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Our Kind of Traitor: A Novel
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237 of 264 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2010
Two or three summers ago a top British politician called Peter Mandelson (PM) was spotted on a luxury yacht owned by a Russian aluminium tycoon called Oleg Deripaska and PM was not the only British notable on board.

JLC's 22nd novel is a brilliantly-plotted, -researched and -written novel about love, honour and betrayal.

OKT is primarily an assault on Britain's ruling strata. And only secondly about the Kremlin's campaign to control Russian organized crime much as they subdued the oligarchs a decade earlier: "Share with us, or else!" The oligarchs complied, fled abroad or were jailed. Dealing with Russia's crime syndicates is harder. They are age-old brotherhoods of "honourable criminals" ("vory") living by strict codes whereby talking to, let alone dealing with the State is a sin punishable by death. But in this novel this Russian version of "omertá" is breached somewhere, somehow: Russia's seven richest and best-organized crime syndicates make a deal with the Kremlin. But there is one major obstacle.
His name is Dima, which is short for Dimitri, an honourable criminal since the age of 14, who survived 15 years in ice-cold Kolyma, and has since worked his way up to become the world's best money launderer on behalf of himself and the Seven Brotherhoods. Now he is doomed because he knows too much and is not willing to sell out, deal with the State. He is a blunt, bearlike, forceful, emotional, desperate Russian with only days or weeks to live once he has signed over his private business empire to the Seven Brotherhoods and disclosed where he he hid their tens of billions of loot, when the book starts.
From his refuge on the island of Antigua Dima makes a last-ditch effort to save at least his family by challenging young Oxford lecturer Peregrine ("Perry") Makepiece to a game of tennis. Perry and his lawyer girlfriend Gail fall prey to the charms of Dima and his mournful extended family. Perry pens down what Dima tells him about his life and works, because he wants a deal with the British government to save his family in exchange for a full account of his awesome whitewashing career, hoping Perry is a British spy or knows one. Perry's 28-page account, when he and Gail return home, does reach British intelligence. But...
I hope this rich book is not JLC's parting shot at writing, because OKT is in my humble opinion his best. The context and descriptions are like watching a film, the characters and dialogues are great and the moral implications of this tale go beyond anything JLC has written before.

OKT is a square assault on corruption and rent-seeking behaviour by key members of Britain's establishment in government, parliament, the press, and esp. the sacred square mile of the City, where blood money of many types and provenances is banked, invested, transferred at lightning speed to fresher pastures and back again, for no purpose or wider benefit to wider humanity. The Square Mile and its many paid advocates welcome the establishment of the banking arm of the Arena Conglomerate of the Seven Brotherhoods warmly, with its promise of bringing hundreds of billions to London and of plentiful investments in moribund industries in a near-bankrupt country.
Very rich and deep book. True masterpiece.
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159 of 179 people found the following review helpful
John le Carre is one of those authors that everybody tells me I should read, and whom I really want to read. But his towering body of work is... a little intimidating.

So I decided to start with "Our Kind of Traitor," his latest thriller. And it's a solid place to start -- new characters that don't require previous books to understand, heart-pounding suspense, and a genteel British gloss. It's an intelligent and gripping story, but at times le Carre seems to just lose his enthusiasm..

Young Oxford don Perry and his lawyer girlfriend Gail are on vacation in Antigua when they encounter Dima, a Russian millionaire with a large, grim family, a hearty love of the English, and a lavish hand with money. It turns out that he's a professional money-launderer in trouble with a mobster called The Prince. He's willing to spill everything he knows, as long as he and his family are kept safe.

Enter Hector Meredith, an aging spy who runs his own little sub-agency, and who is Dima's best chance of not getting killed. But Perry and Gail "have wandered by sheer accident into a richly planted minefield," and under Hector's guidance they soon find themselves whisked on an international adventure...

"Our Kind of Traitor" is a brilliant novel that's been hobbled. The first few chapters are mostly told in flashback, which saps some of the tension from the story. And the last few chapters feel as if John le Carre got tired of the story he was telling, so he slapped together an ending and pasted it on the end.

