The nightmare and shame of humanity is that there is always a war going on somewhere on the planet. And yet, for writers such as John le Carré, this sad fact is great fodder for stories. Where there is conflict, there are spies, and le Carré—a former secret agent himself—is a writer in complete command of the spy genre. In the aftermath of 9/11, his spies have made a seamless transition into the modern world. They are just as devious, just as two-faced and, thanks to their creator, just as riveting a collection of characters as he brought us when writing about the Cold War and MI6 operative George Smiley.
A Most Wanted Man opens with a slender young man in a dark coat named Issa (a Persian name for Jesus) following a Turkish mother and son on a dark street at night in Hamburg, Germany. The young man is a devout Muslim and asks for shelter in their home. This sets off a chain of events that involves an unlikely trio of central characters—Issa, whose real background is that of a Russian aristocrat; Annabel Richter, a young idealistic lawyer who acts as Issa's attorney; and Tommy Brue, a retiring wealthy British banker. Issa has been smuggled into Hamburg to retrieve a huge sum of money held for years by Tommy Brue's bank. But Issa wants nothing to do with what he considers a tainted fortune, given that it originated with his father, Col. Karpov of the Red Army.
Where le Carré excels, perhaps better than anyone, is in the gray areas of plot and characterization. This is a complex and multi-layered work with a roll call of memorable characters that still manages to distill the theme into Western thought versus Islamist philosophy.
At 77 years of age, le Carré (né David Cornwell) shows no signs of slowing down. You're never in for a breezy read with him, but as in the works of most master craftsman, the demands put upon the reader are small compared to the intense and lasting rewards.
Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.