Our Kind of Traitor

I mentioned last year how I was inspired by The Company of Strangers to read more spy novels. Well, here I am, reading some John le Carre, the rock star spy novel writer. It was about thirty years ago when I picked up either Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Little Drummer Girl (can’t recall exactly), and tossed it after a couple of days because it was too slow. Those were the Ludlum years for me and I needed more killing and car chases than le Carre usually provided. Oh, how old age changes us. Now I’m becoming a big fan of the spy novel.

This book is the story of two innocent Brits, a Russian mobster, and a few roguishly likable members of British Intelligence. The innocents are tossed into the spy game when the Russian mobster requests their assistance for defecting after a chance meeting while vacationing in Antigua. The innocents turn to British Intelligence for help and get hooked up with handlers who work for a “special projects” division.

A fairly sized portion of the story is recalled in a light interrogation of the two innocent Brits by British Intel. It dominates maybe the first third of the book and takes place in the basement of a nondescript house which doubles as the office for this special projects division. It’s mostly told through the perspective of the female innocent Gail, the deepest character in the book. I think that may be a hallmark of le Carre, strong and thoughtful female characters, judging from a few of the movies I’ve seen. Now that I think of it, this is the only le Carre book I’ve ever finished. Anyway, this retrospective format is at times confusing to follow, but it’s a great format for getting to know Gail.

** PLOT KILLERS **

After this, there is a big chunk of back story on the crew from British Intelligence, mostly told through the eyes of the number two guy, Luke. It dominates big chunks of the second third of the book (this could be a three act play). Luke is flawed with hints of a dark side, but in the end was the consummate professional. This section was deliberate and mysterious. That’s a spy novel and that’s le Carre. I can see how I got frustrated as a youngster. There is a lot of personal back story type of stuff that thriller writers leave out. Spy novelists seem a little more spare on the crackling dialogue and action sequences. I knew this going in and liked it.

Things get intense in the last third when the civilians get to Paris (with British Intelligence nearby) for the meet-up with the Russian mobster and potential defection of his entire extended family. The reader needs the first two thirds of the book to understand what is going on in the minds of the characters. That’s why the last third, the real time action sequence, so to speak, is so good. There aren’t gunfights, chases, and brawls, but there is a very detailed caper and suspenseful aftermath. And you get to feel it through the minds of a large number of the characters. Great ride.

The ending really rocked me. Not necessarily in a good way, but not in a bad way either. It was abrupt. Probably as abrupt as any I’ve experienced in my history of reading fiction. It effectively resolved nothing, nada, zero. I’m not saying it was bad, I’m saying it didn’t put everything in a nice package with a bow and hand it to you – in fact, it didn’t even get to the point of buying wrapping paper and some ribbon. But I accept the ending. I’m comfortable ruminating on what could have happened rather than knowing exactly what did happen.

Bring on some more le Carre.