The only Le Carre books I had read, before this one, were his classics from the 60s and 70s: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and the Smiley Trilogy. This is a more recent work, which deals with the espionage world as it today, with the Cold War a distant memory and terrorism the new threat. [amtap book:isbn=0340977086]
When Issa Karpov, a young Chechen with links to Islamist terrorists, arrives in Hamburg, he immediately draws the interest of the intelligence services. The Germans are keen to erase memories their failure to detect the Hamburg-based group that plotted the September 11 attacks on the US. They want better intelligence sources to help spot future plots.
The British, meanwhile, are interested because of Karpov's father, who was a Russian officer. Lurking in the background are the Americans, who want to use extraordinary rendition to remove Karpov to their own facilities to find out what he knows.
These forces largely play out in the background as Le Carre focuses his attention on Tommy Brue, who runs a British family bank in Hamburg, and Annabel Richter, the human rights lawyer who represents Karpov.
Karpov's father was a customer of Brue's bank and Richter hopes that the money the bank owe's to Issa can be used to keep him out of the hands of the intelligence services and give him legal status in Germany.
Le Carre's central trio, Brue, Richter and Karpov, are all well drawn. Brue, cuckolded, estranged from his daughter and laden with guilt over the customers his father brought to the bank, sees Issa as a chance for redemption. Richter seeks to make amends for a previous case in which she believes that she failed.
Issa, meanwhile, is harder to read. Angry and vulnerable, determined to be a devout Muslim but unsure what that means. He ricochets between those who seek to help him and those who would harm him.
The supporting cast are a little more cliched, particularly Gunther Bachmann, the German intelligence man who leads the operation to find Karpov. He's a tough, charming workaholic who doesn't respect authority or play by the book. The kind of character you've seen in dozens of spy novels, in other words.
Le Carre moves the pieces of his plot into place slowly, before the whole thing snaps shut abruptly. The ending is so abrupt, in fact, that it feels a little unsatisfying. A chapter expounding on the conclusion would have been welcome but it would also, perhaps, have undermined Le Carre's point. It's hard to say more without giving away the ending but the way that Le Carre closes the book puts the reader in a similar position to the characters.
Like a lot of Le Carre's work, this is a very moral book. Once again, he shows how individuals can be helpless victims in the face of an espionage complex that ruthlessly pursues its larger objectives.
This isn't in the same class as the other Le Carre novels that I've read but it is an engaging book that tells a powerful story.