Sunday, July 2, 2017

Bait and Switch

John le Carré’s  Our Kind of Traitor (2010)  begins as auspiciously as any mystery-thriller in memory.
Among the chief pleasures of the mystery genre, is that the reader walks through its world with heightened senses:   Every oddity, each detail, may be a clue;  and the mind gathers them up  like a squirrel stashing-away nuts.    Ultimately, these clues need to cohere in some plausible way, or the reader feels cheated -- we have wasted our time.  But getting there is half the fun.

The old Cold War master’s recent novel  deftly adds another layer to that.
First, we meet an English academic couple, vacationing on a Caribbean island.   They meet a seemingly rich but rather louche Russian -- or rather, he scrapes acquaintance, via a dubiously ingratiating resort manager.   They agree to a game of tennis.  From there, things get a little strange, but not in a way that you can quite put your finger on.
So far so good -- the set-up is reminiscent of those superb opening scenes in David Mamet’s movie thriller-cum-puzzlebox “The Spanish Prisoner”.
But now comes the next narrative layer.
In the second chapter, the story suddenly breaks off, and we unexpectedly find ourselves amid the brick walls of a basement room, where our vacation-pair is being patiently, expertly interrogated;  it is unclear by whom.   This interlude lasts but a paragraph, as though a mental fugue, then we are back on the island, to resume the game.

Then again, we are back in that blank basement room.  Narratively, it is a flash-forward. The two interrogators have acquired names;  the interrogees  are wary but cooperative.   Are they themselves suspected of wrongdoing?  -- At this point, the rather dreamlike switching between the original “real-time” tennis-story, and this eerie alternate venue, is atmospherically quite effective, and reminiscent of William Kotzwinkle’s elegantly structured  The Exile.

Evidently the interrogators already somehow know a vast though lacunary amount  about some equally vast but perplexing conspiracy  that centers on, or at least involves, the Russian.   As in a police procedural, they proceed through the recounting of a seemingly innocent random tennis-match,  whose (bored) spectators consisted of the Russian’s friends and relations.  The female interrogator asks the wife:
“So where were the wee girls located at this point?  Below you?  Along the row from you?  Where, please.”  (Urgent italics in original.)
Somehow, such details are ineffably important.  The reader grows increasingly intrigued.

Only, it turns out the whole thing is an authorial scam.  None of those details come to really matter, most are unexplained;  and the only reason the interrogators even have a clue about the island events  is that the vacationers brought them a tape made by the Russian.   In other words, there was not some intricate pre-existing intelligence project, with Analyst-Notebook-style webs of interconnections  lining the walls;  so all that guff about where the wee girls sat  and the like, was just flimflam.
At that point, the only twist that might have saved the plot  would be if the interrogators turned out not to be MI5  (as we, and the vacationers, had assumed), but rather (in a false-flag situation) some sinister group connected to the Russian.   But no such luck.

In the end, the book does not deserve the category of mystery-thriller, but merely thriller (generally a lesser genre, except in cinema),  and not a very thrilling one at that.

Given that le Carré spent decades writing about British counterintelligence, and given the history of Kim Philby and his fellow-moles, the title Our Kind of Traitor quite definitely should point to a Cambridge Five kind of scenario, in which an English agent covertly working for the nation’s enemies  is tolerated far too long, since he is “our kind”, one of the Old Boys, the Right Sort.   But nothing of it.  There are no traitors here, Cantabridgian or otherwise;  the title seems to have been imposed by the publisher, on a whim or by mistake.

~     ~     ~

By way of somewhat compensating  for even having taken up your time with all this,  here are a couple of snatches of “found poetry”  quarried from the course of three hundred pages of prose.

In the road above the basement,    an ambulance tears past,
and the howl of its siren
is like a scream for the whole world’s pain.


The rain was rattling like hailstones   on the car’s roof.
The windscreen wipers   groaned and sobbed
as they tried to keep up.


Holidaymakers   with sticks and sunhats
peered into windows   of souvenir  shops.


[For additional reviews, see  The Thriller Literature.]

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