Is there another writer with a claim to the title “greatest living spy novelist” besides John le Carré? Though not every book the man has written is incredible, he’s responsible for several of the genre’s strongest examples, and his The Spy Who Came In From The Cold isn’t just the best spy novel ever written, but one of the best novels of the 20th century, period. His blend of espionage, action, and consideration of the moral and political dilemmas inherent in spycraft has been winning him readers and plaudits since the 1960s, and though his work has seemed less vital since the Cold War ended, that doesn’t mean he’s any less of a writer. (After all, one of his best books, The Tailor Of Panama, came out in the 1990s.)
Our Kind Of Traitor is decidedly minor le Carré, but it has its own pleasures. Its chief problem is that the spy characters are simply less compelling than the civilians at the center of the novel. Young couple Perry and Gail are on vacation in Antigua when they encounter an aging, rotund Russian named Dima, the kind of avuncular man who makes everyone into an instant friend. But Dima has ulterior motives. Perry and Gail are British, and Dima—a member of an elaborate Russian crime ring—wants a special favor that may put them in danger. Perry and Gail get scooped up by British secret agents curious about their encounter, for reasons not immediately clear at the novel’s start. After being interrogated, they wind up traversing Europe on behalf of men they barely know. It’s an intriguing narrative, with twists aplenty, and while le Carré takes his sweet time getting it going, the book is hard to stop reading once it does.
On the other hand, Our Kind Of Traitor sags a bit every time Perry and Gail aren’t at center stage. The two are well-conceived, as is their relationship and all the ways the encounter with Dima tests the limits of their relationship and their modernity. (In a nice character detail, thoroughly feminist, leftist Perry turns into a borderline paternalistic nationalist when conscripted to do the agents’ dirty work; Gail finds the change in him thoroughly off-putting.) But the spy characters tend to get bogged down in exposition. To be fair, this is a problem common to spy novels, but when an author is pulling apart questions about the webs of money that brought down the global markets and the infusions of illicit cash that propped some of them up, it takes much more room for explanation. Sadly, Traitor’s spy characters aren’t always up to the task, and that makes the novel’s long midsection a slog.
At the same time, the end of the book is thrilling, as Perry and Gail return to its focal point, and le Carré ties together everything he wants to say about the men who bankrupted the world, how similar they are to common criminals, the costs of espionage on committed couples, and the ultimate futility of the spy game in a post-Cold War world. It’s just a shame it takes so long to get there.