Review: Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré

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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 2/5
Author website http://www.johnlecarre.com/
Narrator Michael Jayston
Publisher BBC WW [2010]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 11 hours 23 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it

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This entry was posted in 2011 Global Reading Challenge, book review, International, John le Carré. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Review: Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré

  1. Bernadette – Sorry to hear this one was such a disappointment to you. I agree with you that le Carré has written some masterful thrillers, and I’m sad to hear that this one fell so far short. I think I’ll wait to add it to my TBR…

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  2. janebbooks says:

    What a shame, Bernadette, that the John Le Carre book your club was discussing was not his THE CONSTANT GARDENER. Why is it that book clubs want to read the latest or bestselling novels. Excellent study of the pharmaceutical trade and experiments of drug testing in Africa.

    And why is it book clubs aren’t reading Alex Berenson? His first spy intrigue novel featuring John Wells, maverick CIA agent, won an Edgar for Best First Mystery and was nominated for both the Barry and Silver Dagger awards. Of course, the most interesting thing I read, other than THE FAITHFUL SPY, was his tepid review for The NEW YORK TIMES. Berenson reviewed THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO!
    Here’s Berenson’s backlist:

    The Faithful Spy (2006)
    The Ghost War (2008) APA: The Ghost Agent (2008)
    The Silent Man (2009)
    The Midnight House (2010)
    The Secret Soldier (2011)

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  3. Belle Wong says:

    I really think audiobooks are a true litmus test when it comes to how good a novel really is. I can forgive things in print form sometimes (like those pages and pages of text on the dull side of things) but you just can’t do things like skim ahead when it’s in audio. The words, paragraphs, pages, have to pass the test on their own terms!

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  4. @Jane thanks for that tip, I haven’t read any of Alex Berenson’s books but I will look out for some now. As for why book clubs always pick the latest stuff I guess it’s to generate a bit of buzz…though to be fair this particular TV based one does 2 books each episode and usually one is an older title and one a new release so they do try to be a bit balanced.

    @Belle you’re so right about audio books – that inability to skip ahead is frustrating when it’s all about tennis. I use my audio book listening mostly to motivate me to get off my behind and exercise…I at least want to be kept awake 🙂

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  5. Maxine says:

    The Constant Gardener was good in terms of the story itself, I agree, but I would take with a pinch of salt some of his anti-pharma polemic. Some was justified but some a travesty of reality.

    Pity this new novel was not better. It was glowingly reviewed in the UK newspapers and magazines when it came out, but I suppose John Le Carre is a major figure over here and a new book from him is accorded respect – perhaps he’s of less stature in other countries of the world. I quite like slow books on occasion, but it sounds from your review as if this time there was insufficient payoff in terms of plot, excitement, surprises or character development. I wonder what I shall now do with the unread copy of this book on my shelf!?

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  8. Hal says:

    Stiff, unclear prose. Flat characters and a plot and pace that were agonizing. I felt the author just ran out of gas and ended it. Very disappointing.

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  9. TheAttic says:

    Terrible ending. Le Carré – and I’ve read almost all his books – must simply have lost interest in his supporting cast once the fate of main character was sealed. As a reader, I feel cheated in that the narrative required another 50 pages to properly draw the various unresolved threads to appropriate denouements.

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  11. Anna says:

    Just finished Our Kind of Traitor and have to disagree with the article and most posters. I could not put the book down. I was drawn in from the beginning and both le Carre’s exquisite writing and the story would not let me go. I did not feel cheated by the ending – it was a poignant way to illustrate the reality of how large crime has become in the geopolitical landscape. I think you have to really be a fan of good writing skills to enjoy a le Carre novel .. I’ve read all of his books and Our Kind of Traitor is one of his best, in my opinion.

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  12. Anonymous says:

    John LeCarre’s Smiley cracked cases and solved mysteries. Now LeCarre’s aging spies are marionettes used as bait and then are deleted by their handlers in “Our Kind of Traitor”. It’s a sad commentary that today’s ruling elites use people as expendable pawns. The endings in this book and LeCarre’s last one–“A Most Wanted May”–are head-jerkingly abrupt. His characters still come alive even though he treats them badly, as badly as he treats the U.S.’s CIA and Britain’s Secret Service. P.S. I buy used books, explaining why I just read these.

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