Title:                      A Most Wanted Man

Author:                  John Le Carré

Le Carré, John (2008). A Most Wanted Man. New York: Scribner

LCCN:    2008030704

PR6062.E33 M67 2008


  • A half-starved young Russian man claiming to be a devout Muslim, an idealistic young German civil rights lawyer, and a sixty-year-old scion of a failing British bank based in Hamburg form an unlikely alliance as the rival spies of Germany, England and America scent a sure kill in the “War on Terror,” and converge upon the innocents.


Date Updated:  April 11, 2017

Review by Julian Symons[1]

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[2] and The Little Drummer Girl [3] 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.

Reviewed by John Kavanagh and James Burridge[4]

The Night Manager—the Miniseries

Directed by Susanne Bier, based on a John le Carré novel

BBC, 2016, six 6o-minute episodes.

Eight of John le Carte’s espionage novels have been made into movies and four into BBC miniseries; Tinker, Tailor[5] was done as both. The ninth film, Our Kind of Traitor[6], opened in July 2016. The Night Manager is based on le Carré’s eponymous novel.

The story is about Jonathan Pine, a young British man who offers to infiltrate the entourage of an infamous British arms trader, Richard Roper, “the worst man in the world.” In describing this double-agent operation, le Carré reverses and neatly compresses the classic recruitment cycle and reduces it to the essentials—engagement, enticement, and entrapment. This is perhaps the most elaborate dangle ever concocted, even longer than that of Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold[7]. It is a textbook on building a legend to backstop a dangle.

Pine arrives dramatically in Roper’s life, saving Roper’s son from violent kidnappers in a meticulously staged ruse. Pine credibly risks life and limb (he is actually seriously injured), and Roper feels obligated to see to his care and recovery. Roper is a complete sociopath, but he is generous and loyal to those he trusts. Roper has survived thus far by trusting his instincts, and he carefully vets Pine–or Pine’s legend, as it turns out. He is drawn to Pine’s narrative–on the run from a criminal past and unwilling to acknowledge, much less share, his aspirations. Roper senses a native cleverness and ease in Pine, and, having successfully vetted him, brings him into the arms business. The dangle is grasped, and Pine manages to discredit Roper’s former number two and take his place. Roper’s eventual downfall is due in part to his genuine affection for Pine, whom he sees as a younger version of himself.

The intelligence back story is even more complex than le Carré’s usual “Good Brits versus Bad Brits and their evil CIA allies” storyline. Both Britain and the United States have established new agencies–hybrid law enforcement/intelligence agencies. Naturally they are despised and opposed by CIA and MI6 and therefore become allies. (The US organization is the “American Enforcement Agency.”) In case we miss the point that the US enforcement officers are uncultured cowboys, a senior US officer briefs the highest levels of British intelligence wearing a polo shirt. In this tale, the Bad Brits are really bad. Well beyond their usual eagerness to sacrifice the British national interest by currying favor with CIA, these Brits are criminals—completely in bed with Roper. And COS London–a virtual clone of the beautiful and treacherous COS Berlin in A Most Wanted Man[8] – is part of the conspiracy.

The politics of The Night Manager are fairly subdued. There is a brief reference to the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s abandoning the nascent democracies of the Arab Spring, and Pine (a veteran of the Second Gulf War) vaguely alludes to war crimes he witnessed. The biggest departure from the le Cané template is the happy ending–Roper and his allies go to prison, and Pine ends up with Roper’s beautiful mistress (events that would never happen in a le Carré novel). The fact that the villains are criminals depoliticizes the story–there are no pressing moral issues or ambiguities here.

All in all, the program is well worth watching—exotic locales, beautifully filmed; good acting; minimal political posturing; and a compelling plot. Those who insist on absolute accuracy will find plenty to criticize, but the lapses can be easily overlooked. Le Carré recently described the complete loss of creative control he endured in the making of this program, and it shows in lapses from verisimilitude,[9] which include live satellite videos feeds at the push of a button on the desk of every analyst, an American infantry battalion with unilateral freedom of action at the Turkish-Syrian border (all it took was one phone call from the cowboy in the polo shirt), and export licenses listing “Sarin Gas” as part of a shipment. And when the bad Brits put Pine’s case officer out of business and even confiscate her office furniture and computers, she still has the money and documentation to mount an operation in Cairo.

[1] Symons, Julian, “Our Man in Zurich,” New York Times (June 27, 1993), downloaded May 16, 2016

[2] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

[3] Le Carré, John (2004). The Little Drummer Girl. New York: Scribner

[4] John Kavanagh and James Burridge, in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, pp. 131-132). James Burridge is a retired NSA officer now serving as a CIA contract historian. John Kavanagh is a retired CIA operations officer. The two are frequent and award-winning contributors and have contributed previous articles to Intelligencer. Reprinted from Studies in Intelligence, (60, 3, September 2016).

[5] Le Carré, John (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London: Hodder and Stoughton

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

[7] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

[8] Le Carré, John (2008). A Most Wanted Man. New York: Scribner

[9] John le Carre, “John le Carré on The Night Manager on TV: They’ve Totally Changed My Book—But it Works,” The Guardian (February 20, 2016), downloaded April 11, 2017



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