So as you can guess, the best part is the middle. Le Carre's prose is smooth, genteel and distinctly British, but fractured with some gritty looks at the underbelly of civilization. The cynicism is heaped high everywhere, whether it's contemptuous looks at the British government, the corrupt banking world, or the bleak, cutthroat world of Russian mobsters.

And le Carre does a pretty good job with the characters, who all feel realistic, flawed and sympathetic. Perry and Gail are a pampered, slightly self-righteous British couple who end up waaaaayyyyy in over their heads. Hector is a tweedy, outspoken old spy, while Dima is a sort of Russian Tony Soprano, whose genial exterior hides his fear and rage.

"Our Kind of Traitor" is a smooth, rich thriller with its ankles shackled -- great writing, rich characters, but it suffers from a limp beginning and a slapdash ending.
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105 of 124 people found the following review helpful
You can read John le Carré as the author of spy thrillers --- not just today's gold standard, but the best there ever was --- and enjoy his books as escapist fiction.

Or you can read them --- the last few, in any event --- as slightly fictionalized but absolutely authoritative news stories you won't read anywhere else because traditional media sources don't dare to report the truth or are part of an elite conspiracy to keep us from getting the truth.

How should you read him?

As it happens, le Carré gives us --- well, he gives reviewers like me --- a little help. Inside copies of his new book he includes a reprint of a December 13, 2009 piece from The Guardian. The headline: "Drug money saved banks in global crisis, claims UN advisor." The subhead: "Drugs and crime chief says $352 billion in criminal proceeds was effectively laundered by financial institutions."

The inescapable conclusion: Our most respected bankers will take money from anyone --- even drug lords --- in order to prop up their failing institutions.

Translation: The fix is in.

But I don't want to spoil "Our Kind of Traitor" for you. Forget I've told you even this much. You can't? Trust me. You will. Once you start caring about the people, the last thing on your mind will be How It Ends.

Anyway, there's no mention of money laundering in the beginning. Peregrine Makepiece --- literally: a foreigner who makes peace --- is vacationing on Antigua with Gail Perkins, his extremely attractive live-in girlfriend. Perry was, until recently, a tutor in English Literature at Oxford; Gail is a barrister with a future. She's satisfied with the trajectory of her career; he's so turned off by academia he wants to teach secondary school in some deprived English slum.

Perry plays a wickedly good game of tennis. The pro introduces him to Dima, "a muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle fifties." Dima and Perry play three brisk sets. An invitation to a party follows. There, Perry and Gail note the presence of an entourage --- and bodyguards.

Dima is fond of the young couple --- or is it that the guy who describes himself "the world's number one money launderer" is just very good at sizing people up? Because Dima deputizes Gail and Perry. That is, he hands them this note:

"Dmitri Vladimirovich Krasnov, the one they call Dima, European director of Arena Multi Global Trading Conglomerate of Nicosia, Cyprus, is willing negotiate through intermediary Professor Perry Makepiece and lawyer Madam Gail Perkins mutually profitable arrangement with authority of Great Britain regarding permanent residence all family in exchange for certain informations very important, very urgent, very critical for Great Britain of Her Majesty."

In theory, this should be easy. Dima has information. He wants asylum. It's not like getting him across borders will be a problem --- this is 2009, not 1955.

Now we hear the story again. Perry's version. Gail's. As told to middle-level English spymasters in London. Who, likewise, deputize Perry and Gail --- as short-term spies.

Unlikely? For you and me, perhaps. But Gail and Perry have their reasons, and le Carré drops them along the pathway of the novel like bread crumbs. So they're off. To a meeting with Dima in Paris at the French Open. And an even more exciting meeting --- by now, we understand that Dima believes his Russians colleagues are watching him --- that is diabolical in its layers of deception.

The clock ticks. The anxiety mounts. What's the hitch? Well, perhaps Dima is a bit too... big for easy assimilation. His information might...lead somewhere. And we can't have that.

