'A Most Wanted Man' by John le Carre

New characters, new dangers, but his spies don't change

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I learned a new word -- espiocracy -- from John le Carre's newest novel, "A Most Wanted Man." It means "the rule of spies," which has been the subject of almost all of this author's work. With 21 successful spy novels under his belt, the venerable septuagenarian has switched focus from the 20th-century Cold War to the 21st-century war on terror, but this makes little difference in his plot and characters. A spy is still a spy, and his venue is still Hamburg, where the author learned the basics of the business in five years or so of working for the British foreign service.


By John le Carre
Scribner ($26)


The title character of le Carre's latest novel is a young man named Issa Karpov, son of a Russian father and a Chechnyan mother. Issa has entered Germany illegally, after being imprisoned, tortured and hunted by authorities in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere. He is a devout Muslim, homeless and raggedly dressed, but he is carrying an improbable amount of American cash and wearing a gold bracelet with a small Koran charm attached. He also bears a scrap of paper with the name of a bank and the number of an account that has not been opened for half a century.

Issa takes refuge with a kindly Turkish widow and her son, who will live to regret their good deeds. He hooks up with a female German lawyer working for a well-meaning but ineffective humanitarian organization, and eventually with the head of the bank in which his father has hidden $12.5 million (U.S.). Issa considers the deposit blood money and refuses to make his claim on it. He wants to become a German citizen and go to medical school, so that he can do charitable work in Chechnya to atone for his father's sins.

It's not to be. Issa is marked as a terrorist, hunted by agencies not only from Russia, Turkey, Sweden and Germany (places he has entered or escaped from), but also Great Britain and the United States. When his lawyer, Annabelle Richter, teams up with Thomas Brue, head of Brue Freres Bank, to save Issa from deportation (which will inevitably lead to his torture and death), the official and covert forces of all these countries come into play.

There are so many spies that it's hard to keep track of them, or of the pecking order from relatively "good" agents to the really bad ones. There's always one set of spies spying on another as well as on their designated prey. (For the reader, that can be part of the fun.)

Intending to draw Issa out of hiding, German spy Gunther Bachmann captures Richter and convinces her that cooperating with him will help Issa. A coven of British spies blackmail Brue into coercing Issa to make his claim on the bank's money. Sexual elements make things worse, when Brue finds himself attracted to the petite lawyer. She in turn develops a mutual, unconsummated attraction with Issa, whom she is hiding in her apartment. For the most part, however, the characters are stereotypes, although Brue and Bachmann have occasional touches of genuine humanity. And while the plot is interesting as it unfolds, the resolution is abrupt, disturbing and not quite satisfactory.

In the end, the Americans are the worst, condoning torture and blatantly brushing off any assumptions of innocence.

"Issa Karpov was one hundred percent complicit," one of them says, "and a couple of weeks from now, if he lasts that long, he'll admit it."

Robert Croan is a retired Post-Gazette classical music critic and a senior editor.


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