Tag Archives: John le Carre

John Carre’s latest is brilliant

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A review of A Delicate Truth, by John LeCarre

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

On the cover of A Delicate Truth, Gibraltar looms like the vast bulk of reality weighing down on the idealism and sense of duty that preoccupy the novel’s protagonist, as they do in so many of the works of John Le Carre. Gibraltar itself does play a key role here as the site of an incident that brings together a motley cast of hapless souls: the upstanding senior officer and the bent but bumbling junior Minister he answers to; the Minister’s fast-track Private Secretary and his jaded mentor; the upper-crust opportunist, his right-wing American bedfellows, and the British Special Forces soldiers made pawns in their machinations. This unlikely assortment of 21st century humanity is thrown together in what can most fairly be described as one glorious clusterf***.

The incident in question is a joint UK-US anti-terrorism operation in Gibraltar engineered under the tightest secrecy by the Minister and his shady partner-in-crime, financed by Texas-based evangelical Christian activists, and executed under cover of darkness by a combined force of handpicked British Special Forces and mercenaries in the employ of a mysterious American defense contractor. Our hero, Toby Bell, Private Secretary to the Minister but kept in the dark by him, learns that the whole thing went south. As the story slowly emerges when Toby is compelled to follow the breadcrumbs to the truth, he is thrown together with the now-retired diplomat who was attached to the mission and the diplomat’s daughter, a comely physician ministering to the poor in London’s East End. Toby’s rush to the truth through the minefields of institutionalized compromise is fraught with mystery, terror, pain, suspense, and the inklings of romance. Yes, A Delicate Truth is, in fact, one glorious tale, proof that John Le Carre at 81 still writes with the extraordinary skill he treated us to in the 1960s.

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A thriller that delivers both excitement and insight about the war in Afghanistan

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A review of The Shadow Patrol, by Alex Berenson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

 The cottage industry in spy thrillers encompasses a wide range of quality, from those that offer up cheap thrills with one-dimensional characters facing off in unreal circumstances to those, many fewer, that rise into the realm of literature, illuminating the human condition. The finest of the lot, such as Graham Greene and John Le Carre at their best, stand with other exemplars of modern fiction. Alex Berenson’s writing doesn’t quite measure up to them, but it comes close. His most recent novel about the adventures of soldier-spy John Wells, The Shadow Patrol, explores the tragic dimensions of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, from which no one leaves ennobled.

John Wells has left the CIA and his long-time love, his agency handler, Jennifer Exley, and is living in rural New Hampshire with Anne, a local cop. When his old CIA boss, Ellis Shafer, asks him to return to action in Afghanistan, where he spent so many years undercover inside Al Qaeda, Wells leaps at the chance. The agency’s Kabul station is in crisis. A Jordanian physician, having established a credible cover as an ally, has murdered the CIA’s top brass in the country by setting off a suicide vest. Now, in addition to the chaos that results when replacements for the top officials prove unequal to the task, reports have surfaced that the station has been penetrated by a Taliban mole. Wells’ assignment, to learn the identity of the mole, brings him and the CIA into conflict with the hierarchy of the Special Forces and eventually into a one-on-one test of wills with a Delta sniper who holds the key to the mole’s identity.

Returning years after his last visit to Afghanistan, Wells finds the country, the war, and the agency, all profoundly changed by the billions of U.S. dollars spread about the countryside and the years of unrelenting killing. Cynicism and greed have spread throughout the country like a virus.

When Wells checks into the CIA station in the capital, a senior officer tells him, “First off, understand the strategic situation’s a mess. We’re playing Whac-a-Mole here. First we had our guys in the east, and the south went to hell. Now we’ve moved everybody south, and the east is going to hell. And by the way, the south isn’t great either. This quote-unquote-government we’re working with, it’s beyond corrupt. Everything’s for sale. You want to be a cop? That’s a bribe. Five to ten grand, depending on the district. . . to become a patrolman. You want to be a district-level police chief? Twenty, thirty thousand. At the national level, the cabinet jobs are a quarter million and up.”

