John le Carré's celebrated 50-year career has produced 22 novels and given generations of readers an eye-popping tour of the shadow worlds of espionage and crime. Reviewed: A Most Wanted Man, Jan/Feb 2009; The Mission Song, Nov/Dec 2006.
The Story: Idealistic Oxford don Perry Makepiece and his girlfriend Gail Perkins are enjoying their holiday at an exclusive Antiguan resort when charismatic Russian businessman and fellow vacationer Dmitri "Dima" Krasnov challenges Perry to a tennis match. Although Perry wins the game, Dima takes a liking to the couple and soon entrusts them with a critical task: to contact the British secret service on his behalf and communicate his desire to defect. Dima, distressed by his deteriorating ties to the Russian mafia, promises to spill the beans on his criminal cohorts in exchange for sanctuary. Meanwhile, Perry and Gail find themselves caught up in an increasingly treacherous game of cat-and-mouse.
Viking. 320 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9780670022243
"Our Kind of Traitor is fuelled by Le Carré's familiar rage at corporate greed and amorality, but it is kept in close check: like so much of what he writes, the violence, cruelty and real horror are off-stage, while the less obvious violence is front and centre, in the amoral and treacherous world of money-broking, money-laundering, influence-selling, and unprincipled politics. ... Our Kind of Traitor builds to a masterful climax, and is over almost before you know it." Ian Campbell
"To say that le Carré has written an exciting and insightful novel is too banal. It is much more than that. Not only does his story force us to understand things about the murky international financial system but he also shows no fear whatsoever in criticising the ‘honourable' intelligence agencies of the world." Henning Mankell
"The guts of the tale lie in the encounters between the spies and the innocents, as so often with le Carré, and when that relationship begins in earnest, Our Kind of Traitor is on an uplifting and pleasingly-familiar course, though it is one that confirms the depths of the author's discomfort and anger at the world. ... The set-piece confrontations and the moments when the story turns on its axis are handled with the old magic." James Naughtie
"Though at times, in the plotting of this novel, le Carré appears to be writing from muscle memory, he sketches the courtship by which Makepiece is seduced into ‘doing his duty' for his country with typical deftness. ... The here and now of the novel extends to having a chapter take place at the 2009 French Open tennis final between Roger Federer and Robin Söderling; this documentary strain sometimes feels like it is employed to give at least the atmosphere of verisimilitude to what threatens at times to be a somewhat dubious premise." Tim Adams
"The intelligence operation and the bureaucratic tussles are, as usual, spiritedly done, but the plotting often conveys the feeling of a writer going through the motions. ... . But his deft setting up of colourful characters, and slightly less deft meshing of psychology and plot requirements, doesn't always make for narrative tension." Christopher Tayler
"It's an intriguing and ultimately captivating story, but not without its structural and characterisation problems. ... The characters of Perry and Gail are rather too thin to spend all this time with, and Le Carré is on more solid ground with his cast of intelligence officers." Doug Johnstone
Much to the dismay of many longtime fans, le Carré chose to keep up with the times after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet, despite his shift from Cold War-era espionage to more contemporary themes, le Carré's signature stark prose, pitch-perfect dialogue, authentic characters, and moral indignation have stood the test of time. The critics were pleased to see "the master" (Telegraph) back in action, but some had reservations: While the Guardian lamented the "long, fussily narrated opening," the Scotsman praised Traitor's "long and elegantly paced plot." Others quibbled about some dubious plot devices and cartoonish villains, but these complaints paled beside "the old magic" (Telegraph). Intriguing and tense, Traitor shines a blinding, angry, and welcome light on shady international finances and underhanded intelligence agents.