Le Carrés latest spy story takes on the global economic crisis
John le Carré’s last book, the excellent “A Most Wanted Man’’ released in 2008, was his best in years — mysterious, taut, and tragic. His 22d novel, “Our Kind of Traitor,’’ is no match for it. It is a perfectly good read — le Carré cannot write a bad book — but it lacks the tension to hold us hostage late into the night. There are too many side shows, too many unbelievable players on the field.
Le Carré, David Cornwell in real life, has been a victim of his own success for years. Expectations are always brutal. It’s not that he can’t write corkers. “A Most Wanted Man’’ is one. But it’s been harder for him to hit with consistency.
That said, le Carré’s ear is as sharp as ever. A corrupt British official is seen on a luxury yacht dressed to the nines mingling with a rogue’s gallery of baddies. The man claims he was camping with his family on the coast nearby, prompting a senior Brit intelligence operative to ask an underling on the subject of camping, “Do you as a rule take your dinner jacket with you?’’
So is his wordplay. A woman of aristocratic French heritage calls the hideous-looking headquarters of MI6, Britain’s spy agency, “la Lubianka-sur-Tamise.’’
Le Carré has chosen a nifty subject: the laundering of billions of drug dollars into Western banks during the recent global economic crisis. According to an article last year in the Observer newspaper (bizarrely printed in advance copies but not in the published hardcover), the drug money provided the only liquidity available to Western banks in 2008.
Le Carré takes it from there and builds an unholy connection among banks, rogue British government officials, and Russian criminal syndicates.
And so we meet Dima, a bald, intimidating Russian whom I picture resembling Otto Preminger. He is a product of the gulags and is a vory, a professional criminal identified by a tattoo, many of whom spent time in a gulag. He bellows, threatens, and charms in torrents of expletive-laden verbiage.
Dima challenges a young Oxford tutor named Peregrine Makepeace to a tennis match when they run into each other on Antigua, where Perry and his girlfriend, Gail Perkins, a rising barrister in a good London firm, are vacationing.
Dima arrives on court sporting a jewel-encrusted Rolex and surrounded by a menagerie of children and guards. What to make of this guy? Later, still on Antigua, Dima tells Perry he is the best money launderer in the world and wants to defect to England with his family. In exchange for asylum, he will spill the beans about the skein of corruption linking British banks to the Russian gangs.
Perry writes a memorandum about the encounter and passes it on to British intelligence. Soon, he and Gail face Hector Meredith, a classic le Carré character. Meredith is an aging spymaster out of favor at MI6 — silky, charming, ruthless — who works his own rogue plan to bring Dima to England.
The story takes Perry and Gail to the French Open and another meeting with Dima, who becomes the most endearing character in the book. Meanwhile, Meredith’s gambit to whisk Dima and family to England from a safe house in Switzerland takes shape. But Dima is watched closely by Brits and Russians alike. Neither side, for obvious reasons, wants to be exposed.
Le Carré has the makings of a good yarn in “Our Kind of Traitor.’’ His problem, strangely enough, is making us believe it.
Sam Allis is a member of the Globe staff and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.