he wants to bring with him, and Gail in particular develops a fierce maternal concern for them. Perhaps this is why I felt mysef more emotionally invested in the outcome than I normally do in a le Carré novel.
While this may not be le Carré at the top of his game, it is still a very fine piece of work, and well worth the time taken to read it.