I'm a Madeira cake

The Constant Gardener

John le Carre <em>Hodder & Stoughton, 508pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0340733373

In his fiction of the 1990s, John le Carre moved away from the European chessboard of his cold war work, seemingly aiming to emulate Graham Greene by achieving a complete set of continents. But his central figures - Smiley taking his final bow, Andrew Osnard in The Tailor of Panama, the agents taking on the Georgian mafia in Single & Single - remained the boys from the circus and their stooges.

Besides being his first book set in Africa, The Constant Gardener is thus le Carre's first non-spy novel for 30 years. Its only spook, Tim Donohue, is a marginal, emblematically death- like character ("sunken, colourless cheeks. Nests of crumbling skin below the drooping yellow eyes"). The eponymous gardener is Justin Quayle, a middle-ranking Old Etonian diplomat, who is "menopausal, heading for injury time" when he meets and marries Tessa, a young, part-Italian lawyer. Posted to Nairobi, he tacitly tolerates her involvement in the local health and human rights campaigns of an African doctor, Arnold Bluhm, despite rumblings that the pair are making trouble for a British entrepreneur, Sir Kenneth ("Kenny K") Corliss.

While travelling to meet the archaeologist Richard Leakey, Tessa is murdered near Kenya's border with Sudan, and Bluhm goes missing. Flown back to London after the funeral, Quayle is pressed by two suave Foreign Office types to have counselling and surrender to them all Tessa's papers and computer files concerning the anti-TB drug Dypraxa, distributed in Africa by Corliss's company, ThreeBees. Appalled and radicalised by reading Tessa's hitherto secret dossier, by his bosses' determination to suppress it and by the racist official presumption that Bluhm was both her lover and her killer, Quayle evades his police shadows and goes on the run.

Although le Carre once said that he "always voted socialist", the political underpinnings of his espionage novels are enigmatic. Here, in contrast, the state and the British ruling class are sketched with a caustic disgust reminiscent of David Hare's plays. Whitehall ("the permanent government of England, on which her transient politicians spin and posture like so many table dancers") is a lie machine. The government's ethical foreign policy is a sham. Politicians and civil servants alike are complicit in the "corporate greed" epitomised by Corliss, who feeds titbits to Donohue in return for favours and donates millions to new Labour.

Once proud to be "a piece of the great wise engine" of the state, Quayle now sees that, as a public servant, he obeyed a code of "studied ignorance", averting his gaze from President Moi's human rights abuses and the lethal side effects of Corliss's drug. His aim as a fugitive is "to kill Justin" - the Justin who tended his freesias while his wife followed her conscience - and to "bring Tessa back to life" by completing her pharmaceutical investigation and exposing the manufacturers.

Instead of a switch from the spy yarn to free-form fiction, le Carre's shift is to another type of genre novel: the campaign-ing, journalistic, issue- centred thriller. It, too, has formulaic requirements, most of which are dutifully fulfilled - the beating up of the protagonist by nameless goons, the car chase, the racing from country to country to quiz contacts with crucial information. Sex remains a no-go area for this author, however, and the denouement is far from the simple, fatal confrontation that convention demands. Although Quayle does exact a form of revenge for Tessa's death, his final trip to where she died is also an Orphic quest, a journeying back to "the cradle of civilisation", and a quasi-suicidal completion of the process of becoming her. You don't get that kind of layering with, say, Michael Crichton.

The Constant Gardener is positioned on the frontier between the literary and genre novel; in every chapter, le Carre produces dazzling moments that no thriller specialist could match. Yet, in the second half, he gives the impression of groping his way into terra incognita, with a mixture of exhilaration - you sense a strong identification with Justin's sloughing off of his old self - and awkwardness. The reader already knows, more or less, who ordered Tessa's death and how Dypraxa came to be tested on Kenyans, so all that follows too often seems merely to mark the time until the finale.

Le Carre excels in portraying the old Establishment he despises - the FO personnel chief who purrs "I'm a Madeira cake, the same wherever you slice me"; the gentlemen's club dining-room like a "risen catafalque"; the diplomatic wife with "that tottery, extraordinarily ugly walk" of the female royals. But it's no accident that the structuring of The Constant Gardener leaves Bluhm opaque and obviates the challenge of getting inside Tessa's head. As in Hare's drama, depicting non-Europeans and radical virtue is a bit trickier.

The Constant Gardener is also available as an audiobook read by John le Carre

John Dugdale writes for the Guardian