Title:                      Our Kind of Traitor

Author:                 John le Carré.

Le Carré, John (2010, 2016). Our Kind of Traitor. New York, New York : Penguin Books

LCCN:    2016299847

PR6062.E33 O973 2016


Date Updated:  April 3, 2017

Our Kind of Traitor was produced in 2016 as a British spy thriller, staring Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis, and Alicia von Rittberg. The film was released in the United Kingdom on 13 May 2016 by Lionsgate.

Reviewed by Chelsea Cain[1]

Everyone knows that pop culture is bonkers for brooding, romantic, dangerous types with underworld connections. I am speaking, of course, of vampires. But a long time ago, before Bella and Edward even started dating, there was another dark romantic hero who captured our imaginations. He was called a spy. He drank gin or whiskey, not blood. He was preferably English. Educated. And if he had to kill someone he did it like a gentleman, which is to say with a poisoned dart at the end of an umbrella.

John le Carré is to spy fiction what Lindsay Lohan is to TMZ. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. He is the papa of Cold War spy novels. (His literary agent must have wept when the Berlin Wall went down.) In his new book, Our Kind of Traitor, le Carré may not bring back the old-school secret agent, but he’ll certainly warm the hearts of those of us who long for the era before Jack Bauer, when spies quoted P. G. Wodehouse and wore mackintoshes.

Sure, Our Kind of Traitor takes place more or less in the present. Characters send text messages, and find that they cannot visit the gardens of the Champs-Élysées because “Michelle Obama and her children are in town.” The evil-doers are bankers, gangsters and money launderers, not the K.G.B.

But there is a filter of nostalgia that gives the narrative a jaunty midcentury feel.

Characters go on tennis holiday. Spies sing from “La Traviata” while cooking. Everyone speaks French. And Britain is a major player in a global conspiracy.

It all starts with the above-mentioned tennis holiday. Gail and Perry, a “strikingly attractive” and upwardly mobile English couple, find themselves caught up in espionage intrigue while practicing their backhands in Antigua.

Gail is a “sparky young barrister on the rise.” Perry is a former tutor in English literature at Oxford and an accomplished athlete. They have been together for five years and have yet to get married. (“Marry that girl,” almost every male character in the book tells Perry at some point.)

The couple are on Day 1 of their vacation. There’s some swimming. They make “languorous love in the afternoon,” then hit the tennis courts. Perry plays qualifiers for Queen’s and made it to the Masters; he is, in short, a bit of a tennis stud. It does not go unnoticed, and he is soon challenged to a match by a “muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle 50s called Dima.”

Perry agrees, and things quickly get hinky.

I mean, hello—Dima is wearing a crimson blouse with gray tracksuit pants, a diamond-encrusted gold Rolex and leather espadrilles. He’s clearly a very wealthy Russian crook. Or Mickey Rourke.

The match is set for the next morning. Perry and Gail show up at 6:45. (The kind of people who go on tennis holiday are also the kind of people who will get up before 7 a.m. on vacation.)

Perry wins. Naturally. He is a tennis stud, remember? But Dima is so impressed by Perry’s sense of fair play that he forgives him. In fact, “he’s not merely gracious, he’s moved to tears of admiration and gratitude.”

Oh, yeah. One tiny thing. Dima has a favor he’s hoping that Perry can help him out with: he wants to flee to England, spill some secrets about the Russian underworld and enroll his children at Eton.

Soon Perry and Gail are elbow to elbow with the British secret service trying to get Dima and his large sullen family to Mother England, a process that involves some enviable European travel.

Their contacts in the service are Hector, Luke and Ollie—their code names, I swear, are Tom, Dick and Harry. They are classic spy archetypes, morally complex but loyal to their calling.

It’s all a little familiar.

But le Carré’s execution is perfect. There are no narrative missteps. His gift at character shorthand is as strong as ever, whether he is describing “flaxen-haired boys, chewing gum as if they hated it,” or Gail’s first impression of Luke, whom she considers too small. “Male spies, she told herself with a false jocularity brought on by nervousness, should come a size larger.” It is always a pleasure to be in the hands of an entirely competent writer.

Le Carré pays his usual attention to plot. This one involves Russian gangsters and international banking—all very of-the-moment. I suppose le Carré is trying to be relevant. (The publicity materials even include a 2009 article from The Observer of London that echoes the narrative conspiracy.)

