SINCE THE mid-’60s, David Cornwell, writing under the name John Le Carré, has given us literate spy thrillers tied in some way to the political zeitgeist of Cold War Britain and by extension Western Europe. Whether he is working with Palestinians or Northern Irish nationalists or Russian mobsters, he finds a way to deliver their worlds and their choices and also to keep us entertained. Based on his earlier, inestimable success, the advertising copy for his newest novel, Single & Single, declares that he “both epitomizes and transcends the novel of espionage”–not a small claim.
Like John D. McDonald or Raymond Chandler, Le Carré has gathered over the years not merely a broad popular audience like, say, John Grisham’s, but also a clutch of fans among the literary world. Acknowledged as a master storyteller, he’s often pointed out as a writer who can craft both a smart, coherent plot and people it with deep, believable characters.
In Single & Single, Le Carré again relies on his tried-and-true formula, playing into his strengths. The book opens with a typical Hollywood setpiece: a British business lawyer on his knees on a Turkish hillside overlooking the sea, answering questions at gunpoint. The device of the talking killers is ancient, as is the character’s mind running wild under pressure, feeding the reader information about both himself and this new situation we’ve stumbled upon. The combination of melodrama (since we don’t know this man or his captors, why should we care about anything but the bare bones of the scene, which are standard TV fare?) and exposition through dialogue (the most graceless way of getting it across) is shameless, but it keeps us reading.
Jumpcut to England, to a new character, Oliver Hawthorne, a divorced man working as a child’s magician who at first glance is unrelated to the opening scene, but who, we understand (by convention), is on a collision course with the storyline. How? the reader naturally asks. LeCarré makes us wait an entire chapter while he dishes out background on the character, none of which is dramatic, or only under the umbrella of the opening.
A taste of the prose is appropriate:
- In the small south English hill town of Abbots Quay, on the coast of Devon, on a sparkling spring morning that smelt of cherry blossom, Mrs. Elsie Watmore stood in the front porch of her Victorian boardinghouse and bawled cheerfully at her lodger Oliver, twelve steps below her on the pavement, where he was loading battered black suitcases into his Japanese van with the assistance of her ten-year-old son, Sammy.
The van aside, this formal, even stiff diction could have been written a hundred years ago, and conveys its extraneous information at a leisurely pace, ostensibly to fit the sensibility of the place and the character of Mrs. Watmore. But this is typical of the narration throughout, as if its stuffiness were proof of its literary quality (as good manners are supposed to convey one’s honorable character).
Jumpcut to Chapter 3, and a third character, British agent Nat Brock, examining the body of the lawyer in a Turkish morgue. The corrupt and bumbling officials try to palm his death off as a suicide, but Brock is too smart for them, has every answer.
This is the simple catalyst of the mystery–a body, a man who will be drawn into the plot against his will, and a savvy detective. The world LeCarré leads us into is that of the post-Cold War’s shady international traders–Georgians in this case, moving heroin and nuclear triggers westward, and the English legal firm of Single’s who launder their profits. Tiger Single, a streetwise carnival barker of a lawyer with expensive tastes, has disappeared after one of the Georgians’ freighters has been boarded on the high seas. No one can find him, and no one knows why.
Into this set of events steps Tiger’s estranged son Oliver, once part of the operation before he betrayed his father to British intelligence, now a children’s magician living under an assumed name, and a pawn in Brock’s operation. Oliver doesn’t want to be part of his father’s world anymore, but he has a daughter, Carmen, and an ex-, Heather, and it appears the only way to keep them safe (and to find his father) is to go along with Brock, plunging him into the tangled pit of international smuggling and banking.
The complications Le Carré throws at the reader are not the twists and surprises one might expect of a master storyteller. Much of the first half of the book is told in retrospect, in a breathless present tense recalling Oliver’s difficulties with his father. The bulk of the point of view narration is given to him, so much so that when another character’s subjective world intrudes we wonder if it’s necessary.
Yes, it’s necessary. By its very nature, the large plotted novel of intrigue works best in multiple subjective points of view, since each narrating character only has his or her pieces of the puzzle. The reader (like the writer) is the only one in the privileged position to see how all the pieces fit, and the subjective narration keeps us leaning forward as each character struggles to find the next piece for us. Part of the fun is trying to outguess not just the characters but the author, who has a great advantage and had better use it. In omniscient narration, where the writer can read all the characters’ minds and must disclose anything of consequence, there are no hidden surprises for the reader to keep searching for, only the promise of action.
