The spy master

<strong>A Most Wanted Man</strong>
<em>John le Carré</em>
Hodder & Stoughton,
352pp, £18.99

It’s hard out there for a thriller writer: with the complexities of post-9/11 international politics, spy novels can no longer be plotted around the dependable binaries of Cold War-style good versus evil. But, as the undisputed master of the genre, John le Carré tackles the challenges in this, his 21st novel, with characteristic gusto and control.
The most wanted man is Issa, a young Russian Muslim who turns up in Hamburg – apparently via a shipping container – and finds refuge with a Turkish family. Issa’s story of running away from home to study medicine is of course the surface of the woolly truth: he may, in fact, be an Islamist militant of interest to the espionage networks of three countries, he seems to have links to a dodgy British bank in Hamburg and the Russian Mafia, and the spectre of the KGB looms. Inevitably, the immigration lawyer Annabel Richter and Tommy Brue, a banker, become embroiled in trying to save Issa from whatever is out to get him – and find that their own lives are on the line.
At times, the characters are thinly drawn and a bit old-fashioned, but readers turn to le Carré not for character development, but for the ripping yarns. In that respect, A Most Wanted Man finds him still at the top of his game.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama