Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Most Wanted Man

John le Carre's Cold War spy novels are among my favorite books: meditations on the peculiar character of their time, but also on the human condition. Not to mention that they are highly effective thrillers and beautifully written. Few novelists have achieved so much so efficiently, working in so narrow a genre, and so entertainingly.

Post-Cold War, there was a gradual decline. I'm somewhat reluctant to admit that I eventually lost interest... until I was browsing for some escapism recently at Kepler's Books, and Alan Furst's endorsement of A Most Wanted Man jumped off the cover. OK, Alan, you sold me.

And it's a good read. The plotting is, as they say, brisk, the writing unmistakably le Carre. So what's not to like? Well, the characters, for one. Our hero, Tommy Brue, is a le Carre stock character, the almost washed-up, 60-year-old Brit trying to live up to, or live down, the legacy of his dad. The love interest, Annabel, is further evidence that le Carre is constitutionally incapable of creating a compelling female character. OK, he still has the remaining 50 percent of the human race to work with, right? Wrong: the hapless victim of this intrigue, a Chechen named Issa, is himself a crude caricature.

Is there then a single well-rounded, believable character in the book? Indeed there is, thankfully: the German spymaster Bachmann, a highly competent Smiley-type whose little shreds of conscience and credulity prove to be his undoing.

We read le Carre for the Smileys and Bachmanns, but we also need a supporting cast of convincing foils for our flawed heroes. We don't get them here. Maybe the master has lost his touch, but I am inclined to think that the source of the problem is his righteous outrage at the post-9/11 new world order, with his despised American spooks firmly in charge. We can only hope that the age of Obama, whatever its flaws, will restore John le Carre's faith in moral ambiguity, in all its glorious shades of gray.

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