In the back half, Single & Single becomes a series of conversations between Oliver and characters associated with the murder, the freighter and his father, each interview giving him (and us) another puzzle piece. Interspersed with these are flashbacks filling in the relationship between Oliver and Tiger, showing how the high-flying lawyer’s spiel and doubledealing of the father become, in the gentler son, the magician’s witty patter and harmless love of illusion.
It all takes a long time, and we know the killer’s identity early on, so what we’re waiting for is the explanation: Why?
The answer, unfortunately, is divulged not at gunpoint but, as with everything else, in simple conversation, and holds no real surprise for the reader. Oliver gives up nothing for this information, only the nerve it takes him to approach the various characters, and they’re types–the addled, drunken mother, the gruff Russian mafia don with his villa and vineyards, the sniggering Truman Capote toady. Throughout, in the tradition of the James Bond novels, beautiful women from all countries throw themselves at Oliver (including, in an embarrassing scene, his father’s mistress), for no other reason than he is the hero of the book.
The suspense, after finding out why, is the (finally) simple matter of finding Tiger alive, which is achieved far too easily. Oliver’s magician’s skills and a convenient lack of security in several important buildings give him access to everything he needs. When he confronts his father’s kidnappers, he changes their minds with nothing more than words; they believe him, it seems. The bad guy is dispatched with a single bullet through the forehead, as in the worst Bruce Willis movies, and just then the commandos smash through the windows and save the day–oh no, it’s the bad Russians! But then–crash!–Brock’s good commandos show up, the lead one being the tall blonde who’s fallen for Oliver. She has legs up to her neck and can handle an AK. The book ends just short of a kiss.
In fact, the book ends so abruptly–the killing and two opposing sets of commandos summed up in two pages with an offhandedness that drains the action of any urgency–that I wondered if the copy I had was defective. No, the library said when I called to check, that’s the last page.
So what happened? Why is the book of this titan so weak?
The two great difficulties in attempting to transcend or straddle a popular genre is that you will not reach the literary depth of characterization on the one hand and, in attempting that deep characterization, you will water down the propulsive elements of the storyline on the other. Here Le Carré does both. The plot elements and even the scenes are old hat, wall-to-wall Hollywood, and Oliver, for all the background info and supposed soul-searching he does, is a cheesy Hamlet:
- “Where have you been, Oliver?”
Beyond the awful dialogue, any moral dimension to the story is absolutely lacking. Oliver’s qualms about his father’s business are justified but in the most simplistic way: Heroin is bad, nuclear triggers are bad, killing people is bad. There’s no real wrestling with angels, or even gray areas, only with himself, and that’s solved in the end by simple paternal and filial duty. He’s a good guy in a corrupt world, not, like Philip Marlowe, a knight fallen himself but desperate to live up to some ingrown sense of chivalry. Late in the book, one lover says to Oliver, in all seriousness, “You are the last innocent.” Okay, fine, except this is supposed to be the deepest character in the book, the one we’ve spent 300 pages with.
David Cornwell came up through British intelligence in the ’50s and ’60s, when the Soviet moles were at work, turning people, and loyalty was the deepest, most terrifying concern. As John LeCarré, he’s framed that fear again and again. In his universe, “Who are you really working for?” is a vital question. The reasons behind the answer may vary, but ultimately they don’t matter as much as the answer itself. You are either with us, the good guys, or them, the bad guys; in the end, the moral ambiguity within comes from understanding the good guys aren’t always so good, and that you have helped them do specific bad things to innocent people. In Single & Single, Oliver never has to face that fact; it’s erased by his standing as the prodigal son, come to save his father from annihilation by true (cartoon) evil, and in doing so finding himself again.
It’s unfair to compare one author with another, yet one cannot speak of John Le Carré’s work without looking at that of a fellow Briton who graduated from the intelligence community to write literate thrillers set in far-flung countries and also concerned with issues of loyalty and moral confusion. Graham Greene wrote two kinds of books, by his own admission: serious work, and what he called “entertainments.” His serious work delved deep into morally conflicted characters wrestling with not only their impossible jobs and relationships but with their afflicted souls. No one would expect John Le Carré to approach the scary territory of Brighton Rock or The Power and the Glory, but even The Quiet American, one of Greene’s entertainments, is hauntingly prophetic politically and contains more moral shading and truth than Single & Single, and at half the size and twice the speed.
Writing, like any profession that demands a command performance each time, is not a process you master. Unless you try to write the same book over and over–and many authors do–you are bound to fail sometimes, often due to your own lofty ambitions. Mr. Le Carré’s failures of conception and execution in Single & Single are not grievous. His readers will forgive him and await the next book, hoping for another gem like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. May their loyalty be rewarded. In the meantime, they might try something by Graham Greene.