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Smiley is still in business
When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, it raised the question: Had the spy finally come out of the cold;had George Smiley in his trench coat walked away into the last sunset? With the 'evil empire' of the Soviet Union - the demonized Other for western democracy - having self-destructed, should a simultaneous obituary also be written for the espionage novel? David Cornwell - better known as John le Carre - was the first, and arguably the most accomplished, practitioner of the genre to demonstrate that despite the demise of the USSR, the spy thriller was still very much alive and ticking like a time bomb.
Long before 9/11, international terrorism posed a threat to the western world that was more implacable and difficult to counter than that of the Soviet Union, with all its nuclear missiles, had ever been. Global terror was an empire more evil and elusive than Soviet communism. The war against terror would increasingly be fought in the shadow world of the secret agent, and an early intimation of this was given in le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl (1983).
More insidious than terrorism was the 'evil empire' of Big Business with its transnational tentacles of ruthless exploitation. In The Constant Gardener (2000), le Carre took on the world-spanning pharma industry and its exploitation of disease and misery.
Now, with the world still reverberating from the subprimetriggered Wall Street crash that shook the foundations of the global economy, le Carre is back to the villainous world of Big Business, and the ogres of Greed and Deceit that it unleashes on the innocent. The plot - convolute as ever - revolves around an adventurous and idealistic Cambridge don, Peregrine (Perry) Makepiece and his attractive and ambitious barrister girlfriend, Gail who, after a tennis game on the Caribbean island of Antigua, get involved with an international money launderer called Dima who is connected to the Russian mafia, the vory. His protêgê having been assassinated by the vory, Dima is fearful for his own life.
He induces Perry, the would-be knight errant, and a reluctant Gail, to be his go-betweens in setting up a deal with the British secret service: In return for safe sanctuary for himself and his family, Dima will provide a comprehensive list of high-level British political and corporate personalities engaged in global black money operations.
Perry and Gail are sucked into a vortex of conspiracy involving Russian oligarchs, billionaire bankers, corrupt politicians and international power-brokers. In quick flashback and flash-forward sequences, the story unfolds against a shifting backdrop of Antigua, Paris, Russia and the basement of a London house where Perry and Gail are briefed and debriefed by spymaster Hector and his two assistants. Le Carre expertly ratchets up the tension until the denouement with its last twist of treachery.
As he had earlier done with Bill Hayden in the Smiley series, and later with Magnus Pym in The Perfect Spy (1986), in Our Kind of Traitor le Carre dwells on the nature of faith and betrayal, and how the two are indistinguishable in today's midnight garden of good and evil. George Smiley is still in business.
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