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Russian crooks at large in le Carre's latest

In an essay for the New York Times in 1995, spy novelist John le Carre wrote about preparing for a trip to post-Soviet Russia.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

By John le Carre

Viking. 320 pp. $27.95

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Reviewed by Paul Davis

In an essay for the New York Times in 1995, spy novelist John le Carre wrote about preparing for a trip to post-Soviet Russia.

"Crooks, I had told my Moscow contact when he asked me what sort of people we wanted to meet," le Carre wrote. "Mafia bosses and their underlings. Old KGB hands. The new rich. Cops."

In the essay, le Carre told of meeting a Russian organized crime boss in a club. The gangster was muscular, had a bald head, tattoos, and an open shirt that revealed multiple gold chains around his neck. He reminded the author of the actor Telly Savalas.

In his 22d novel, Our Kind of Traitor, le Carre offers a Russian crime boss clearly in the mold of the gangster he met in Moscow in 1993.

"At seven o'clock of a Caribbean morning, on the island of Antigua, one Peregrine Makepiece, otherwise known as Perry, an all-round amateur athlete of distinction and until recently tutor in English literature at a distinguished Oxford college, played three sets of tennis against a muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle-fifties called Dima. How this match came about was quickly the subject of intense examination by British agents professionally disposed against the working of chance," writes le Carre in the novel's opening.

Makepiece, a dissatisfied Oxford tutor and enthusiastic and competitive mountain climber and tennis player, is vacationing on Antigua with his girlfriend Gail Perkins, a lawyer.

His skill at tennis makes him the ideal opponent for a mysterious and influential guest of the Caribbean resort named Dmitri Vladimirovich Krasnov, a.k.a. "Dima."

Makepiece beats Dima at tennis, but the Russian declares his respect for English "fair play" and he befriends the British couple. For their part, the British couple becomes emotionally involved with Dima's peculiar family.

Dima later approaches Makepiece and asks him to act as an intermediary with the British authorities. Dima offers to provide the British government with information about money-laundering operations and corrupt officials in the United Kingdom.

Cash-strapped British banks were willing to accept dirty Russian organized crime money and certain British government officials were facilitating the deals, Dima explains. (There is a scene on a yacht where the Russians meet with British politicians, which echoes a real scandal in recent British politics.)

Dima admits to Makepiece that he is the chief money launderer for the Russian Mafia. He explains that the new leadership wants to push him out of business and then murder him.

It turns out that Dima served 15 years in a Soviet Kolyma prison camp, but he stresses that his offenses to the Soviet state were purely criminal, not political. He is disdainful of politics, but proud of his criminal stature, which he achieved by killing a Soviet military official.

"For criminal prisoner Dima, other prisoners got respect," Dima said. "Why I was in Kolyma? I was murderer. Good murderer."

Upon returning to the United Kingdom, Makepiece contacts the British Secret Intelligence Service, often called MI6 by the public. He and Gail Perkins are taken to a safe house in London and debriefed by a trio of British intelligence officers.

This is a talky thriller, with a plot that unfolds mostly through dialogue - and the dialogue is mostly in the form of interrogation and debriefing. Despite the lack of action, the thriller moves along at a fast pace.

Unfortunately, we learn far more about the British yuppies then we do the more interesting Russian gangsters. Le Carre does not even bother to name the villain of the novel, an upstart Russian crime lord who is pushing Dima out of the business. He is simply called "the Prince," Dima's sarcastic title for him.

I also found the novel's ending flat and anticlimactic.

But there is enough smart writing here to keep a reader's interest, such as an exchange between Makepiece and Hector, the leader of the British officers. Hector tells Makepiece that he must trust them.

"Your service's word?" Makepiece asks.

"For the time being, yes."

"On the strength of what? Aren't you supposed to be the gentlemen who lie for the good of the country?"

"That's diplomats. We're not gentlemen."

"So you lie to save your hides."

"That's politicians. Different game entirely."

This novel is not as anti-American as le Carre's last couple of books, but he manages to take a few potshots. It's not up to the standard of le Carre's classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it is still an interesting thriller.