Books: Our Kind of Traitor

…by John le Carre.  In Our Kind of Traitor, a pair of bright English twenty-somethings fall in with a notorious Russian money launderer while on Caribbean holiday.  We learn of this in a kind of near-present recollection that turns out to be a debriefing of the couple by MI6-types back in London.  These things can happen when you go to Antigua after all, and so le Carre builds on this story of betrayal and beleaguered hope with an immediate dose of spy intrigue.  It’s a very basic espionage plot – approach, recruitment (and counter-recruitment), and retrieval of the agent – but that makes it no less compelling.  Because this is a le Carre novel, expectations are high, and as anyone who’s read him can attest, the true craft comes in the details, the characterization, the internal conflict this basic plot elicits.

Characters like Perry and Gail, the young somewhat idealistic professionals, are easy to recognize.  He’s an Oxford assistant professor of literature and notable amateur athlete with a conscience that’s begging him to do something more profound, something that matters.  You quickly get the sense that in a previous generation he would have made a fine army officer or Foreign Service initiate.  As the novel begins he’s convinced himself to quit his prestigious post to go teach to disadvantaged types in the inner city.  She is an up and coming lawyer with wit and charm to spare; she also resentful of how important Perry has become vital to her sense of self.  And neither of them are a match for Dima, the Russian Mafioso #1 Money Launderer.

Dima is certainly the most interesting of the book’s characters, existing in a kind of negative zone of familial obligations, self loathing, and criminal loyalties.  For readers of le Carre he’s a familiar type.  He’s a likable rogue, intelligent and competent.  He has a number of people dependent on him and he’s worked himself into a corner.   For Dima, the code of the vory (Russian Mafia) is sacrosanct, a defining aspect of his being – yet he finds he will have to betray this code to save himself and his family.  The new vory leadership has begun to consolidatepower and now seeks new, more pristine financial enablers.  Enter Perry and Gail. 

As we learn more about Dima and his family, observing how they solicit sympathy and a sense of loyalty from the young Brits, we’re also learning about the British Foreign Service handlers on the other side of the espionage coin.  Primarily this falls to Luke, a one-time field agent who’s been ordered back to desk duty after being taken hostage by narco-goons in Columbia.  Luke has woman problems and family problems, and he sees the opportunity to acquire Dima’s information as a path to redemption.  Luke’s boss, Hector, is an old cold warrior with cache to spare, capable of going toe-to-toe with the high level execs in search of that stream of intelligence reporting that will ensure future funding and political sanctioning.  Hector also has a crusading spirit who wants to recapture some of the lost limey luster, and the web of financial deals  linking Dima’s vory bosses to certain powerful persons in London is a bridge worth taking.

So Dima wants to come to England.  He wants asylum for himself and his family, protection from the mafia prince he’s about to spurn.  Hector and Luke want that intel – especially with it ties in to the questionable culture of the City (London’s renowned banking and financial district) and certain Members of Parliament.  And Gail and Perry? Although helping the British Government goes against some of their progressive ideals, they want to help.  Perry’s ingrained sense of fair play and duty, his yearning to do something that matters assists him in seeing Dima as a victim.  Likewise, Gail bonds with Dima’s children – especially teenaged daughter Natasha.  And though they both seem aware they are being manipulated on both sides, Perry and Gail agree to help Hector in his attempt to verify Dima’s story and extricate him.

If the beginning of the book lacks pace, the middle portion, describing the various players and their takes on the inevitable extrication attempt, shows the author in fine form.  Le Carre juggles the sub-plots, builds the tension, and introduces just the right portions of doubt, hope, and spycraft.  Yes, he may not quite capture the essence of contemporary young Brits (you can almost see him struggling with concepts like thumb-drives, texting, and instant interweb-induced info), but his ear for dialogue and sense of descriptive scene-writing will hold you close.  Yes, you get the sense that the old cold war polemics would offer a more comforting canvass, but the themes of loss and outrage at the excessive greed of the City’s unscrupulous capitalists are worthy of consideration.

The story builds, the characters are engaging.  So it’s really too bad about the ending.  Without giving it away, I’ll just state that it’s very abrupt.  Too abrupt.   Almost as if the author realized he was approaching page 300 and that would be good enough, thanks.  I’ve read other le Carre books with sharp quick finales so it wasn’t a total surprise; what I didn’t like were the number of interesting plot threads just left hanging.  That said, it would have been very difficult to write the scenes to follow up on the ending he chose, and maybe he just didn’t have the energy for it.

So be forewarned:  an entertaining read right  up to the end.  But you may be left wondering.

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