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Onyx reviews: Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré

It's no secret that the Cold War has been over for a long time. For young adults, the struggle for dominance between the East and the West is almost ancient history. Where is a novelist who made his name writing about espionage and counter-espionage between the superpowers to turn? The surprising answer for John le Carré is: Russia. There is more way than one for a country to exert influence over the rest of the world. Instead of a nuclear arms race, le Carré posits a financial battle.

Long-time couple Perry Makepeace and Gail Perkins are at something of a crossroads. Perry is quitting his post as an English Literature tutor at Oxford to start teaching underprivileged secondary education students. Gail, a lawyer with a promising future, wonders where their relationship is heading. While on vacation in Antigua, they meet Dmitri, aka Dima, a Russian "businessman" who learns that Perry is a talented tennis player. He insists they play at the resort's courts. Dima is a force of nature, and Gail and Perry get a glimpse behind his curtain when armed guards try to search their bags before allowing them onto the court. Perry declines, thereby gaining Dima's respect.

The tennis match (one of several in the book) is more than simply a game—it's a way for Dima to size Perry up. It's also a surreal spectacle witnessed by the grimmest audience imaginable. Dima is all about "fair play," chiding Perry when he thinks the younger man is going easy on him. Shortly after the match, which Perry wins, Dima passes a note to Perry and Gail saying he wants them to contact British Intelligence on his behalf. Turns out he's a world-class money launderer for the Russian mob and he wants to defect. He's part of the old guard, being edged out of his position. He's certain that his colleagues are spying on him and one of his closest friends and allies was murdered recently. Believing that he and his family are next on the chopping block, he sees British Intelligence as his best bet. They share his sense of fair play, he thinks. In return for access to his wealth of insider information about illegal transactions that span continents, all he wants is a safe haven.

Gail's maternal instincts kick in when she sees how sad and lost the children in Dima's extended family are. This group includes Dima's wife Tamara, who has become a deeply disturbed religious fanatic since being tortured in prison, their twin sons, two young girls orphaned by the murder of Dima's ally, and Natasha, a stunningly beautiful but taciturn teenager, Dima's daughter with another woman. While Perry entertains the boys by teaching them cricket, Gail tends to the girls, forming a strong connection wih Natasha, whose stepmother despises her. Perry and Gail are excited by the adventure that has been dropped in their laps. They're too intrigued to be properly frightened by the gravity of the situation.

Gail and Perry don't have contacts at MI6, but Perry finds a way to get a message via one of his Oxford colleagues. Much of the first half of the novel is taken up by their debriefing over the course of several days. This is the most fascinating part of the story—readers get to know the young couple through the way they interact and how they choose to respond to questions. Sometimes they defer to each other, sometimes they step on each other, and occasionally they annoy each other. Their questioners have a strategy that doesn't always align with the way Gail and Perry want to tell the story, which sometimes frustrates them. It's a different kind of tennis match, one where Gail and Perry don't understand all the rules. To complicate matters, Perry and Gail each have information the other does not possess, which strains their relationship. Perry wants to protect Gail, but he is reprimanded by his interrogators for presuming to speak on her behalf and make critical decisions for her. Dima has made it clear that he wants both of them involved.

The intelligence business isn't neat and tidy, like in a James Bond movie, with everyone working toward a common goal. Gail and Perry believe that their handlers and the people they represent will use the information they provide to everyone's best interests. However, petty politics get in the way. Hector Meredith, the aging operative in charge of their debriefing, is working without official approval. Until recently, he was sidelined from the agency, being reinstated only after winning a highly publicized court battle with a financier who tried to ruin his family business. His stridency and zealotry have placed him on the outs with many of his peers and superiors at MI6. He's an idealist who has no use for people who are willing to compromise their values on a case-by-case basis. It's interesting to speculate whether Dima's story would have been different if his file had landed on someone else's desk—if another agent had taken an interest in him.

As shown on the recent television series Rubicon, intelligence work can be mind-numbing,tedious work, with agents often not seeing the real-world repercussions of the information they amass. People operate at cross purposes and politics (both internal to the agency and on the larger stage) often control the way cases are handled—or not handled. Powerful, well-connected, effectively protected people might be implicated by Dima's information. One of the banks he wants to expose is scheduled to release billions of dollars into the cash-strapped British economy, and some within MI6 favor turning a blind eye to the source of the much-needed money instead of trying to uproot the shadow economy that operates beyond the borders of any individual nation. If someone wants to set up a luxury hotel in the Baltics and use its fictitious income to launder money, who's being harmed? It's just money, neither good nor evil, they argue. The financial wheelings and dealings involved comprise a complicated scheme. le Carré does his best to dole the details out in small bites to make them more palatable to readers, but it can still be heavy going at times.

After the debriefing, the novel shifts gears as Luke, their day-to-day contact in the agency, and Hector concoct a plan to extract Dima and his family. Luke's career was in freefall until he was assigned to Gail and Perry, having been returned to the home office in shame after his extramarital affair with a coworker was exposed while he was being held captive by a Colombian warlord. Though aspects of his character and story are interesting, readers never get a good feel for who he is, or why he acts as he does. He's struggling to hold onto his wife, but he falls in love with Gail, an unrequited and impossible relationship.

Gail and Perry are forced to become amateur spies because Dima is only comfortable meeting with them. Luke and Hector give them rudimentary training in spy craft, but mostly they're taught what not to do—how to behave naturally so they won't betray the fact that they know they're under observation once they go into the field. Their initial adventures as novice spies are exciting, but once the story moves to a chalet in the Bernese Oberland the book founders, a victim of the type of tedium that is probably part and parcel of most spy missions but which doesn't make for terribly interesting reading, especially coming as it does at a point where most novels begin to ramp up the tension. It's like a balloon inflated to the verge of bursting that suddenly deflates.

Iit is never entirely clear who le Carré is referring to in the book's title. Its final moments make it clear that someone knows about and is operating against Hector's team. However, the finale is so shocking and abrupt that readers are left with a host of unanswered questions. A denouement of some sort would have been nice.

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