The collapse of the Soviet Union was a disaster for a lot of people – the Russians, Fidel Castro, those of us who used to get a kick out of the mean East German judges at the Olympics – but it’s done a special kind of damage to John le Carré. I don’t mean that (as people once feared) the disappearance of the West’s ideological bête noire meant that Le Carré’s subject had vanished, too. If not many people remember that Le Carré began as a straight mystery writer, it’s because he didn’t hit his stride until his third novel, the 1963 best-seller The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. From then on, it’s been clear that what interested him wasn’t the straightforward conflict between detectives and criminals, say, or even between democracies and totalitarian regimes, for that matter, but the infinitely more complex dilemmas that arise when the good guys and the bad guys both happen to be in the same morally murky business: spying. If Le Carré was taken seriously as a novelist, as opposed to a mere genre writer, it was precisely because books like those in the great Smiley trilogy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; Smiley’s People) avoided ideological and rhetorical certainties and instead gave you nuanced evocations of all-too-familiar human failings (vanity, desire, resentment) in a milieu that, for all the arcane argot and global geopolitical implications, seemed gratifyingly humdrum. Le Carré’s middle-aged functionaries are more concerned with promotions than with totalitarian oppression.
I now wonder whether Le Carré was able to be so morally subtle precisely because the ideological conflicts of the era seemed so stark; why, after all, belabor the obvious when everyone else was doing such a good job of it? Ironically, it’s only since the Evil Empire itself was toppled that Le Carré’s villains have gotten one-dimensional. Single & Single (1999) brought a pair of hilarious blood-smuggling Russian mafiosi called the Orlovs; earlier in the nineties – in The Tailor of Panama, The Night Manager, and Our Game – it was other variations on the gangster theme: drug-smuggling, gun-running, and so forth. But if it’s now somehow easier and more fun to hate Le Carré’s bad guys, the novels themselves, while still enjoyable and expert and filled with dazzling local color, feel increasingly strained and schematic. This is particularly true in his latest novel, which is set in darkest Africa and features a villain even Stalin could hate: pharmaceutical manufacturers.
In The Constant Gardener, a very bad pharmaceutical company is testing a promising new TB drug on the locals – and killing and torturing anyone who objects. The novel opens with the discovery that the feisty, beautiful, brilliant Tessa Quayle, a tireless crusader for charitable causes in Nairobi (“the Princess Di of the African Poor”), has been raped and murdered at a remote lake. Her driver has been decapitated as well, and her best pal, a selfless black physician named Arnold Bluhm, is missing. The narrative follows Tessa’s much older husband, Justin, as he goes underground and tries to piece together what happened to her.
The fact that Justin is a career diplomat with a string of unglamorous appointments to his credit will come as good news to Le Carré fans, since the parched atmosphere of mid-level officialdom is his turf, and he inhabits it here with customary authority and sly humor. (The fact that Justin’s colleagues “spoke kindly of his coolness in crisis” tells you just how failed the character is.) Much of the novel is vintage Le Carré, from the rather poignant frat-boy vanities of a too-young high commissioner who still wears his Balliol jacket to work, to the blithe obtuseness of Whitehall bigwigs: Quayle’s superior takes him to lunch at his club and then orders for him precisely what Justin has said he doesn’t want.
If the details still ring true, it’s the big things that are all wrong. Given Justin’s considerable brains and subtlety, it’s a mystery why it takes him nearly 500 pages to figure out what happened to Tessa and Arnold. Despite some very smelly red herrings (some people think Arnold’s the culprit, and for a while the tabloid press runs pictures of him and O.J. side by side), it’s pretty obvious from page 100 or so that the bad guys are the owners and associates of the evil pharmaceutical conglomerate called ThreeBees. (Obvious not least because the two cops who are put on the case more or less tell you so – inelegant exposition if ever there was.) Even if the bad guys weren’t administering insufficiently tested TB drugs to African girls, and even if the good guys didn’t go around making sardonic observations like “The problem with the poor is always the same: they are not rich enough to buy expensive medicines!,” you’d know who was who. Tessa, Arnold, and Justin, after all, are very good-looking, whereas the owner of ThreeBees is corpulent and vulgar.
It is not pleasant to report this kind of obtuseness in a writer who can be, and has been, so psychologically and stylistically astute, and at first I wondered what had gotten into Le Carré. Certainly not an editor; a good one would have cut the mini-lectures about corporate greed and the endless statistics about African epidemics that seem, after a while, to be this book’s real raison d’être. As indeed they are. Le Carré recently revealed in a magazine article that he had deep personal reasons for including all this: The model for the Tessa character was a real-life friend of his, an international-aid worker who died in an automobile accident. She’s on the dedication page, and it’s clear that he wanted the other pages to commemorate her, too.
But as good spies know, emotions cloud your head, and make you behave unprofessionally. At the end of Tinker, Tailor, the “mole” who’s penetrated British intelligence is finally caught, and during his interrogation delivers a heated ideological self-defense. “The political posture of the United Kingdom is without relevance or moral viability,” he rants; and so on. You expect this moment to feel more climactic – after 350 pages of Smiley’s unbelievably intricate legwork, you’re dying to find out why the traitor betrayed – but the triumphant workers-of-the-world-unite spiel is vaguely embarrassing, like the outburst of a drunk at a funeral. That embarrassment reminds you that Le Carré’s Cold War-era novels were so good precisely because they were devoid of cant and moral sloganeering. “I once heard somebody say that morality was method,” somebody remarks to the painstakingly methodical Smiley, who doggedly flushes out the mole without the benefit of high-tech gadgets – or moral certainties. The problem with The Constant Gardener is that morality has trumped method. There’s much to enjoy in Le Carré’s recent forays into warmer climes than Russia’s, but the stylistic humidity of his new world order will make some readers nostalgic for the days when he stayed put and cultivated his own once-thriving garden.
The Constant Gardener
By John le Carré.
Charles Scribner’s Sons; 496 pages; $28.