Le Carre begins with a bang: This gun is not a gun.
Or such was Mr. Winser's determined conviction when the youthful Alix Hoban, European managing director and chief executive of Trans-Finanz Vienna, Petersburg, and Istanbul, introduced a pallid hand into the breast of his Italian blazer and extracted neither a platinum cigarette case nor an engraved business card, but a slim blue-black automatic pistol in mint condition, and pointed it from a distance of six inches at the bridge of Mr. Winser's beakish but strictly nonviolent nose. This gun does not exist. Le Carre takes us inside Winser's head while the pistol is held in his face, backward through his life, his sex life, his business life, building empathy with Winser. Horrified, we see the gangsters with Hoban produce a video camera, all for the point of filming Winser's execution. The gun is, indeed, a gun. But first-rate espionage writing has to be more than bang-bang, shoot-em-up. And there is not much doubt about Le Carre being first-rate. From being smacked in the face with this beginning dramatic flourish, we are then led through the diminuendo of explication, the weaving of the tapestry of this particular world where the hoods make international cell phone calls and film their executions. It is in some senses a new world for Le Carre readers the Georgia mafia meets Tony London merchant banking. But in many ways, it is the world this masterful storyteller has given us for years.
We have a hero: flawed, scarred by life, unlucky in love, and above all, deeply ambivalent about his professional mission. The people he loves often end up dead. And the threat to them drives the hero to shed his ambiguities and step up to the challenge, pistol in hand.
This time our man is Oliver Single, an awkward, overlarge magician, an entertainer of children. He is living the quiet life. Occasionally he drinks to the point of oblivion. He has the air of having been deeply wounded. But there is more to Oliver than the magician lodger. He is really the son of Tiger Single, the tiny, fastidious mogul who heads the House of Single, a merchant banking firm. To the world, Tiger has made his considerable pile by being the bold venture capitalist who knows the ropes in the former Soviet empire. We learn, however, that the secret of Single's success is better described as laundering and lubricating the flow of funds for the Orlov gang, as colorful a pack of villains as Le Carre ever created.
Young Oliver joins the firm, falls in love, and becomes a traitor to his father's cause. That much you learn in the first few pages. For the rest of this intriguing, brilliantly plotted story one of Le Carre's best you have the pleasure of settling down with a couple of Singles.
W. Foster is an attorney in Columbia, South Carolina.
Le who?John Le Carre was born in England in 1931. After attending the universities of Berne and Oxford, he spent five years in the British Foreign Service. He is the author of 17 novels, including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A Perfect Spy, The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House, and The Tailor of Panama. His books have been translated into 25 languages. He lives in England.