Review: le Carre Novel Is Missing the Old Sparkle

There is always a crucial moment in a John le Carre spy thriller when a protagonist commits to something. That is, when a major character goes for broke and takes the irrevocable plunge into whatever the action is. It's crucial because not only does the plot usually hang on this point, but so does the author's credibility. It can occur at any point in the novel—in "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," it occurs on almost the last page, when Leamas decides to come back down the wall. You read that scene and think, yes, that is what he would do. If you don't come to that conclusion, the book's not going to work. The reader either buys that "no-turning-back" moment, or everything starts to unravel.

Spy novels rise and fall on credibility, but it's not all spycraft and exploding cigars. Much more important, you, the reader, must believe that the people involved in the plot, not only the spies, would behave the way they are said to behave. No one does this better than le Carre. In his cold-war trilogy about George Smiley and Karla—Smiley's opposite number in the KGB—the most unbelievable thing about Smiley is that he only exists on paper. You may never have met an espionage agent, but le Carre convinces us a hundred different ways that Smiley is real, right down to the way he cleans his eyeglasses on his tie.

There is no one quite so vivid in "A Most Wanted Man," le Carre's most recent novel, although the Chechen exile Issa, around whom the plot revolves, comes close. He's a mess, a mass of contradictions, and to the end an unresolved mystery. American and British intelligence brand him a terrorist. The Germans aren't so sure. The Turkish couple that give him asylum in Hamburg think he's a martyr. The lawyer who takes up his case can never make up her mind what or who he is, only that he deserves her protection. Is he the son of a dead Soviet general? Almost surely. Was his mother Chechen? Possibly. How did he get the cigarette burns and other torture marks on his body? No telling. One thing for sure, Issa is more than a little mad. He wants to become a doctor and heal his people. He wants and doesn't want the fortune his father had squirreled away in a Hamburg bank. He wants to marry his lawyer. "When you have converted to God's faith, which is the religion of my mother and my people, and I am an important doctor with a Western qualification and a car like Mr. Brue's, I shall devote all my non-professional time to your comfort … When you are not too pregnant, you will be a nurse in my hospital."

Le Carre has taken heat lately for allowing didacticism to invade his fiction. In this novel, for instance, the American and British intelligence agents are altogether vile, smart but never wise, cynical but never perceptive. Given the "progress" of the war on terror, this seems only mildly prejudicial. But critics who concentrate on le Carre's rather cartoonish portrayals of western intelligence agents fail to consider the wonder he's wrought with a character like Issa, who is the perfect embodiment of what we know about the Islamic world: he might be this, he might be that, he might be crazy, dangerous, harmless, sweet, malign—there's no telling. But everyone in the book sees the Issa they want to see. He is both a living, breathing character and a walking metaphor, the double duty is no strain at all. Few writers are capable of such subtlety.

"A Most Wanted Man," like so much of le Carre's fiction, is about a turf war, about who gets to be top dog. The Germans fight among themselves, then fight with the British and finally the Americans. Again, those critics who disdain le Carre's willingness to use his fiction to criticize U.S. and British foreign policy ignore the fact that in some ways he's been doing this for years. It was less obvious in the Smiley era, because he was more or less calling down a plague on everyone's houses, but if there was any moral high ground for Smiley and Co., it was mighty well hidden. The image that resonates through all his fiction is the line from "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," when Leamas is dying at the foot of the Berlin Wall and sees a vision of "a small car smashed between two great lorries, and the children waving cheerfully through the window." Not to be too heavy-handed, but the lorries are the governing powers of the West and the Soviet Union and the children are the rest of us. The criticism has always been there. It's just become more pointed of late.

What's new in le Carre's more recent books is a tiredness—not in the prose, which is as graceful as ever, but in the imagining. Novel writing is exhausting work, even for a man who does it as well as le Carre. There is a cursory feel to this novel, an absence of the sort of energy that fueled the earlier books. The scene where Tommy Brue, a banker in late middle age with an unfaithful wife and a failing bank, decides to get involved in Issa's case—you read that scene and you think, would a banker take the plunge like this, expose himself to ruin and arrest for people he hardly knows? Well, he might or he might not, but when le Carre was in his prime, he would have left us no room for that question. He would have taken steps to ensure that we believed that Tommy could and would put himself at risk in such a fashion. But here, le Carre is in a little too much of a hurry to stop and give his characters the extra touches of humanity that made such titles as "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "The Honourable Schoolboy" come alive. "A Most Wanted Man" is a more than satisfactory espionage novel about hunting terrorists in Europe. The plot works fine. The prose is peerless. All it lacks is those crucial details and moments that make a book come alive. If just once someone had cleaned his glasses on his tie, that might have made all the difference.