“A Most Wanted Man” by John Le Carre, the spy writer who came in from the Cold War

John Le Carre’s spy fiction certainly feels real.

It feels as though I am reading about real people in a very real, very scary world, where idealism butts against hard realities and where smart battles stupid and suddenly realizes stupid often prevails.

Le Carre made his name as a spy writer with his excellent Cold War novels featuring George Smiley, and these are very good examples of the genre. My favorite from these earlier works, thus far, anyway, is “The Honourable Schoolboy,” with a sometimes-agent hot on the trail of a Soviet spy paymaster. As with all of Le Carre’s books, you get an intimately detailed look at the politics and minutia that fuel the intelligence world, and it feels like you are being immersed in it. Whether it is a truly accurate depiction of the inside works of the espionage world or not, it all seems convincing.

As good as his Cold War books are, though, Le Carre’s later novels appeal to me more. The Cold War days seem distant to me, like I am reading history — which, of course, to an extent I am. But when he applies his themes of deception and betrayal to events that I read about in the daily news, I am engrossed. The war on terror, especially, is a fertile field for Le Carre’s intricate webs.

I ended 2016 by reading “A Most Wanted Man,” in which a mysterious figure from Chechnya, named Issa,  plops into the lives of a Muslim woman and her son in Hamburg. He has been a political prisoner. He may, or may not, have participated in terrorist or rebellious activities. He has a legacy left him, and a chance at freedom and a good life, but he must first collect that legacy while spies from three nations track his every move. 

He has the aid of an idealistic young German attorney, and she helps him connect with a British banker in Hamburg who has the key to Issa’s fortune. They conduct their business while drawing much attention from intelligence agents who, as it turns out, are playing a bigger game. 

What really makes the book tick, aside from all the excellent and mysterious cloak-and-dagger stuff, is the portrayal of the non-spy characters. These people are expertly depicted. They have qualities and flaws, goals and secrets. They do things for the same reasons people do things in the real world, and sometimes they even know they are being foolish, but damn it, they are going to do the foolish thing anyway — maybe because it is the right thing to do, maybe to express love for an unobtainable woman, maybe to make amends for a father’s crimes. These are humans being human, and as such they are prey and fodder in a world of governments playing deadly games.

The spies are real people, too, of course. Some play a long game, some seek quick successes. The wishes of one government collide with the desires of another, and political aims threaten long-laid plans.

And through it all, lives may be ruined or rewarded, and merit or blame seldom have anything to do with it.

Le Carre’s feelings about Western intelligence methods and goals come through plainly enough. American cowboy-style espionage, in particular, comes off badly. Some readers may feel he is barking up a wrong tree. But most, I think, will emerge thinking more deeply about prejudice and bias, and about the complexities of the modern world.

And most, I think, will read on hoping things turn out well for characters they have come to know. And because Le Carre does not sugar-coat anything, you never know until the end. And sometimes not even then.


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