Here's how it works, an English spymaster explains: "Catch the minnows, but leave the sharks in the water. A chap's laundering a couple of million? He's a bloody crook. Call in the regulators, put him in irons. But a few billion? Now you're talking. Billions are a statistic."

Getting the idea? At the top, they --- the snooty bankers in London, Russian crooks, the Russian government, and Lord knows who else --- are all connected. Black money turns white.

Do you care how that happens? That it happens? How could you? You don't know about it. And, if told, you won't believe it.

Spies used to operate on the margins, at checkpoints, in lonely towns with names you can't pronounce. Then they were soldiers in the Cold War. Now, le Carré tells us, they exist for much darker purposes.

Of all of le Carré's novels, this is the one that makes me feel like a child. I mean, I know we're all under surveillance now. Photographed often. Every keystroke, every e-mail, every Tweet saved --- illegally, but saved. At any moment, the President can declare an American citizen an enemy combatant, a threat to the security of the Republic, and without judicial review or formal charge, he can order that American to be killed. But although I know all that, I hadn't quite realized that when large amounts of money are involved, none of the old words --- honor, truth, empathy --- matter at all.

What le Carré is telling us here is that there is something that might be called the country of money. It has no boundaries. There are no "sides." The government of Russia has made a pact with the Russian Mafia --- or is it the other way around? --- so criminal fortunes are appropriately shared. (When things go wrong, blame the Chechens.) And the cash-starved West? Our bankers? Our CEOs? Our statesmen? Bought. All of them.

How good is John le Carré? Good enough to make you care about Dima, Perry and Gail --- and the people they care about. Good enough to make you angry at their difficulties. Good enough to surprise you --- no matter how cynical you are --- at the end. In short, the best.

Read it and weep.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2010
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy captured me in 1974, the rhythmic prose and the natural dialogue interspersed with spy craft jargon and British slang and sarcasm that jolted my American ear. I quickly acquired all of his previous novels as well as his subsequent novels over the years, all now in my library.
Critics have always debated whether le Carre is a literary writer. Some said yes, some no. James Wood said, "By the standards of contemporary thrillers, it is magnificent ... but the detail is reassuringly flat ... nothing out of the ordinary ... commercial realism." Nevertheless, we always felt elitist to prefer le Carre to Clancy.
His themes dealt with good people in good governments trying to fight the good war only to trip over moral hazards along the way. And naïve idealists lured by the outer rationalism of an ideology, only to be destroyed by evil ideologues demanding absolute allegiance. His irony focuses on the West's slide into moral ambiguity in its pursuit of moral corruption.
Unfortunately, like a skilled singer, the sharpness of a writer dissipates after a certain age. After Smiley's People, his work is inconsistent with flashes of his old self in Russia House and Constant Gardener. His voice became grumpy as he bitched about American policy and corporate evil after the end of the cold war.
Now the seventy-nine-year-old curmudgeon has focused his rhythmic prose on the titanic shift in the world's power players. In his usual subtle plot, Our Kind of Traitor plays out the end of Britain's claim to power. London, the financial center of the world until WWI, is now reduced to competing with Switzerland for underground money. British world influence was based on the prowess of its Secret Service, which now clings to the hip of their American cousins.
In a last effort to keep its Secret Service relevant in the world's changing power structure, a few old hands attempt to destroy the web of Russia's criminal influence in Europe and Britain. A bureaucratic wall inside the Service calls the effort nothing more than chasing "whatever other modest pickings were available to justify our existence." But the old hands believe that, if Britain backs off, "the Americans (will) confirm their dismal view of this Service, this government and this country."
Our Kind of Traitor is a story of the final slide of Britain into an irrelevant power entangled in unholy webs in a changed world, just another powerless country in Europe. Like all of his novels, the pace is slow and the story subtle, but the final story raises it to one of his best novels: a clear story of political reality. There are no idealists, but there are innocent people drawn by ego and a caring love of innocent children. There is less moral ambiguity encountered in the pursuit of evil and more bureaucrats concerned with avoiding confrontation and maintaining their power base within the government. Le Carre's irony now seems to revolve around Britain's avoidance of the good fight (which becomes the moral ambiguity) and the cause of its slide into irrelevance.
The novel has a feel as if it is the last chapter of both Britain and le Carre, as if David Cornwell may want to rest his voice. We heard Sinatra at age 75 in his final performance at the Golden Nugget, his voice strained and flat. But Cornwell insists that, as he approaches his 80th birthday, he can still hit the high notes.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2010
For years, critics and most of the millions of devoted fans of John le Carre thought the great question of the second half of this great writer's career would be what would take the place of the demised Cold War, and the "tradecraft" of spying that gave his work such crackle. So completely has this become the conventional wisdom that most have missed the fact that since the fall of the Berlin Wall le Carre in fact has been at no loss for topics on which to project his outrage, and that he has seemed as driven as ever to write books that make points about things he cares about -- politics, class, differentials in wealth, human frailties, and the negative influence of aspects of the American way of life -- to name a few recurring ones. Rather, the great question has proved to be whether he can produce great writing in a book that rises above the mere polemic, and whether he is capable of ending a book with something other than a calculated act of betrayal that lays bare the corruption of his villains du jour. With Our Kind of Traitor, the old master has produced a book centered around spies and spying that, while true to all of the themes of his career, throttles back a bit at the end and for once leaves some ambiguities.

