The spy who never left the cold

A review of Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre

@@@ (3 out of 5)

David John Moore Cornwell–the man the world has come to know as John le Carre–was the son of a con man and a mother he met only at age 21. He spent years in the 1950s and 1960s working for MI5 and MI6 in the most difficult years of the Cold War. His frequently troubled life experiences afforded him the real-world experience that lent such authenticity and depth to the Cold War espionage novels he wrote so ably in the decades to come.

Le Carre’s conflicted alter ego, George Smiley, the protagonist of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and other early le Carre novels, embodied the inner doubts of that seemingly simpler time that foreshadowed the distrust and insecurities of the 60s and 70s, once we had lost our faith in the institutions that dominated our world.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, le Carre skillfully adapted, turning to writing about the more complex, multipolar world that has become ever more familiar to us. His field of battle was still espionage. But his subtext, increasingly, was politics–politics on the grand, international scale. Le Carre’s profound distaste for U.S. interventionist policies emerged clearly. Similarly, he showed his hand (most dramatically in The Constant Gardener) for the large, multinational corporations that have come to overshadow the lives we lead. His characters still emerged as fully formed human beings, for the most part. But his writing took on a moralistic tone that some readers found objectionable.

Le Carre’s latest work, Our Kind of Traitor, bears a stronger thematic resemblance to the Smiley novels than most of his other recent books. The protagonist–a young, unmarried English couple, actually–found themselves mysteriously caught up in a bizarre espionage caper more complex than any George Smiley might have conjured up. The story revolves around a Russian mafia boss (who proudly calls himself the world’s “number one money-launderer”) and the attempts of a renegade in the English secret service to bring him and his family to asylum in Britain. In the renegade agent’s bruising battles with the powers that be to gain the authority for his plan, and in the doubts and recriminations of the young couple he has dragged into the action, there is much that’s reminiscent of Smiley’s tortured qualms about the moral implications of his work. Four decades later, MI6 is a different beast, of course–a shadow of its former self, sometimes struggling to justify its existence. But Our Kind of Traitor awakens the same sort of moral ambiguity and distrust for authority and convention as did The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

ASIN: B00452V36Y

ISBN-10: 0670022241

ISBN-13: 978-0670022243

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Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers, Spy Stories

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