A touch of the old school spy

Our Game John le Carr Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
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As any Wykehamist will tell you, Notions is the design-edly esoteric language and code that the new schoolboys of Winchester College are obliged to learn - 60 whole pages of it - before attending this famous public school. For example, a bicycle is a "bogle", and a straw hat is a "strat". Winchester Football, an often brutal amalgam of rugby and soccer with rules so arcane that even experienced players may not know them all, is called Our Game. Indeed the game is quite exclusive to Winchester and only the boys of Winchester play it, (which, it must be said, is one way of ensuring your own sporting superiority).

Our Game is also the title of John le Carr's new novel, his fifteenth. The two principal characters, Tim Cranmer and Larry Pettifer, are old Wykehamists and spies whose time is prematurely up and who have now been put out to pasture. Not for the first time, le Carr uses a playful sporting meta-phor to illustrate a variety of spying and secrecy that's as peculiarly English as the Old Vicarage, Granchester. But unlike Winchester Football and Notions, le Carr's is a world with which we are by now rather too intimate.

The sad fact is that the argot of George Smiley and Alec Leamas that once fascinated - words like lamplighter, Cousins, safehouse, tradecraft - is now as cloyingly familiar as the kind of Kray cockney that continues to stink up most television police drama.

There were many times in the course of reading Our Game when I wished that le Carr could have set himself to learning some new Notions. It's not that there are no new ones to learn, even in the community of intelligence gathering. The cloak-and-dagger boys are trying hard enough to find a new role for themselves and the fight against international organised crime seems to be where much of their energy is currently directed. The end of the Cold War may have exposed not just the lie of Soviet Communism but also the limitations of one of our leading novelists. Certainly The Spy Who Came in from the Cold would be on almost anyone's list of the outstanding novels of the last 50 years. On the evidence of this book however, "our greatest storyteller", as he is often blurbed, is in danger of seeming dated.

The novel is readable enough. As you might expect from a glance at the jacket, identical to the famous closing door shot in John Ford's classic Western The Searchers, the book is ultimately about a long, arduous trek through a primitive country - Southern Russia - by Tim Cranmer, a bitter and misunderstood man.

Cranmer seeks his best friend, Larry, who has pinched his girlfriend, along with £37 million from the Russian government to fund the rebellion of the hostile and Commanche-like Chechen people. In fact, this is the weakest part of the story, with little in the way of atmosphere and authentic detail to indicate that the author actually went there. In my own limited experience of the new Russia, Chechens need little help from old Wykehamists in finding new ways of stealing money.

As you might expect, the novel is on strongest ground during the first half of the story, when Cranmer, the first-person narrator, is staying at his manorial home in England. The problem is that you just keep tripping up on the old le Carr lingo, as if Cranmer were Rowan Atkinson in one of those Barclaycard commercials. For example: "I selected a sentimental, wounded tone. 'Larry was more than my agent. . . He was my friend for a quarter of a century. On top of that, he was the best live source we ever had. He was one of those joes who make their own luck. In the beginning, the KGB recruited him on spec. . . They gave him a small salary and let him loose on the international conference circuit, armed with a bunch of briefs written by Moscow Centre, and they hoped that in time he would amount to somebody. He did. He became their man. . .' "

Try as you might to persuade yourself otherwise, the truth in these harder, less sentimental times is that le Carr has begun to show uncomfortable signs of le clich.