To many le Carre fans, the Smiley trilogy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People) represents hallowed literary ground. Not enough can be said about the craftsmanship that these books reflect, and the excitement and complete immersion that reading them generates. What could not have been seen until the later books emerged (Our Kind of Traitor is the thirteenth post-Smiley book) is the extent to which part of the magic of the trilogy is that occasionally the Good Guys won. The mole is revealed and a master opponent is outmaneuvered; even George Smiley himself has his moment of recognition and victory as Head of Service. After these books, however, good news has been pretty thin on the ground. The recent books reflect le Carre's outlook, to be sure, and no one goes into them expecting an uplifting read, but after a while even the most devoted of us gets worn down, and our assessment of the books is compromised by their predictability.

Our Kind of Traitor escapes many of these pitfalls, with a bit more nuance and liveliness than we have come to expect. It's all about spying again, and pages are dotted with obscure pieces of tradecraft that draw the reader into the romantic world of spying in a way that reveals much and suggests that there is so much more out there to learn than has been disclosed. At times, it's almost like the good old days, with George and Bill Haydon and Toby Esterhase lighting up the room with their verbal feints, crackling intelligence, and ironic outlooks. It does not hurt that le Carre's characters -- especially the witty, sophisticated, upper-class English ones -- seem to talk exactly as they did when he first visited their antecedents forty years ago. Now, though, at least they can curse.

The book plays with time, but in a disciplined way that never confuses. Thus, we take a first run through some events, which make sense as they play out, and then go back to fill in the back story and add more details. What has gone before is not revealed to be false, but like real life the events gradually take on depth and texture and we know what issues are and will be at stake.

To me, though, it's about the dialogue (no writer has ever produced better interrogation scenes, or for that matter more economical conversations) and the descriptive prose. Here is one paragraph about the parents of Perry and Gail, the young English couple who are two of the central characters. The parents essentially never appear before or after:

"Both [Perry and Gail] were de facto orphans. If Perry's late parents had been the soul of high-minded Christian socialist abstinence, Gail's were the other thing. Her father, a sweetly useless actor, had died prematurely of alcohol, sixty cigarettes a day and a misplaced passion for his wayward wife. Her mother, an actress but less sweet, had vansihed from the family home when Gail was thirteen, and was reputed to be living the simple life on the Costa Brava with a second cameraman."

Books and courses on writing quote paragraphs like that as examples of how so much about the character of people can be communicated indirectly in a few short sentences. In this book, the description does double-duty, as it sets up the characters of the children as well.

