Title: The Night Manager
Author: John le Carré
Le Carré, John (1993). The Night Manager. New York: Knopf
PR6062.E33 N5 1993
Date Updated: November 18, 2016
Review by Julian Symons
Few things are staler than a spy story with last week’s background. John le Carré, when planning his new book, had to devise a strategy for writing about a society in which, as one of his characters reflects, there is “no more Russian bear to fight, no more Reds under the bed at home.” Now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, and Mr. le Carré’s superspy Karla with it, what can replace them? The writer’s answer is to blend international arms dealers and the bosses of drug cartels into a single individual, make him a lazy-voiced, arrogant, stylish Englishman named Richard Onslow Roper, and give him the persuasiveness of Mephistopheles. The result is a brilliant performance, executed with an exuberance, a richness of detail and a narrative drive that have been absent from Mr. le Carré’s writing for a decade.
The Persian Gulf war, with its immense possibilities for arms dealing, is the background of The Night Manager, but at the heart of the story is Roper, reinforced by his entourage and his arguments in defense of his activities. Does he help to establish dictatorships? “Armed power’s what keeps the peace,” he replies, while “unarmed power doesn’t last five minutes.” Is the responsibility for death and starvation in Africa and South America to be laid at his door? Not so. “Who are the killers, then?” he asks. “It’s not the chaps who make the guns! It’s the chaps who don’t open the larder doors!”
Swept along in Roper’s wake, as he moves around by plane and helicopter from luxury yacht to luxury hotel to his fantasy palace made real in the Caribbean, is a sleazy and sinister group of acolytes headed by the extravagantly homosexual and deadly clever Major Corkoran. Opposed to Roper is Jonathan Pine, first encountered as night manager of Zurich’s Hotel Meister Palace, but with a past that includes undercover work in Northern Ireland. Pine is backed by one of those underfinanced oddball secret agencies met in other le Carré books. This one is run by the well-named Leonard Burr from dingy offices in London’s Victoria Street and supported by a Whitehall mandarin named Rex Goodhew, whose puritan conscience makes him implacably opposed to Roper, whom he sees as the embodiment of all drug-dealing and arms-selling evil. A bigger British agency devoted to “Pure Intelligence” (which means gathering information, but most often refraining from using it for fear of disturbing the status quo) cooperates with the “American Cousins” in keeping a watchful eye on Burr.
Pine’s character is built up with great care. The opening 50 pages, which show him as a super-flunky at the Zurich hotel, disturbed by Roper and overwhelmed by the beauty of Roper’s English mistress, Jed, are written with a deliberate panache designed both to emphasize Roper’s high style and to show us that Pine is in retreat from tragedy and violence in his own life. He had tried to protect the mistress of an Arab colleague of Roper’s, but she was quite casually killed. In the Meister Palace, Pine is really hiding from himself and the effect of his own actions. Locked one day by accident in the hotel’s wine cellar with no prospect of being found, he decides that if he is saved he will “abandon his morbid quest for order and treat himself to a little chaos.”
Pine is enlisted by Burr, given a new identity and a background of drug-running and apparent murder. Burr then arranges a mock kidnapping of Roper’s son, Daniel, from which Pine is to save the boy. In the event, Pine, seeing the frightened child, loses his cool and breaks the arm of one of Burr’s agents. He is then badly beaten by another, and becomes the temporary favorite of a grateful Roper.
This is Operation Limpet. Pine is to be the limpet bomb that will cling to and finally destroy Roper.
Put down so simply, such plotting may sound like the ordinary material of an espionage adventure. That is not at all the effect. For an outline inevitably ignores brilliant set pieces, like the arrival of Roper’s party at Hunter’s Island in the Caribbean, before the failed kidnapping. There the gigantic Mama Low is preparing a meal for the party; Pine, renamed Lamont and hired as a cook, is preparing his famous stuffed mussels. Nor can it convey the subtleties of Pine’s interrogations by the suspicious Major Corkoran when Pine is recuperating after the beating that was not in the script.
Nor can any plot outline take in the long description of what is justly seen as a madhouse in the Panama jungle, where weapons are demonstrated in the presence of potential buyers and Roper’s friends and agents are gathered, Frenchmen and Germans and an Israeli, men who have “fought every dirty war from Cuba to Salvador to Guatemala to Nicaragua.” The story is built up with the relentless simplicity of Victorian narrative, but it is elaborated and enriched with what are often terrifying gargoyles.
Roper and his crew are not the only villains. Mr. le Carré’s distaste for the intelligence agency game and its most enthusiastic practitioners has never been shown more clearly than in his depiction of the Pure Intelligence outfit in London and its counterparts in Washington. Both groups are chiefly concerned with discomfiting and outwitting rivals, and are ready to dispose of their own agents when they pose awkward questions.
One scene shows the master manipulator Goodhew threatened with ruin or death by a committee man he has always thought an amiable cipher, unless Goodhew abandons support for Operation Limpet. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ed Prescott breaks the news to Joe Strelski, an American drug-enforcement agent, who is another Limpet supporter, that Pine must be left to his fate, abandoned in Roper’s hands. This scene is written with a controlled savagery rare in Mr. le Carré’s work. Isn’t Roper inextricably linked with dope-running and illegal arms sales, Strelski asks? Prescott smiles ruefully as he says that can’t be proved, and Strelski responds with heavyweight irony: “Don’t change, Ed. America needs you as you are. . . . Keep fixing things for us. The decent citizen knows too much already, Ed. Any more knowledge could seriously endanger his health.”
Mr. le Carré is a finely ambitious writer, concerned with producing stories that can be considered on the same plane as Conrad’s Under Western Eyes or the best of Graham Greene and Robert Louis Stevenson. His finest books, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl  show that in the architectonics of writing—the construction, shaping and pacing of a plot—he has no superiors and few equals among living novelists. The framework of Spy could serve as a model for any novelist concerned with old-fashioned matters like a closely plotted narrative, although it is true that in some of Mr. le Carré’s other books Conradian complexity too often obscures the story line.
Is The Night Manager up to the best of John le Carré? The equivocal answer has to be: yes, but only where it concerns the worlds of Roper and the London and Washington agencies. Their activities are handled with total assurance and an evident and infectious enjoyment. Elsewhere, however, Mr. le Carré sometimes surrenders to the inescapably sensational nature of the espionage thriller, and also to a romanticism about women that leads to the creation of a pipe-dream fantasy rather than a character in Jed, Roper’s mistress.
But the saddest aspect of The Night Manager is the surrender to conventional thrillerdom of the upbeat ending, tacked on to a book that cries out for a tragic one. Perhaps Mr. le Carré bent before his publisher’s demand for a hero who might beat enormous odds; perhaps the artistic miscalculation was his own. Whatever the reason, the result is a highly implausible conclusion, damaging our belief in what for almost all the way has been a splendidly exciting, finely told story. T. S. Eliot said in praise of Wilkie Collins’ thrillers that in those Victorian days the best novels were thrilling. A book like this one, masterly in its conception and in most of its execution, confirms that they can still be thrilling today.