Single & Single by John le Carré

Scribner 1999 347 pp. 26.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Writers of espionage thrillers don't die, they just switch countries. And the greatest of them, John le Carré, has proven that, unlike Mother Russia, political disintegration hasn't meant the breakdown of his ability to weave a complex tale. Also like Russia, however, the question remains whether he has been successful in making the transition to the deceptively benign, monolithic world of global capitalism.

His latest, Single & Single, nominally involves Turks and Georgians, but occupying center stage is the recognizable Le Carré protagonist: isolated, wounded by love, working in obscurity following a soul-devastating moral choice. He's called out again for one more mission, sure to involve gun play, betrayal and counter-betrayal, and the promise, at least, of life-renewing love.

Oliver Hawthorne is a magician-for-hire working children's birthday parties in rural England. Separated from his wife and beloved daughter, he's suddenly called by bank regulators to explain the deposit of over five million pounds into his young daughter's bank account. Simultaneously in Turkey, a member of his father's firm is assassinated, and hard upon the murder Hawthorne's father, Tiger Single, disappears.

Of course, he's not really Oliver Hawthorne, but Oliver Single, lawyer and scion of the House of Single, a London-based outfit lauded as "quartering the nations of the new-look communist bloc in search of opportunity, sound development and mutual profit in the spirit of the perestroika."

In a series of flashbacks, Oliver learns, soon after joining the firm, that far from a forward-looking enterprise, his father's firm is a sophisticated, international money-laundering business for the criminal classes emerging from the new-old Russia.

At Single & Single Oliver learned the ropes: "Ropes like trading companies that had never traded in their lives and never would. Ropes like holding companies that held nothing for longer than five minutes because it was too damn hot. Ropes like selling bum stock to the bank in order to make the bank the buyer. Then buying said stock back through other companies because the bank happens to be yours."

But Oliver's principles create problems, as his father observes: "Idle, callow, misinformed, self-indulgent, gratuitous, moralistic problem making." After setting up a illegal scheme which literally sells the blood of Russians to the West, Oliver has a change of heart and betrays the House of Single to the British authorities, "sitting in a pepier-mâché interviewing room at Heathrow, telling a uniformed Customs officer things that till then he had not told himself."

He then retreats to the British countryside, until his father's disappearance forces him into an alliance with British spies working for the Customs service. Will Oliver uncover the secret of his father's disappearance? Will he overcome his sense of having betrayed his family, both in business and in love?

Le Carré is at his best in the sexless gray twilight of espionage, in the uncertainty of overlit offices and underlit parks, where alienated men wrestle silently with the reasons behind their devotion to the Cause. Their treacheries and adulterous romances occur best offstage, like Shakespearean murders.

Yet central to Single & Single is a doomed (and unmotivated) bodice-ripping passion between Oliver and a Georgian woman. Following its demise, Oliver takes up with a young British woman, who was "unarmed and in love and in danger, and she was staring down a darkening hillside at a pair of Germanic iron security gates set into a shellproof wall a hundred yards below her." By actually portraying romances on the page, Le Carré inadvertently highlights the excessive melodrama that lies at the heart of espionage fiction.

Distracting as well in this complex plot is the appearance of HYDRA, a shadowy, insufficiently explained group which emerges periodically in the narrative, and then disappears without a trace. It's also not too politically correct to observe that the only homosexual portrayed in this novel is also the worm in the apple of British intelligence.

Le Carré will always have his fans and will continue to sell books. Yet, in Single & Single one is reminded of James Bond, not he of the smirking, horny glitz, but of an imaginative world that persists unchanged through the decades. The recent cinematic ascendance of Austin Powers ("Yeah, baby!") should have Le Carré peering uncertainly over his shoulder.