While there’s nothing in this monologue that we haven’t learned from news reports and the numerous nonfiction books about the war, this matter-of-fact informality drives home the point more clearly than any “objective” report could do. In fact, Alex Berenson was a New York Times reporter before he turned to full-time writing. As a reporter, he covered the occupation of Iraq, among other big stories, and he brings a reporter’s instinct for news and the value of obscure details to make a story come to light. In The Shadow Patrol, the intimate conversation and inner dialogue of American troops highlights the mind-numbing reality of war much more clearly than any nonfiction account could possibly do.

One of the most revealing passages in the book comes in the course of Wells’ conversation with the same CIA official who spoke of the corruption caused by the influx of U.S. dollars. Wells has asked “So how many officers do you have?”

“We’re close to full strength now. Six hundred in country.”

“Six hundred?”

“But you have to remember, only a few are case officers. More than two hundred handle security. Then we have the coms and IT guys, logistics and administrative . . . and the guys at the airfields, handling the drones. Fewer than forty ever get outside the wire to talk to the locals. Of those, most are working with Afghan security and intelligence forces. If you’re looking at guys recruiting sources on the ground, it’s maybe a dozen. . . . The security situation is impossible. Only the very best officers can work outside the wire without getting popped, and even then only for short stretches.”

This is today’s CIA.

Berenson has devoted significant effort to researching the agency, the reality of the war in Afghanistan, the heroin trade, the art of the sniper, and other elements in this clever and compelling story. The Shadow Patrol — the sixth in Berenson’s John Wells series — is a superb contemporary thriller that delivers both an exciting tale and down-to-earth reporting on the Afghanistan war.

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A refreshingly original new thriller that explores international intrigue with minimal violence

A review of The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you imagine today’s Russia to be in the grips of gun-toting mafiyas bound by their own Slavic brand of omerta and competing with Mexican drug cartels to rack up impressive body counts, you’ll be set straight by this thoroughly credible tale of high-level skullduggery based in Moscow and played out in London, Berlin, and the Riviera. In The Silent Oligarch, Chris Morgan Jones’ debut in the world of present-day espionage, you’ll encounter a sophisticated version of intrigue much more reminiscent of John Le Carre than Robert Ludlum.

This finely crafted novel revolves around an obscure Russian bureaucrat named Konstantin Malin, a lifer in the Ministry of Oil and Industry who controls a large share of his country’s oil and gas industry, the world’s largest. His front man is an English expat lawyer in Moscow, Richard Lack, whose Russian wife and child have left him for the less morally ambiguous clime of London. Lack is at the helm of a vast and almost impenetrably complex global network of shadowy enterprises, the sole purpose of which appears to be to launder enormous quantities of Malin’s money and funnel it back to Russia for investment.

Lack’s cozy life in Moscow begins coming apart when a Greek oilman, one of the many wealthy businessmen Malin has cheated, decides to unmask Malin’s fraud and put him out of business. Enter Ben Webster, a former journalist posted to Russia now employed at a significantly higher salary by a private, London-based intelligence agency. As Webster sets out to unravel the real story behind Lack’s role as “owner” of an enormous global energy conglomerate, Lack himself is forced to testify in court in several countries as a result of the Greek tycoon’s lawsuit. The truth begins leaking out, and even the FBI becomes interested in the case.

Tension builds as both Lack and Webster are tormented by their seeming helplessness in the face of the unfolding events, and the suspense never lets up despite minimal violence. The jarring conclusion will surprise all but the most insightful of readers.

This is a book written for readers, not for Hollywood. It’s told in the third person, with chapters alternating between Lack’s and Webster’s perspectives. With scenes set largely in such colorful places — the Kremlin, the Riviera, and luxurious hotels in Berlin and London — a talented screenwriter might manage to fit this twisted tale into the confines of a filmscript, but the interior dialogue that forms the heart of this novel would very likely be lost.

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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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