Yet the appeal of the book is not in its modernity, but in its stubborn embrace of the past.

Spies wear berets and fedoras. A vacationing teenager wears “a Hakka-style lampshade hat and a cheongsam dress with toggle buttons and Grecian sandals cross-tied round her ankles.”

This is le Carré’s universe, not ours.

All the better.

Le Carré made a name for himself by injecting a sense of moral ambiguity into spy fiction. But these days, post Watergate, post weapons of mass destruction, post Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne, institutional corruption and moral ambiguity are a given. Governments do bad stuff?

Well, yeahhhh. No duh.

It’s sort of thrilling to inhabit a world, even briefly, where characters are surprised when people and institutions fail to live up to their expectations.

Movie, Our Kind of Traitor

Baased on Our Kind of Traitor. Directed by Susanna White; screenplay by Hossein Amini, Lionsgate, 2016, 108 minutes, rated R.

Reviewed by John Kavanagh[2]

The new film adaptation of John le Carré’s 2010 novel, Our Kind of Traitor, co-produced by le Carré and giving him story-writing credit, touches on themes familiar from the author’s many post-Cold War books. Again, the KGB stand-in is a menacing international crime syndicate. Where in previous novels the author’s heroes were pitted against international narcotics networks, arms traffickers, and murderous third world despots, here the target is the Russian mafia—not the tattooed, strong-arm mafia intent on dockside smuggling and violent extortion, but the updated, improved version.

A millennial cadre is taking over the group, intent on spreading its tentacles by invading and corrupting the West’s banking and finance systems. The old leadership is to be eliminated. One marked for killing is Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), the group’s longtime bookkeeper. As the enterprise is set for expansion, Dima’s doom is insured by his stockpile of guilty knowledge, including the listing of various on-the-payroll British political and banking co-optees being bribed to facilitate the opening of a mafia-financed bank in London. Dima knows the only way out for him and his family is to barter with MI-6: his information in exchange for rescue and escape. He chooses as a go-between a casual vacation acquaintance, Oxford don Perry Makepeace, who, overpowered by the Russian’s rambunctious, outsized personality, agrees to deliver a message to MI-6.

His simple mission completed, Perry determines to return to his teaching, but both Dima and MI-6 ops manager Hector Meredith realize that Perry is the irreplaceable link between them, the tool needed to fulfill each man’s grasp for redemption, saving Dima and his family’s lives, and saving Hector’s faltering, discredited intelligence career.

And so both men, joined in a silent conspiracy, put Perry “into play.”

The reluctant amateur cast into physical danger and the moral morass of espionage, this is indeed le Carré territory. And the film, directed by Susanna White from a screenplay by Hossein Amini, is a tight-fitting, in parts engrossing vehicle that services le Carré’s reliably bright talents for plot and character development, intrigue, and spurts of exciting action.

But this is John le Carré, and the dark side must also be addressed, and so also tellingly delivered by the filmmakers are the author’s signature takes on the secret world’s penchants for hypocrisy, self-delusion, and betrayal. Most affecting, however, is Perry’s (Ewan MacGregor) ready empathy/identification with Dima, whose brutal, demanding “recruitment” of Perry doesn’t succeed because of coercion, but because Perry senses the braggart’s authentic vulnerability and fears for his family’s safety. As this tale’s authentic asset acquisition isn’t found in Hector’s deployment of Perry but rather in Perry’s willingly chosen, dangerous partnership with Dima, le Cane’s studied observation on the intelligence business is well taken. Personal bonds and genuine affection, shared values, friendship, so often cement the relations which lead individuals to face challenges and dangers together, for decades, or, in this story, for several desperate hours.

Many of le Carré’s stories end with reversal and defeat—the darkness prevails. A final twist in this film brings a satisfying moment of measured success. This is a very good spy film, a well-tuned melodrama, and in the telling, maybe for the first time, storyteller John le Cane keeps an arm’s distance from tragedy.

[1] Chelsea Cain (2010). “Double-Fault“, in The New York Times, Sunday Book Review (Octoberr 22, 2010), downloaded November 3, 2016. Chelsea Cain is the author of Heartsick. Her new thriller, The Night Season, was published in 2011.

[2] John Kavanagh in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, p. 131).


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