John LeCarré is thought by many of his myriad admirers worldwide to be the master of the modern spy novel. In fact, he is perhaps the innovator of the complex and intricately plotted tales of the cold War, which pit the secret services of Great Britain against those of the Soviet KGB. His early The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and the later Smiley’s People series built his deserved reputation, based no doubt in part upon his experiences in years of working in British Foreign Services.
His new novel, rocketing to the top of the best seller lists, is for this reader his best work. The Russia House brings the period under contemplation to the present of Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika and examines it with meticulous attention.
A brilliant Russian defense physicist of the highest rank, for what he has come to feel are moral and totally compelling reasons, has decided to betray his country and reveal secrets of the utmost importance to the West. By accident he meets and is greatly impressed by a British publisher called Barley Blair: a drinker, facile, talented and eccentric, who is on a business trip to a Russian book fair. He decides that Barley must publish for the West a manuscript that will reveal the secret material, devastating in its impact.
Blair, not particularly interested, is with the greatest reluctance enlisted by British intelligence and the American CIA to deal with the Russian and secure this greatly desired material for them. Blair, sent back to Moscow, meets and is immediately and seriously attracted to Katya, a beautiful Russian woman, the former lover and now trusted friend of the Informant, code-named Bluebird, who is to be the intermediary between her friend and Barley. The intricate plot, not to be detailed here, finally winds to the somewhat ambiguous but ultimately satisfying conclusion.
Le Carré, whose writing improves with every book, is a very good writer indeed; he is, in fact, a fine novelist. The Russia House, while it entertains brilliantly, does much more. The view given us of the working style and techniques of the American and British intelligence services is absorbing and more than a bit frightening, particularly as it reveals jealousy and lack of confidence and trust which exist between the western services. He also makes it quite clear that whatever leaders at the top may appear to feel about the lessening of tension between East and West, the intelligence professionals remain unconvinced, even if hopeful. The Cold War continues on those levels, as always. Whether this is LeCarré’s own view is one of the principal ambiguities. And then, finally, there is the beautiful, lovely, passionate love that blooms for Katy and Barley, at whatever cost to their countries and to themselves. The major characters are engrossing, and the lesser figures, mainly intelligence personnel, are entirely convincing and always interesting. In sum, a splendid novel, read at whatever level.
Alan Zibart, a bookseller for more than 50 years, is the publisher's father.