'Our Kind of Traitor': John le Carré's novel of the world's number-one money launderer
A review of John le Carré's new novel, "Our Kind of Traitor," which looks at what happens when a mysterious Russian businessman, bent on betraying his criminal cohorts in exchange for sanctuary in "the land of fair-playing Englishmen," enlists a young English couple's help.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Our Kind of Traitor'
by John le Carré
Viking, 306 pp., $27.95
Late in John le Carré's "Our Kind of Traitor," a distraught and drunken spy phones a civilian he is directing in a complex operation. The spy rambles on about Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish philosopher whose views on good and evil were stern indeed: black and white and never blurry.
As this subtle and nuanced novel shows, however, things can rarely be labeled quite so easily.
"Our Kind of Traitor" confirms that le Carré's work is still the gold standard of espionage fiction — and that the author is still a master of any sort of fiction, no matter the genre. It's the latest of his brilliant, morally outraged works that mine rich veins of post-Cold War venality.
In this case, the book's carefully calibrated plot addresses the brutal and deeply corrupt realities of the global free market — a world of Russian gangsters, greed-heads at the tops of political structures, and the manipulative figures who slide back and forth between them.
A prim but left-leaning British couple — Perry, an academic, and Gail, a lawyer — are vacationing in a plush tennis resort in the Caribbean. There, they meet a charismatic and volatile Russian named Dima, a larger-than-life figure capable of switching in a heartbeat from seething hostility to sloppy declarations of love.
The charismatic Dima challenges Perry to a tennis match, played in front of bodyguards and the Russian's bizarrely affectless family. Before the holiday ends, the Russian has, in endearingly broken English, asked the young couple for help.
The crux of the matter is that Dima, "the world's number-one money launderer," is willing to betray his criminal cohorts. Specifically, he wants to unburden himself of the darkest secrets of the Russian mafia's global dealings. Heartsick at recent murders that struck close to his family, and fearful for them and himself, he craves sanctuary.
In exchange, Dima wants sanctuary in what he romantically imagines is a land of fair-playing Englishmen. He believes that Russian gangsters are about to kill him and his beloved family. The money launderer has good reason to be fearful, as a recent family tragedy shows.
Dima wants the young academic to help him switch sides. Out of curiosity and a sense of duty, Perry agrees. Gail, reluctant at first, joins the mission after becoming emotionally attached to Dima's troubled daughters.
Hector — the spy who drinks and dials — then sets up a complex plot to get Dima to safety, but he encounters roadblocks from within and without. The brutal Russian Mafiosi comprise one enemy faction; Secret Service bigwigs with reason to quash the mission — and who have a personal vendetta against Hector — are the other.
"Our Kind of Traitor" has several virtuoso set pieces, from Dima's desperate opening entreaties in the Caribbean to a stunning climax in the Swiss Alps. But le Carré always avoids cheap thrills; rather than slam-bang action, he plays to his strengths: a gift for fully rounded characters, a finely attuned eye for detail and ear for dialogue, a savory prose style, and a knack for slowly unfurling plots.
Some readers may feel that the book's conclusion is too sad and cynical. (I don't. It seemed just right to me.) Whatever one thinks about the book's end, however, it can't be denied that "Our Kind of Traitor" is, among other things, a touching and provocative look at the question of knowing right from wrong — something that even a wise Polish philosopher might have a tough time adequately answering.
Seattle writer Adam Woog's column
on crime fiction appears on the
second Sunday of the month
in The Seattle Times.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.