The Tailor of Panama, by John le Carré (Ballantine Books)

As a writer myself, I experience a variety of feelings when reading the works of others. Sometimes it’s a great deal of frustration and impatience, occasionally some anger, and less often then I’d like, real pleasure. Rarely, though, do I feel jealousy, but such is the case with The Tailor of Panama. It’s that good.

Several words spring to mind when talking about the spy novels of LeCarre: difficult, impenetrable, obtuse. Honestly now – how many have you actually read through to the conclusion? I suspect that the circuitous construction and non-linear plot progressions are deliberate, intended not so much to precisely tell a story as to convey a feeling, that of actually being involved in some tortuously complex web of deceit and doublecross. After all, if George Smiley himself is confused, discomfited and suspicious, why shouldn’t we experience similar vagueness as we follow his exploits?

In that regard, The Tailor of Panama represents a significant departure for the universally-acknowledged master of the espionage thriller, because it is easily the most accessible of his novels. That’s good news in itself, but it gets better, because this singular gem of a novel may also be his best written. It is also based on a unique premise. How to put this without blowing the surprises, of which there are many...

One of the worst fears of an intelligence case officer is that the asset he is controlling is a double agent loyal to the other side. That concept is central to more spy stories than it is possible to count, as is the notion of a mole in your own organization. In The Tailor of Panama, LeCarre presents a new dilemma, a situation that, at least in my limited familiarity with the genre, hasn’t been tackled before. Which is all I plan to say about it.

The first part of the book is actually humorous, as LeCarre casts a wry eye — and ear — at the bombast of expatriate Britishers trying to maintain traditional civility in uncivil lands. In this case, that kind of overblown pomposity has implanted itself within British intelligence, with disastrous results; the last part of the book is anything but funny, as we witness the degree of catastrophe that can flow from the kind of carelessness engendered by an out-of-control sense of self-importance.

Set against the backdrop of the Panama Canal’s impending handover to the local citizenry, it’s a great story, full of huge but understated surprises and soundly buttressed by brilliant and controlled writing that is a joy to read and, for many passages, to re-read. Absent the kind of dizzying complexities that require such an investment in other of his novels, The Tailor of Panama drags us willingly into intrigue gone very wrong even as we wince at the awful events that precipitate out of the collision of one man’s towering arrogance and another’s desperate vulnerability. One only hopes that the character of anti-hero Andrew Osnard returns in a future volume to wreak more havoc for our amusement.

-Lee Gruenfeld

 

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