Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré
Many people hold le Carré’s work in very high regard; I consider myself to be one of those; so I was rather unsure, as I started reading this book, first published in 2010 and again in 2011 by Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-241-96785-0 (2014), whether this might be one of his less successful books. It starts in Antigua with Peregrine (Perry) Makepiece and “Gail, his long-standing girlfriend” on holiday, booked after his father had died from “the same cancer that had carried of his mother two years earlier, leaving Perry in a state of modest affluence.” In the meantime, he had begun to question his direction in life, deciding to leave academia in Oxford and “qualify as a secondary-school teacher in one of his country’s most deprived areas.” Gail was also undecided as to whether her future should consist of marriage & babies and “give up the Bar…or should she continue to pursue her meteoric career in London?” So, “a holiday in Antigua looked like providing the ideal setting in which to do it.” Unfortunately, Perry, who is an excellent tennis player, makes the mistake of allowing himself to be cajoled into a match with “a muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle fifties called Dima.” Almost inevitably, given the author, his nationality means that he will have a story to tell that will be of interest to the security services back at (Perry’s) home.
The narrative develops quite slowly, hence my initial concern, but le Carré’s skill is in giving the characters space, in the combination of present-day & flashback, rather than rushing into a bullet-point checklist of narrative stages. Perry’s contacts are suitably interested in what he has to tell them about Dima and, perhaps somewhat predictably, I regret to say, the man running the operation (although not at the top of his chain of command) is an eccentric nonconformist maverick, by the name of Hector Meredith (think John Hurt); perhaps there’s only room in spy fiction for one Smiley? Perry & Gail are not entirely unwilling participants in the operation to exfiltrate Dima to England, but the main complication for the planners is that Dima has a large extended family, which he refuses to leave behind. The bulk of the action takes place in Switzerland, where Dima and his family are currently based, and both Perry & Gail go beyond the call of duty to assist the operation. Overall, it goes reasonably smoothly, as a result of the meticulous planning undertaken by Hector’s department; in fact, the main threat to the operation comes from the ‘suits’ back in England. I can’t say I was particularly rooting for the protagonist, Dima, given that he is an unpleasant example of the new breed of Russian criminal, but if only as a result of my rather pale patriotism, I was hoping that neither Perry nor Gail would come to any harm. The dénouement is something of an anticlimax, leading to the death of one of the main characters, but I will say no more to avoid spoiling the plot. We are left to draw our own conclusions as to the consequences which are not spelled out at the very end, which I always find rather frustrating, as I am a completist when it comes to stories! I’m glad to be able to say that I have read another book in le Carré’s canon, but I wouldn’t describe it as one of his best.