Anyone who has given into the delicious temptation of betraying one’s friends will understand the appeal of this book. Like all of Le Carré’s novels (this is his 21st), loyalty and trust are conditional and subject to change at any moment.
The tale takes place in Hamburg, a fully globalized port city, which while still vice-ridden, has now become a center for international terrorism to boot. Not entirely unlike Rome in the early 1980s, when the Red Brigade was causing havoc. Back then, many will recall, we had the carabinieri and magistrates, working with Americans against the dreaded anarcho-commies. In this novel, Americans, Brits, and Germans are aligned against the wicked jihadists.
What is not in this novel is also worth noting. No gratuitous sex, gunplay or graphic torture. The story is told obliquely and with nuance sadly lacking in other spy genre work of late. The result: we care deeply about the characters, loving or loathing them in short order. The good guys are on both sides, but readers will feel a special affinity for the hapless immigration attorney, Annabel Richter, who must represent the equivalent of Italy’s difensori d’ufficio. We ink-stained wretches know the type well: a girl of privilege given to neo-feminist sensibilities and misplaced compassion for the struggling masses.
Back during the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) days, these radical chic girls played a supporting, but key role in keeping terrorists protected while in custody. And on occasion, even assisted with their escapes. Without giving too much of the plot away, let’s just say Annabel gets in over her head midway through the drama. Fortunately for her, there’s an avuncular and moneyed banker who provides a measure of protection.
No such angel appears for Issa, the Chechen mystic who is in flight from Interpol, tough Turks, and bad Russians. Hamburg’s chief Imam (and a possible fictionalized spiritual mentor to Mohammed Atta?) is also in big trouble — and knows it.
The main source of narrative tension here is driven by the treachery and cold execution of duties carried out by various enforcement agencies. In LeCarré’s world of post-9/11 espionage, there is no universal playbook; all bets are off
This reader was disappointed somewhat, however, by the lack of love shown to the city itself. Hamburg is a marvelous cosmopolitan center with fine dining, world-class performing arts, casino gambling, and a substantial fashion scene. A little atmospheric shading here and there would have made this a bit more satisfying. Still, that is hardly a reason to take a pass on the book. As (nearly) always, LeCarré delivers a stirring and wholly believable tale.