Book review: Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré

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Penguin Viking, 320pp, £18.99

With Our Kind of Traitor we are back on familiar John Le Carr ground. Betrayal runs like a thread through his fiction, forefronted in A Perfect Spy, and at the heart of the long and successful plot of the Smiley trilogy. Our Kind of Traitor is a complex variation on the subject, modulated in the tried and trusted Le Carr way through a slightly bewildered outsider's perspective. It features the kind of outsider we are familiar with, assembling the scraps of information through different languages, different countries and the medium of closely observed tennis, of which the author writes authoritatively and with gusto.

Tennis is what brings Perry, half of the observing outsider vision, into contact with the larger-than-life Dima, Russian mobster, crook, money-launderer, violent friend and enemy. Perry and Gail, on holiday from an England where he teaches at Oxford (with diminishing enthusiasm) and she is a successful young lawyer (not yet married to Perry, but thinking about it), encounter Dima on the tennis courts of an Antigua resort and are swept into his life by the sheer force of his personality, as well as his money and his love of fierce competitive tennis, and made a part of his astonishingly dysfunctional family.

Slowly the reasons for the dysfunction unravel, linked to the nature of post-Soviet Russia, where life can be cheap in the search for a rouble or a dollar, or a billion of either. Corruption, fearsome violence, a society dipping into chaos, predatory mobsters carelessly taking human life and huge profits – this backdrop is evoked with the author's customary economy and almost total absence of depicted violence – though the sense of violence is unforgettably menacing.

Another, less tangible violence is evoked in this long and elegantly paced plot – the violence of the international dealer, the politician, the fixer and the man of influence who moves in and out of government, the shadowy background found in The Constant Gardener and A Most Wanted Man. Le Carr's politicians have moved beyond the elegantly contemptible Saul Enderby whom George Smiley has to deal with in Smiley's People, to the modern-day equivalents in Whitehall and in European capitals. The corrupt who move in the elegant circles of corporate tennis hospitality, the studied magnificence of the Swiss hotel de luxe, mobile phone in hand and secret influence deployed offstage, are the villains of this book as they are in much else Le Carr writes, and the infighting and backstabbing of Whitehall, so crisply evoked in The Night Manager, is also a major theme here, as Dima the Russian offers the British "hot" information in exchange for his family's safety – information which he claims would blow open an international network of corruption whose tentacles stretch uncomfortably close to the British government. From this, Le Carr spins a long and increasingly tense plot, as Dima fights for survival while in London a shadowy bureaucracy takes its time in deciding if it wants the guilty to be brought to justice before the other criminals attempt their own rough justice on Dima for his betrayal.

Le Carr's honest broker, so often at the heart of his plots, is Hector, not quite in government, not quite in the secret service, a useful outsider kept by government to handle dirty business. A familiar character in Le Carr, Hector and his second-in-command Luke have to try to organise Dima's escape from a Switzerland rapidly filling with his enemies, and the book climaxes in a tense and splendidly evoked set of chase scenes in the seemingly placid and unthreatening Lauterbrunnen valley, against the surface normality of chalets and mountain railways. Always present is the possibility of murder for Dima, for his family, and for Perry and Gail who have been caught up in the plot.

Our Kind of Traitor is fuelled by Le Carr's familiar rage at corporate greed and amorality, but it is kept in close check: like so much of what he writes, the violence, cruelty and real horror are off-stage, while the less obvious violence is front and centre, in the amoral and treacherous world of money-broking, money-laundering, influence-selling, and unprincipled politics. We are still in the world Connie Sachs wearily told George Smiley to stop worrying about, a world of shades of grey instead of black and white, half-angels and half-demons.

The terse style is illuminated by the author's occasional flash of precision: Roger Federer, entering the Roland Garros Stadium for a tennis match, looks "as becomingly modest and self-assured as only God can". Whether describing the tangled relationship of Gail to Perry, or the fractured English of an increasingly desperate Dima and his family, the prose remains totally under control. Our Kind of Traitor builds to a masterful climax, and is over almost before you know it. Our kind of traitor? Well, Dima said he wanted to be. But perhaps he was not the traitor that the title refers to.

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