Character-driven thriller

2008-11-12 00:00

The wanted man of John le Carré’s new novel is Issa, a young illegal Russian immigrant who lands up in Hamburg, Germany, where his cause is championed by a young civil rights lawyer, Annabel. Her bid to have him avoid deportation leads her to ageing British banker Tommy Brue. But Issa’s arrival has not gone unnoticed by security services intent on waging the “war on terror”. Having fingered Issa as a Muslim dissident, they are keen to see where he might lead them.

Le Carré has indicated that A Most Wanted Man may well be his last novel, that he wants to go out with a bang, not a whimper. This is certainly a bang after the whimper The Mission Song, that rare misfire in the Le Carré canon. Here we have Le Carré happily hunkered down in Hamburg with a plot woven around international terrorism offset by all too human frailties; not least the sort of security service interdepartmental rivalries typical of Le Carré’s earlier fictions, especially the George Smiley trilogy.

Since The Constant Gardener, Le Carre’s writing has to some extent been issue-driven, flowing from a humane social conscience angered by the inequities of the contemporary scene. That book targeted the profit-greedy transnational pharmaceutical companies while The Mission Song took on the shadowy corporate entities engineering wars in the Great Lakes regions. While there is an element of tub-thumping in A Most Wanted Man, the target of Le Carré’s anger and concern only really becomes clear at the climax. Which is fine, as the book’s strength lies in its character-driven, linear narrative, its flavourful dialogue and the finely tuned atmospherics of a world most of us hope we will never stray into.

Stephen Coan

• A Most Wanted Man is on this year’s Exclusive Books’ selection of best books, “The List”.

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