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38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-A Most Wanted ManOne of the defining authors of the genre, John le Carré has been writing spy novels since 1961. He reached a wide audience with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963). We recently reviewed The Mission Song ( 3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2006). A Most Wanted Man is his 21st novel.

The Story: Who is Issa Karpov? To human rights lawyer Annabel Richter, he is a refugee who has been tortured by several countries and wishes only to immigrate to the West through Hamburg, Germany—and to be free, finally, of the Iron Curtain. To British banker Tommy Brue, he is a reminder of his father’s shadowy legacy: the private accounts he set up for corrupt Russian army officers. (Issa, despite being a Chechen Muslim, apparently has a claim to one such account.) To German spymaster Gunther Bachmann and his American and British colleagues, Issa may be a way of gaining access to networks that finance and train jihadist groups throughout the Islamic world—or he may not. As in so much spy fiction, le Carré’s post-9/11 spy thriller depends not so much on who knew what and when but who one is and why.
Scribner. 336 pages. $28. ISBN: 1416594884

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] few weeks after the cold war sat up in its coffin and smiled, John le Carré publishes one of the best novels he’s ever written. Maybe the best, it’s possible." Alan Furst

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"At mid-century, Graham Greene magnificently exploited the possibilities inherent in the porous membrane between the espionage genre and the novel of political criticism. But no author has made better use of that literary passage than John le Carré, beginning with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in 1963. A Most Wanted Man is his 21st novel and surely one of his best—intricately plotted, beautifully written, propulsive, morally engaged, but timely as today’s headlines." Tim Rutten

Ft. Worth Star Telegram 3.5 of 5 Stars
"When the fate of civilization seems to hang in the balance, do clandestine ends justify the means? There is perhaps no good answer, but in le Carré’s hands, the question never gets old." Tim Madigan

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Few writers lend such human nuance to the ugly business of intelligence like le Carré; his indictment of ‘rendition’ is equally thoughtful. … Not necessarily an enduring work but an admirable sketch of modern ‘espiocracy’ by a writer who knows its secrets better than most." Clayton Moore

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"A Most Wanted Man is far from le Carré’s best work. Attorney Richter is more a symbol of moral rectitude than a fleshed-out character, and Issa, perhaps in an effort to render him less threatening, is almost clownish." James F. Sweeney

Wall Street Journal 1 of 5 Stars
"If you begin to suspect that Mr. le Carré could have saved himself some labor by writing something even shorter, like an essay or just a blogger’s post—on stophatingallah.com?—you aren’t far off." Kyle Smith

Washington Post 1 of 5 Stars
"As one who has reviewed his work for more than three decades, always with admiration and at times with unfettered enthusiasm, I’d place A Most Wanted Man toward the lower end of the 21 novels he has now written. It is intelligent, of course, and immensely informative about espionage and the people who engage in it, but its prose occasionally is flabby … the feelings its central characters have for each other are utterly unconvincing, and it ends on a note of clichéd, knee-jerk anti-Americanism that I find repellent." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

While this novel may be le Carré’s first take on espionage in Europe after the Cold War, critics could not be more divided over its quality. Alan Furst, himself one of the greats of the genre, opines that A Most Wanted Man might be one of the author’s best, not for its content so much as for its technical brilliance. But other reviewers panned the work, arguing that le Carré’s outrage over recent American intelligence practices distorts the plot and renders many of the characters as mere clichés. Perhaps the consensus is that A Most Wanted Man is an enjoyable le Carré novel (and therefore much better than most thrillers)—but far from his best.