John le Carré
Our Kind of Traitor
le Carré is of course the master of the Cold War spy novel. Titles like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy were hugely influential, by virtue of being superbly written, very entertaining, and intelligent. The latter defines le Carré’s trade mark style as a genre author: his characters are real human beings. They are complex, imperfect, and have conflicting emotions. George Smiley, the lead character of many of le Carré’s Cold War novels, is almost an anti-hero.
In Our Kind of Traitor, le Carré has replaced the Cold War setting by a modern equivalent: Russian mafia, high finance, and money laundering. He is still as adept as ever at weaving plots and sub-plots, building tension and intrigue, keeping the reader on edge, and generally writing a good story. But I am disappointed when it comes to character depth. Perry, the main character, is a super-intelligent, super-beautiful, super-sportive, super-witty superhero, but as a result he never gets to be a person of flesh and blood. He is a character straight out of a John Grisham or a Michael Connelly novel: entertaining, but not very believable. Gail, Perry’s girlfriend, matches all his fantastic epithets.
To be fair, though, we do get on intimate terms with Gail’s way of thinking, her doubts, her inner world. The spies, too, are true le Carré characters: Luke is all too fallible and uncertain; Hector is a new kind of George Smiley: unknowable to lesser mortals, but presumably in charge in his own particular way.
The story itself is very believable; le Carré has obviously done his research on the new Russian mafia. Also the involvement of high profile British politicans in schemes to launder Russian crime money does not seem far-fetched at all. The story is also reasonably well crafted, although I could see the ending coming from a mile away.
On balance, Our Kind of Traitor entertained me plenty, which is why I read le Carré. But I do hope he doesn’t slide further down the road of the cliché thriller: I’ll read Grisham when I want that kind of entertainment.