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Review: 'Our Kind of Traitor' by John Le Carre

Our Kind of Traitor (Viking, $27.95) is John le Carre's purest espionage novel in years. The tone is less ponderous than anything since the seriocomic Tailor of Panama, and the plotting more agile than anything he has written.

That doesn't mean le Carre sacrifices the quality of his writing. He slips between before and after, first- and third-person, and past and present tense with a suppleness that is astounding when you go back to examine how he defies the laws of narrative gravity.

Perry and Gail are a young and attractive British couple on tennis holiday in Antigua. An uncouth but charismatic Russian millionaire, Dima, demands a match with Perry. Soon after, Dima reveals he is the top money launderer for the Russian mob. He asks Perry to pass along an offer to British intelligence, that Dima will testify against his criminal brothers if Britain provides shelter and protection for him and his family. In the Cold War, this would have been called defection.

Back in London, Dima's request meets with political wrangling typical to a le Carre story, with one twist. This time, the intelligence bureaucrats - at least those we meet - are liberals who consider Russian mob money a moral hazard to their nation. But the story occurs after the global financial meltdown of 2008, and bureaucrats we don't meet will gladly accept a billion-dollar infusion to London's crippled financial houses, even from drug money.

The characters are unusually likable for le Carre. Perry and Gail cling to their youthful idealism, Dima wants to protect his family and even the spymasters are motivated by righteousness (well, mostly). All this sympathy becomes a source of anxiety for the reader. Because unless their name is George Smiley, central characters in le Carre novels seldom fare well in the end.

I usually admire le Carre's work, but two-thirds into Our Kind of Traitor, I wanted to stop reading. If another of his gloomy endings was in store, I could avoid being depressed when bad things happened to good characters yet still get his message - that the true villains are too-big-to-fail financial institutions.

I went ahead and finished. I won't say whether my worries proved true, but as early as the second page, le Carre invokes the name of George Orwell. Doesn't bode well, does it-

Jeffrey Westhoff is a local free-lance writer.