Almost everyone seems to like the novels of John le Carré (whose real name is David Cornwell)—to enjoy and to admire them, two different things. One after another, they arrive at the top of the best-seller lists; they are made into movies, TV dramas, paperbacks by the ton. Such success can often incite critical derision, but derision has never been le Carré’s fate. He is considered both readable and intellectually respectable, with a philosophy of life and meaningful things to say about politics. It is interesting to wonder how he leads this writerly double life, as convincing as the double lives his characters lead, all of whom—like writers—are caught up in disguise and charade.
That is, most of le Carré’s books have involved spies and spying, based on his own career. After taking a first in modern languages at Oxford, he worked with British intelligence for over five years, and thus fortuitously provided himself with a subject and a world view that have served him brilliantly ever since. It is by this subject, most of all, that he distinguishes himself from mere popular writers of detective stories or romances, but therein lies a question: Why exactly do we admire genre books about spies, those improbable beings embarked on projects of dubious value for debatable political ends?
These ends became even less clear when the Berlin wall came down: people predicted that after the cold war, le Carré would have a hard time finding newly relevant subjects. But this was as naive about the nature of novelists as it was about the world itself. In a revealing bit of dialogue in his 1988 novel The Russia House, the protagonist, Barley, speaks to his Russian counterpart:
“What do you do for a living when you’re not drinking and listening?”
“I’m a moral outcast,” he says. “I trade in defiled theories.”
“Always nice to meet a writer,” I say.
Luckily for us and for le Carré, the thuggish purveyors of discredited theories and the forces of law mutated at the same time. Le Carré’s new novel, Single & Single, has moved on from spying to international crime, the domestic menace replacing the collapsed Soviet military and ideological menace. Money laundering and drug smuggling define today’s world, and are not without their Russians, to be sure, for the masters of le Carré’s underworld in the universe of this new novel are still Russian, though their goals now are personal gain or village philanthropy.
The hero is Oliver Single, heir to his father Tiger Single’s multimillion-pound venture capital enterprise, the supposedly respectable, if adventurous, banking firm Single & Single. Tiger Single is a well-known but actually shady and pragmatic associate of drug lords and entrepreneurs of questionable projects in emerging nations. Tiger and Oliver are a typical le Carréan pair, in which the hero or narrator, who has a serious, anxious nature perceived by himself as a little colorless, is contrasted with a more brilliant, flamboyant …