Monday, October 11, 2010

Our Kind of Traitor

John le Carre is one of those authors that everybody tells me I should read, and whom I really want to read. But his towering body of work is... a little intimidating.

So I decided to start with "Our Kind of Traitor," his latest thriller. And it's a solid place to start -- new characters that don't require previous books to understand, heart-pounding suspense, and a genteel British gloss. It's an intelligent and gripping story, but at times le Carre seems to just lose his enthusiasm..

Young Oxford don Perry and his lawyer girlfriend Gail are on vacation in Antigua when they encounter Dima, a Russian millionaire with a large, grim family, a hearty love of the English, and a lavish hand with money. It turns out that he's a professional money-launderer in trouble with a mobster called The Prince. He's willing to spill everything he knows, as long as he and his family are kept safe.

Enter Hector Meredith, an aging spy who runs his own little sub-agency, and who is Dima's best chance of not getting killed. But Perry and Gail "have wandered by sheer accident into a richly planted minefield," and under Hector's guidance they soon find themselves whisked on an international adventure...

"Our Kind of Traitor" is a brilliant novel that's been hobbled. The first few chapters are mostly told in flashback, which saps some of the tension from the story. And the last few chapters feel as if John le Carre got tired of the story he was telling, so he slapped together an ending and pasted it on the end.

So as you can guess, the best part is the middle. Le Carre's prose is smooth, genteel and distinctly British, but fractured with some gritty looks at the underbelly of civilization. The cynicism is heaped high everywhere, whether it's contemptuous looks at the British government, the corrupt banking world, or the bleak, cutthroat world of Russian mobsters.

And le Carre does a pretty good job with the characters, who all feel realistic, flawed and sympathetic. Perry and Gail are a pampered, slightly self-righteous British couple who end up waaaaayyyyy in over their heads. Hector is a tweedy, outspoken old spy, while Dima is a sort of Russian Tony Soprano, whose genial exterior hides his fear and rage.

"Our Kind of Traitor" is a smooth, rich thriller with its ankles shackled -- great writing, rich characters, but it suffers from a limp beginning and a slapdash ending.

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