A review of Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Our Kind of Traitor
By John le Carré
Viking, 16 Sep 2010
ISBN-10: 0670919012 
ISBN-13: 978-0670919017

This is the first le Carre novel I’ve read in a while and it wasn’t at all what I expected. True, the Cold War has ended some two decades since and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was published in 1963, close to half a century a go. But the change from a bleak ‘60s Berlin, all rain-sodden, gritty and grey, to a bright cosmopolitan world where the spies have laptops and mobiles (encrypted naturally) is still rather startling. It isn’t so much a cultural shock as an epistemological one; these are contradictory worlds, you feel, yet they come from the pen of the same writer.

The ‘f’ word makes a number of appearances here and this too startles, absurd as it may be to say so; when did le Carre first use it in a novel? Can you imagine a spy in ‘Greeneland’ using the ‘f’ word? No, nor can I.

Placing the author’s oeuvre to one side, what we have here in essence is a contemporary espionage/crime novel centring on the efforts of ‘our people’ in the secret service to acquire an intelligence asset, one Dima, a Russian mafia chief. Dima’s expertise is in money-laundering and he promises lots of gen relating to the financial institutions of the City of London, various criminal and terrorist groups, the odd lobbyist in Westminster and, naturally, one or a few members of the British parliament and government. He hints at a vague, wide-ranging conspiracy, as too does the novel. It all seems very scattergun and incoherent, to be frank; as a serious view or analysis of the modern world, anyway.

Our Kind of Traitor is pretty good as a thriller, mind: the characterisation and suspense are terrific; le Carre can undoubtedly spin a good yarn. There’s even a Hitchcockian/John Buchan-style adventure vibe to it: Perry and Gail, two unlikely operatives, pitched against sinister forces. The attempts at depth (e.g. ‘terror- the great catch-all’ and ‘what the world really knows about itself, it doesn’t dare say’) fall a little bit flat, though.

This is an enjoyable thriller, but it is of no more significance than that, alas.