BOOK REVIEW / Other side of the Wall: The night manager by John le Carre, Hodder pounds 15.99

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The Independent Culture
LITERARY genres come and go - and in some cases come again, like the New Gothic - but only one genre expired at the peak of its popularity, killed off in a single day not by taste but by history. When the Berlin Wall revealed itself to be porous on 10 November 1989, two lucrative professions were plunged into crisis: the espionage community; and the writers who for years had made a living out of writing Cold War thrillers.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the reactions of both have been similar - an initial attempt to deny that anything has really changed, followed by a gradual diversification into related areas. The former spies are now said to be offering their intelligence-gathering skills to the highest bidder - whether big business or organised crime - while the writers are seeking substitutes for their lost Berlin and for the powerfully polarised currents of violence, deceit and potential global destruction which met at its divided heart.

As befits the most thoughtful and suggestive of the latter fraternity, John le Carre makes the solution to his problem the devious ways in which the newly redundant spymasters are attempting to solve theirs. With George Smiley safely pensioned off, the 'espiocrats' are running their 'Pure Intelligence' operation not from the Circus but from 'a grim tower block on the South Bank'. Pure, that is, as opposed to Applied, which is the remit of Enforcement, 'an under-funded, under- wanted agency' run by ex-intelligence officer Leonard Burr under the tutelage of Rex Goodhew, a Smiley-lookalike senior civil servant.

Burr and Goodhew's target in mounting Operation Limpet is Richard Onslow Roper, an upper- class shit with brains who is attempting to recoup his dwindling fortunes with a spectacular arms- for-drugs deal with Colombian cocaine gangs. Their weapon is Jonathan Pine, who, driven by a personal vendetta against Roper, gives up his job as the hotel 'night manager' of le Carre's deliberately symbolic title to mount an undercover operation designed to smash this deal.

Le Carre is one of the few British genre writers to have an ear for spoken language, and his ability to transcribe Whitehall bureaucratese is in evidence here once again: 'A revision of responsibilities is in no circumstances within the gift of rival agencies. Even assuming that Enforcement were prepared voluntarily to quit the field, the agencies are not empowered to carve up their responsibilities among themselves without reference to Steering.' He also essays the wilder flights of American jargon with almost equal panache: 'This Limpet thing is right off the wall. We're pygmies in this. Totally. The real game is right up there, it's orbital and it's now.'

But the gift of the gab is always dangerous for a writer: it runs the risk of colourful villains or minor characters upstaging the leads and wrecking the overall effect. Here, Roper and his assistant, Major Corkoran - a shabby fixer with a line in camp patter reminiscent of Scobie in Durrell's Alexandria Quartet - dominate the book to an extent that fatally exposes the jejune characterisation of Pine and his lover Jed, Roper's mistress. Le Carre works hard to build up Pine, but his heart is not in it, and the effect is of a sort of James Bond without the laughs: the multilingual, cosmopolitan, orphan son of a soldier-hero, brave yet modest despite being irresistible to women, an invincible fighting machine who remains silent under torture, is also a brilliant chef and good with kids, and wears his guilt at the betrayal of an earlier lover as a badge of a sensibility not otherwise in evidence.

Beside this pallid paragon, Roper - despite a rather desperate circus-style billing as 'the worst man in the world' - comes across as an attractive and credible straight-talker in the Lord McAlpine vein, and it's hardly surprising that the book perks up whenever he appears. The battle of nerves and wits between the two and, more importantly, between their allies and enemies in London and Washington, is handled with all le Carre's habitual skill, knowledge and attention to detail (although it's unlikely that an Irishman named Pat Flynn would choose the Orangemen's own Bushmills whiskey as his preferred tipple). But there is no real attempt to engage with the serious issues that are raised, or to tackle the moral ambiguities which characterise le Carre's earlier work.

The result is an efficient if rather old-fashioned thriller set in a firmly Manichean universe where the chief villain is called Darker, the women are all sexually available victims, and a last-reel escape allows the male and female lead to ride off into the sunset and breed horses.

(Photograph omitted)

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