I chose to read John le Carre’s 24th novel because it is due for discussion on a local TV-based book club next week and I was curious to see how le Carré’s work is travelling these days, having enjoyed some of his classics like Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy. I’m also using “international” as my seventh continent for the Global reading challenge which I’m describing as a book which has action in three or more countries (here we visit England, Antigua, France, Switzerland and, via flashback, Russia)
Perry Makepiece and his girlfriend Gail are upper-middle class nearly-thirty-somethings who spend a small inheritance on a once in a lifetime tennis holiday in Antigua. There, in (very) lengthy detail, they meet Dima, a Russian criminal with an extended family who challenges Perry to a tennis match as a cover for inveigling the pair in his plan to defect rather than be assassinated as he soon expects to be. Upon their return to England Perry, trying to shield Gail and her legal career from as much involvement as possible, informs the relevant spooks. So enter Tom, Dick and Harry (the code names the three spies use for a portion of the novel, I’m struggling to remember their real names or why they felt the need for this absurd subterfuge) after which everyone spends some time in a basement and then there’s some more tennis.
That synopsis, interspersed with snippets of Dima’s personal history as a member of the Russian criminal brotherhood, takes about 50% of the audio book to unfold which might give you an idea of the pace of this so-called thriller that slumbers along in second gear for its entirety. If I included the bizarre and disconnected sub plot about Dima’s daughter’s pregnancy to a climbing instructor but left out all the tedious tennis, spy-craft exposition and wallowing in indecision by the spooks, the remainder of the plot could easily be summarised in a single paragraph and then you could all save yourselves the bother of reading it at all. Even the extraordinarily abrupt ending is dull, as if the author was as tired with the whole thing as I was by then.
Le Carré assures us that the money laundering and its links to the UK financial crisis at the heart of this novel is very real and I have no reason to doubt him But it doesn’t matter how real the basis for the novel is if the author can’t make me believe it and I didn’t believe the premise for this novel for a single second. Nothing about the character of Dima, his choice of defection route or the use by the British secret services of a couple of randomly chosen amateurs for work like that felt remotely credible. Even if such things go on every day in the real world, le Carré didn’t manage to make me believe it in his made up one. The ‘instruction’ of Perry and Gail seemed much closer to the spy games I played when I was eight (I got a spy kit for my birthday that year which included invisible ink and machines which my best friend and I used to send and receive coded messages that our respective brothers couldn’t read) than to any real life espionage. I would have been unsurprised to see the cone of silence?
The characters are the final let down of this 11 hour and 23 minute disappointment. In the past le Carré has been a master at creating intriguing people who leap of the page and demand to be investigated, absorbed and understood. Here the characters are all flat and kept at arm’s length with emotions that seemed the same whether they were facing imminent death, the break-up of a marriage or the fact their cup of tea had grown cold. Tom, the oldest of the MI6 agents, is a poor imitation of le Carré’s best-known, bureaucracy mastering creation George Smiley and Dima is a caricature of the evil Russian stereotypes of B grade movies. The rest of the characters have already faded from my mind.
Listening to this book was like one, long yawn. Aside from an excellent narration and the fact that le Carré can still put words together in a way that is pleasing to a lover of the English language there is really nothing to recommend the thing at all. However, elsewhere on the ‘net reviews of the novel are split fairly evenly. If you do decided to read it I hope for your sake you’re in the half of the population that has an entirely different reading experience to the one I had. But just in case I suggest you take a pillow.
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My rating 2/5
Author website http://www.johnlecarre.com/
Narrator Michael Jayston
Publisher BBC WW 
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 11 hours 23 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it