It is pointless to compare John le Carré to anyone except John le Carré. The 61-year-old British writer singlehandedly elevated the modern spy novel from the good-guy-fights-evil-empire formula to a high-stakes chess game, where doubt and questionable morality were always in play. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, (1963)— about a burned-out British agent deceived by his own side—established him as the fictional conscience of Cold War espionage. In the trilogy that began with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, (1974) George Smiley, pudgy and middle-aged, was le Carré’s quiet antidote to the flamboyant fantasy of Agent 007, James Bond. Smiley’s small, owlish exterior masked a powerful mind, a heart full of anguish over his straying wife, and a troubled soul that knew exactly how much Wrong his side had done in the name of the Greater Good. And when some critics predicted the demise of the spy novel as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, le Carré produced The Russia House, a political thriller set in the era of glasnost and perestroika.
Now, in The Night Manager, le Carre’s 14th novel, the former diplomat and intelligence agent trains his jaundiced eye on the illicit arms trade, with its shadowy alliance of businessmen, drug lords, bankers, soldiers, spies and politicians. The page of acknowledgments, which ineludes references from Cairo to Curaçao “ to Quebec, is intriguing. As well as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Treasury, le Carré thanks “the arms dealers who opened their doors to me, as opposed to those who ran a mile when they heard me coming.” The results of that research, combined with le Carré’s descriptive powers, make for some memorable scenes. In fact, the strength of the novel derives from an uncanny sense of authenticity, whether it is a tense committee meeting at Whitehall, a filthy guerrilla training camp in Central America or the staff s backroom banter at a luxurious Swiss hotel. Its weakness is a hero who is too good to be true.
The plot is simple—although le Carré burdens the dozens of characters with enough Proust-like detail to almost derail it. Sir Richard (Dicky) Roper, 50, is a high-living,
well-connected British businessman who uses his legitimate financial interests to cloak illicit arms activities. Roper is about to make one of the biggest deals of his life: he will provide high-tech weapons to a South American drug cartel in exchange for drugs. And Jonathan Pine, former British soldier turned hotelier turned spy, wants to stop him.
The David and Goliath scenario between Pine and Roper is paralleled by an equally sinister struggle within the British spy bureaucracy. Leonard Burr, the dedicated Yorkshireman who recruits Pine, heads a small new agency carved from the secret service, which is known as Pure Intelligence. Burr is fending off any encroachment by his former masters at Pure Intelligence, because he knows that they have been corrupted by greed. “There’s more crookery in that shop, more bad promises to keep, more lunching with the enemy, and gamekeepers turned poachers, than is healthy for my operation, or my agency,” Burr fumes to his civil-servant ally Rex Goodhew.
A current of rage runs through the novel. It suggests that the post-Cold War world, with its chaotic civil wars and lawlessness, offers only a freer arena for greed and corruption. As Pine insinuates himself into Roper’s retinue—a process that occupies almost half the book—the extent of Roper’s evil becomes clear. Aside from trade in war goods, he has lucrative sidelines: “phoney pharmaceuticals, phoney aid packages with bent health ministers, and fake fertilizer with bent agricultural ministers.” Later, le Carré heaps contempt on the Establishment types and hangerson who make Roper’s enterprise possible—a sardonic two-page categorization that includes the “Royals & Ancients” and the “Necessary Evils.”
All of this is entertaining in a long-winded way. But le Carré commits the curious sin of creating a more interesting villain than hero. Roper is a fascinating monster, with a voracious appetite for wealth, power and destructive toys. Pine, on the other hand, is nearly insufferable. Self-exiled from the army after a traumatic shooting in Northern Ireland, he has become the impeccably mannered night manager at Zurich’s Hotel Meister Palace. He is also a first-class sailor, an experienced chef and a magnet for women. He avoids most of them, except Jed, Roper’s impossibly beautiful mistress. He can catch a trout with his bare hands, and after days of torture, he can demolish his captors. He can leap tall buildings ... well, not quite. Le Carré, of all writers, offers this paragon seemingly without irony.
Thankfully, there are enough secondary characters to almost make up for the lapse. Burr is an inspired mixture of blunt words and delicate craftiness. Joe Strelski, Burr’s American counterpart, gives a bitter, brilliant speech about the amount of hypocrisy and sheer untruth his superiors deem necessary to keep things running smoothly. And what happens to Rex Goodhew, the civil-servant reformer who comes up against his own Berlin Wall at the office, is an unforgettable lesson in realpolitik.
If the prose is sometimes arch and the hero a romanticized dud, The Night Manager is still a better bet than most other thrillers. In the fictional world of foreign and domestic betrayal, a flawed le Carré is still enough to discourage defection to the Ludlums and Grishams.
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