Novel of the week

Single & Single

John le Carre <em>Hodder & Stoughton, 352pp, £16.99</em>

Far from being silenced by the end of the cold war between Smiley's Circus and Moscow Centre, John le Carre has never run short of new villains to go after or new wars to fight since 1989. Single & Single is 17th in the line stretching from Call for the Dead (1961) to The Tailor of Panama (1996), and while I don't think it's one of his best, it contains enough good things to remind us how, for much of the 1990s, le Carre has been on terrific form.

In the post-Circus novels the old demarcations between government, City, customs, surveillance, piracy and police are scuffed, and new twilight zones shadow the edges of tired victory and defeat. Nobody speaks the truth any more than they used to, because the secrecy compelled by the war between the rival systems retains its seductiveness in the peace. Is anyone in control? Not even The Night Manager (1993) and Our Game (1995), both marvellous and disconcerting novels, running like video nightmares zapped by an unseen hand, provide an answer.

In Single & Single the collapse of the Soviet empire once again opens a Pandora's box of ruthlessness and greed, to say nothing of increased opportunities for travel. Cocaine, the millennial eldorado, resumes the ancient and medieval trade routes from Asia and crosses the Iron Curtain as though it had never existed (what's a mere 50 years in more than 2,000?); finance for Russian projects is laundered in Istanbul; there are civil wars in Mingrelia, as there were civil wars between Englishmen conferring beside the Thames.

Tiny Tiger Single - 5'3" even in Lobb's raised heels - runs a Mayfair venture-capital house, which bankrolls projects across this flakey world and offers "the best legal loopholes that money can buy". His towering son Oliver is the lawyer learning the loopholes. But Ollie is low on self-esteem and high on confused conscience, and when Tiger does business with Muscovite gangsters who propose to trade with the west in Russian scrap, oil and transfused human blood, he goes to the customs and the police. Customs officer Brock, assigned to a joint team running the war against international crime, gives Ollie a fictional identity and makes him disappear. We discover him as a children's entertainer on the south Devon coast. Good early Hitchcock, this, with lots of unease among the brats and balloons.

Oliver, "the nearly-good soldier", is the latest of le Carre's lost boys to free-fall though the dead morality of the age, taking its sorrows to himself. Such ghosts are themselves haunted by a guilt that their mission in life is unfinished, and so make a soft touch for recruitment to fight the good fight, wherever it turns up next. In all these honourable schoolboys there is the very Greene-ish suggestion of despair as a state of grace.

Lost boys idolise women and suffocate their marriages by neglect. In Single & Single foolish wives with names like Heather and Bunny are only allowed to mock the guilt from the back lumber-room of their husbands' minds, while the children, though loved and sometimes in danger, are scarcely better seen. It now emerges that things are not much different in Moscow or the high Caucasus, except that the women are more tragic, more beautiful, and - unlike posh, adulterous Ann Smiley - shoot to kill.

Despite shrinkage by telecommunications and the Bond-like availability of private transport that makes a crossing of the Black Sea sound like a taxi-ride to Pinner, "abroad", at first, seems to remain dangerously different from England in the new book. But to paranoid Oliver Single, there is no place on earth that is not alarmed - and certainly not Teignmouth or Torquay.

As ever, Switzerland is the most subtly alarmed of all. A landing at Zurich airport, if you are lucky enough to get one, is one of the best moments in a le Carre novel because it is like coming home. The game is immediately raised, the alertness-level shoots up; the narrative takes on a wit that comes from real anger often suppressed elsewhere, and chasms of deception rumble beneath the perfect daily life. In Single & Single, we meet Dr Conrad, a death's-head Swiss banker who dumps Tiger the minute the gangsters turn nasty, executes one of his lawyers in Turkey and sends him a bill for £200 million. Tiger, naturally, has a change of identity himself and, in the last accelerating chase of the book, hidden son attempts to find hidden father while father is still alive. On the way, there is a scene with his mother good enough to make you think of Hamlet.

Le Carre is a history painter in the open air and a miniaturist indoors. He combines a choreographic mastery of the big moment - a revolution, an invasion, a race meeting - with an eye (and ear) for the tiny duplicities of human behaviour in small, secret rooms. Few readers of The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) will forget the tarmac-scraping flight from Vientiane or the "Derby Day" crowd at Happy Valley in Hong Kong; no sharper picture of concealing male deviousness exists in modern British fiction than the clashes between rival security services in Our Game. Such things are less evident in the new novel, where Oliver needs a more complex antagonist, Tiger and Brock lack flesh, and the human landscapes of Turkey and Georgia are less exuberantly well imagined than those of the Canal Zone in The Night Manager and The Tailor of Panama. The overall focus is less keen.

As one of our best living novelists, John le Carre should long ago have won the Booker prize, but he is excluded from the field as a writer of genre fiction - ie, "spy novels". In fact, he writes novels about spies, which is not the same thing, and about the way we live today. Well, about the way certain kinds of English men live today; and it is more than enough.

Michael Ratcliffe is a former literary editor of the "Observer"