This is a lovely, medium-substantial example of writing and plotting of the highest order. If its craftsmanship and sequencing of events make it a bit old fashioned, so be it. All of the modern le Carre themes are on display here -- the best of the sophistication and principles of some in the English upper class, the moral bankruptcy of the rest of them, patriotism, loyalty, greed, morality, immorality, redemption (achieved and aspired to), love, human frailty and courage in the face of it, and of course betrayal. But here, whether because of "mellowing" or something else, the author seems no longer to make his points as if he were hitting a nail with a hammer.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2010
Only devotees of le Carre will love this novel. It is 75% character development infused with a rather uninspiring plot, almost as a secondary matter. This is not unusual for the author, but it is less entertaining and captivating the umpteenth time around. There is almost a sense here that the author is so self-satisfied with his unique depiction of the psychology/morality of "the spy" and his world, that he has forsaken the importance of a captivating and a tight narrative in pursuit of the same formula. I actually found myself resenting some of the character over-development, which I found sometimes gratuitous and often unconnected to the story. If you love le Carre's moral plays on his usual stage, then you may love this, but it is a bit of the same old same old, just less satisfying.
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62 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2010
I have read all of the John le Carre novels, and loved most of them. So, it was with great anticipation that I picked up Our Kind of Traitor. This book, unfortunately, is a disaster from start to finish. And, a tremendous let down for this le Carre fan.

Character interactions are not convincing. Encounters are too coincidental. The plotting clumsy. The copy is packed with so many redundant and/or irrelevant details, it feels as though the author arbitrarily inflated text simply to achieve novel status.

The only good thing about the ending is that it is sudden. The worse thing about the ending is that it leaves ninety-nine percent of the stories unresolved. Perhaps readers are supposed to use their own imaginations. I only wish the author had used his.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2010
I stayed up late to finish this book ... I could not put it down. However, I was left with a very incomplete sense of what had happened, and I have to agree that the ending could be described as "slap dash." Or perhaps that is completely JLC's intention: to show how morally unsatisfying the results are and how gray the characters are. No neat wrap-up with all characters neatly defined in black and white.
So, please tell me, how did the "bad guys" know the "good guys'" next move? Which of the good guys was actually giving away the strategy? Was it Ollie? Why so many references to oddness of his accent ... where did he really come from?
Of course, I have become so accustomed to the neatly-wrapped-up conclusion that we simple-minded readers and watchers now expect from stories involving intrigue. So, I keep thinking, "what will become of Perry and Gail and all those children?" (Not to mention Tamara.)
But JLC does not give us that satisfaction. Writing from a more realistic viewpoint, he does not feel the need to account for everything to finish a story. Life, and particularly our increasingly complex international relations, do not resolve in a satisfying way. Where is the moral certainty? It just isn't there, and I guess that is what he is reflecting.
But I still want to know.
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23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2010
...and this book maintains that sucky tradition.

I LOVE this Le Carre, have purchased and embraced every book and audiobook (loving the 70s, 80s & 90s stuff).

But The Constant Gardner I found a little disappointing, and every book since has gotten less involving, less fun, and less intriguing.

I can't BELIEVE how much of this book involved tennis matches and basement chats and so much MELODRAMA (teen pregnancy! will father find out! oh noes!) from the mostly irritating main couple. And we're expected to identify and sympathize with them?

In his prime, Luke (sans lovesickness -- it's like "Twilight" in here!) and Ollie would have been Le Carre's main characters.

As I've told myself for the last four novels now... "maybe the next one will be better."

I cross my fingers in hope.
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23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2010
My entire family listened to this during 18 hours of drive time over Christmas vacation. We enjoyed the character development but all agreed that hours were spent on what should take 15 minutes.

We all also agreed the ending was terrible and wish we hadn't invested our time.

I could not find any fault with the other negative reviews and really boggled at the positive ones. I think the number of 1 vs 5 star ratings should speak for itself. I wish someone had warned me off this one. (I received it as a gift, otherwise I would like to believe I would have taken the volume of negative feedback to heart and never invested my time.)
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