Such is the disenchantment, such the bad faith that seeps from John le Carré's recent work that one now approaches his unsurpassed suspense thrillers with a mixture of keen pleasure and queasy impending doom. The author's characteristic late tone, barely masking its savage anger and moral lightlessness under a keen comic grasp of English speech and a dangerously poised theatricality that never hovers far from send-up, only heightens the agony. Which of these decent characters, you wonder, will be coerced first into selling his principles down the river? Which one will hold out longest against the implacable slow machine of international espionage? Will anyone escape the meat grinder?
A Most Wanted Man is le Carré's 21st book, and another winner. Why we think of this man as a popular novelist, still less a thriller writer, is beyond me: he's a subversive tragedian, selling us the things we'd least like to hear about the custodians of our liberty and only vaguely disguising them as entertainment.
The present novel is set in Hamburg, the former home of the 9/11 hijackers. This partly explains the worry of the contemporary German security services at the arrival of Issa Karpov, a stateless and badly beaten refugee who has materialised in Hamburg to reclaim a mysterious inheritance and devote himself to Islam. Caught up in the ensuing diplomatic thundercloud are Annabel, a young civil rights lawyer who determines to save Issa from deportation; Tommy Brue, an affable private banker with secrets, both corporate and personal, that he'd rather forget; and the angels and demons of the international spying community, who quickly identify Issa as the perfect live bait for an altogether bigger fish.
This is a book about political and private corruption, and its plot revolves around the most ferociously debated policies in terror- frighted Europe. I don't want to spoil the conclusion, whose utter predictability only adds to the sense of mounting dread, but let's just say that Clive Stafford-Smith and various other critics of US foreign policy are thanked in the credits. But le Carré handles his material with a rare lightness of touch that's absent from most contemporary portraits of counter-terrorism: as he's always done, he creates plausible, breathing characters whose conflict with the instruments of the state gives breath to his outrage without resorting to didacticism. Occasionally the mask slips: the portrayal of one particular CIA villain – the US having replaced the USSR as the le Carré antagonist of choice – veers close to caricature. But for the most part, this is black, brilliant, hypnotic stuff, and yet another reason to count le Carré among this country's very finest contemporary writers. Unhesitatingly recommended.