A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre (Shane's book 37, 2011)

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.

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (Shane's book 8, 2011)

This is the first of a series of Smith's novels to feature the Russian detective Arkady Renko. When we meet him he is already a chief investigator and one who has a reputation as both an exceptional detective and a trouble-maker who is not afraid to expose corruption among the influential. [amtap book:isbn=0330448889]

We meet him in the middle of the night on his arrival in Moscow's Gorky Park. Three bodies have been found in the snow, their faces mutilated and their fingertips cut off to prevent them being identified. Though he initially hopes to pass the case on to the KGB, Renko quickly becomes intrigued. As he works to uncover the identities of the victims and trace their killer, Renko uncovers a smuggling ring with links to rich foreigners and powerful figures within Soviet Russia. Eventually the investigation leads him to New York, which he finds to be just as corrupt as his native Russia.

On its release in 1981 Gorky Park was a bestseller. In setting his story in Soviet Russia, Smith took his readers into a society that most of them will have found unfamiliar and threatening. Corruption is systemic and provides an ideal backdrop against which the principled detective can make his stand. Smith's Moscow feels authentic: it's gloomy, forbidding and rundown.

However, aside from the Soviet trappings this is a very conventional detective thriller. Renko is the stereotypical put upon detective; his marriage is in jeopardy thanks to his devotion to his job and when he begins to get close to the powerful forces behind the murders his bosses take him off the case.

Smith keeps the pace of the writing high and pares down his descriptions so that the book feels much shorter than it is. (It's almost 600 pages in my edition, despite Amazon's claim that it's about half that.) It reads like it was written for the screen, particularly the final showdown, and the film version was made in 1983.

This is worth reading as a snapshot of the Cold War and Russia buffs will love it but as a detective thriller it offers little to surprise.

Berlin Game by Len Deighton (Shane's book 4, 2010)

Ian wrote favourably about this spy novel last year and James is a fan too so I thought I'd see what the fuss was about. The only other Len Deighton I've read is SSGB, his alternate-history novel imagining Britain after a Nazi victory in Word War II. That book is decent, though pales in comparison to Thomas Harris's Fatherland. Similarly, Berlin Game is good but not a patch on John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

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Deighton's hero, Bernard Samson, is an ageing spy who has been deskbound for five years. He's come up the hard way, via a childhood spent in post-war Berlin where his father served in military intelligence. Despite having apparently benefited from nepotism, Samson resents the Oxbridge types whose contacts and breeding have allowed them to bypass him on the professional ladder. He is sharper than his bosses, who don't have his field experience, and is cynical about their motivation. Samson's wife, who is also an intelligence officer, is an Oxford graduate from a rich family - a reminder both of how well Samson has done for himself and of the world to which he will never truly belong.

When Brahms Four, a well-placed British intelligence source in East Berlin, starts to get nervous and wants to defect he demands to see Samson - the only agent he trusts. Brahms Four is so valuable that the British want to keep him in place for at least a couple more years. As they investigate the reasons for Brahms Four's nervousness they discover a Russian agent in their midst. As Samson digs further he begins to suspect that this agent is merely a decoy intended to divert attention from another, more senior, KGB spy.

During his investigations Samson takes a few trips to Berlin, gathering information old friends and colleagues and taking stock of a city torn in two and seemingly trapped forty years in the past.

There are so many thematic similarities with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, that an uncharitable critic might dismiss this as mere imitation. Indeed, at times Deighton reads like a pastiche of Raymond Chandler and John Le Carre. His greatest weakness is handling exposition. Almost every character speaks to Samson as if he is a child with amnesia, constantly asking him if he remembers events so significant that it's hard to imagine any ever forgetting them. People are constantly telling each other things they already know.

Still, Deighton keeps the plot moving along at a brisk speed and does a good job of keeping the reader guessing at how things are going to turn out. This is the first in, astonishingly, a series of nine - a trilogy of trilogies. I have the second, Mexico Set, on my shelf for a later date.

Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (Shane's book 20, 2009)

Eric Ambler was born in 1909 and to mark the centenary of his birth Penguin has reissued five of his first six novels. Written between 1937 and 1940 these books brought a new realism to the spy novel genre and paved the way for the likes of John Le Carre and Len Deighton.

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Ambler's novels typically centre on amateurs who are unexpectedly plunged into espionage. Epitaph for a Spy is no exception. The hero, Josef Vadassy, is arrested after trying to collect his holiday photos from a chemist in a small French town. He's unable to explain why his film contained shots of French naval fortifications. The authorities suspect that Vadassy's camera was switched at his hotel and blackmail him into returning to trap the real spy.

So begins a Hitchcockian plot in which Vadassy tries to follow the mysterious instructions from the agent in charge and clumsily snoops on his fellow guests.

The occupants of the hotel could have been borrowed from any crime novel of the period. There's an English major and his wife, a young and witty American couple, a Swiss industrialist and a few others. Of course, each of them has a secret that Vadassy will inadvertently uncover before the conclusion.

It all sounds very cosy but Ambler's characters are convincing, especially Vadassy whose ineptitude results from inexperience and fear rather than stupidity. Underlying the whole story is a genuine political concern and the darkness hanging over Europe in 1938 is inescapable. The book has a subplot - which I won't spoil here - that is quite affecting.

It's a very good novel. I've got another of the reissued Amblers on the shelf and I'm looking forward to getting to it soon.

Shane's book 32: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre

This is the novel which made people take John Le Carre seriously. "Once this book hit the stands," he writes in the foreword, "my time of quiet and gradual development was over for good." It's easy to see why the book was so well received; it feels relentlessly authentic. It tells the story of Alec Leamas, formerly in charge of British intelligence in Berlin, who is tasked with bringing down Hans-Dieter Mundt, the murderous East German spymaster. To do so he feigns a breakdown, turning to drink and ending up in prison after attacking a shopkeeper.

The Soviets recruit him and he sets about sewing seeds of doubt around Mundt, painting him as a British double-agent. Needless to say, the plot does not run smoothly and Le Carre throws in some surprising twists before the end.

However it is the characters rather than the plot that make this book so impressive. Spying is about fanaticism, Le Carre shows us; the end always justifies the means and there is no such thing as good or evil. There are only winners and losers.

Sentiment too has no place in this world, as Le Carre demonstrates through Liz Gold, who falls for Leamas as they work together in a library.

Liz is the only character who doesn't quite convince. She speaks and acts like one of Jane Austen's soppier characters. I wasn't around in the early Sixties but I was under the impression that women were a little more independent by then.

Liz is a communist, mainly because of naive idealism, Le Carre seems to believe. At times he comes dangerously close to hamfistedly exposing her naivety to the real horrors of communism but he pulls back just in time and instead makes a more profound point.

George Smiley lurks throughout this book, though we spend little time with him. He is older here than in Le Carre's later trilogy but is otherwise fully formed.

This is an exceptional book, made so by Le Carre's instinctive feel for his subject and his palpable compassion which continually helps him avoid dogmatism. It's well worth reading.