‘Two young lovers find themselves in the darkening basement of an anonymous house in Bloomsbury. In the same room sit two members of Britain’s intelligence service. And they want information.
The couple, Perry and Gail, have just returned from holiday in the Caribbean where they met the mysterious Dima, a Russian millionaire in fear for his life. The Russian thinks that only the unlikely figure of Perry can save him. And Dima has cash- and he is prepared to pay.
Their meeting will propel Perry and Gail on a terrifying journey from London to Paris and on to a safe house deep in the Swiss Alps. When there is that much money at stake, and a British government that needs it badly, certain sacrifices, even if it means a life or two, will have to be made…’
John Le Carre is one of the best known writers of spy thrillers today. The recent successful, award winning film and TV adaptations of his works ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘, ‘A Most Wanted Man’ and ‘The Night Manager‘ have cemented his place as a genius of the genre. The latest adaptation of his work, a film version of ‘Our Kind of Traitor‘ starring Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard has brought new attention to the novel it’s based on.
The novel centres on Gail, a London barrister and her boyfriend Perry, an Oxford Don as they are sucked into the world of the British intelligence service. After meeting a Russian money launderer by the name of Dima (Skarsgard) on a holiday in Antigua, Perry and Gail become ambassadors for the Russian and his vulnerable family’s safety as Dima tries to get out of the Russian underworld and into the genteel British life he imagines for his family.
As the only other Le Carre novel I’ve read is ‘The Night Manager’ I couldn’t help but compare it. ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ is a lot less busy and, to be frank, a lot less happens. There’s a very clear path in this novel as they are working towards a very clear end. In ‘The Night Manager’ Jonathan is simply trying to catch Roper in the act in such a way as to destroy his operation for good, an opportunity he is more than happy to lie in wait for. However, in this novel the story centres on Perry and Gail’s struggle to get Dima and the children away from danger. There is a set of steps they have to follow and they focus on taking each new challenge as it comes.
The novel’s main strength comes from the placement of the ordinary couple at the heart. This isn’t the story of some incredibly patriotic ex army man, or experienced spies in the heart of the intelligence community. Gail and Perry are an ordinary, albeit fairly upper class, couple who just want to protect innocent children who have already lost enough. Their compassion and heart makes this so much more than a cold, spy novel. The fate of the world isn’t threatened, there’s no big villain set on taking over the Western world. Instead, there’s nothing more at stake than a handful of innocent lives, and yet, that’s enough to give the novel a sense of fierce justice and a desperation that is refreshing. This novel is a good example that writers don’t need to to create an evil villain set on world domination and mass murder to have an atmosphere of high stakes and panic. This relatively low scale story still makes the perfect realistic thriller.
The ending was the only part of the book I found less than satisfying. As you’re getting into the last chapter and you see there’s only 15 or so pages left and yet there’s so much left to be resolved you can’t help but feel more than a little nervous. To be honest, I got to the stage where I wanted a happy ending so bad that I tried very hard to ignore all the hints Le Carre gives that that just won’t happen. It’s not that I didn’t like the ending, in fact I felt the abruptness was probably far more realistic and enjoyable than a happy ending with all the ends neatly tied up in little bows. But I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that there’s no epilogue, no after this horrific event this is what happened to the rest of the characters. There’s no comeuppance for the villains, no glory-filled happy ending for the good guys. It leaves you feeling sort of deflated and all I can say is that I hope the film deals with the finale in a bit of a better way, otherwise I can imagine a lot of frustrated film fans.
All in all, I did love the book though, it was an easy, compelling read that I finished in 2 days with no trouble. I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of spy novels or thrillers, or has just heard of Le Carre’s reputation and wants to sample some of his work.