As the Soviet Union began to collapse and the Cold War petered out, John le Carré is said to have remarked drily that “they’re breaking my rice bowl.” But with A Most Wanted Man, it begins to look as if those signature Cold War novels were but appetizers to the substantial dish he has put together from the “war on terror.” Thanks to that all-encompassing, massively funded construct of fear, the power and autonomy of intelligence organizations — the “espiocracy” as le Carré so perfectly dubs it — have surpassed anything before seen in democratic societies. That dominion has not been limited to expanded surveillance, summary imprisonment, abduction, torture, and assassination, though all that has advanced nicely. It has also shaped an intelligence lens that filters out everything but threats of one sort or another, not the least of them being threats to the exercise of a free hand. The war on terror has become a turf war in which ostensible allies coolly wrong-foot each other and, more tragically, a force field into which countless innocent people have unwittingly strayed to be casually destroyed. It is a subject for which John le Carré might have been born.
This extraordinary novel is set in present-day Hamburg, a city teeming with people from all over the world. Among them is the Scottish owner of a small family bank, 60-year-old Tommy Brue, whose father had sheltered and laundered money for Russian adventurers as the Soviet Union disintegrated. All the necessaries for claiming the pelf lie squirreled away in the bank’s vault, though most of its “owners” have — or have been — disappeared. But Tommy, another in le Carré’s series of decent, somewhat inadequate, cuckolded males, heartily wishes that it and the dirty dealings it represents would just go away.
He is approached by Annabel Richter, a beautiful young advocate for foreign asylum seekers. She has taken up the desperate and perplexing case of Issa Karpov, the Muslim son of a Chechen mother who was raped at 15 years of age by a high-ranking Russian officer and murdered later by her own family. The boy’s father brought Issa to Russia, where he eventually wound up in Russian and Turkish prisons, tortured as a supposed Chechen and Islamic terrorist. He escaped with the help of a shady operator (who knew “very well how to do business with corrupt prison officials without offending their standards of probity”) and made his illegal way to Hamburg. Here he hopes to claim his now-deceased father’s ill-gotten money from Tommy’s bank to support himself while he studies medicine — or so he says. Scarred physically and mentally by his many ordeals, and palpably afraid of the authorities, he is either a lost soul or something more dangerous. Indeed, unknown to himself — and to Tommy and Annabel, and to the compassionate Turkish immigrant mother and son, now probably doomed, who have aided him — his photograph and details have just been added to the world terrorist database, and he is now “a most wanted man.”
Enter Gunther Bachmann, head of one of the competing German intelligence outfits in Hamburg. A veteran spymaster, he understands that this seaport city is a major node in the network of international terrorism. “We still smell right to the wrong people,” he observes. He is a spook of the old school, contemptuous of the business as it is now flourishes:
Bachmann proposes that Issa be followed and watched. “I want to keep him loose and keep him walking,” he tells his team. “I want him to talk to whoever he was told to talk to and pray where he was told to pray and sleep wherever they told him to sleep. I don’t want anybody interfering with him before we do. Least of all those arseholes across the courtyard.” Those, so described, are a rival division of German intelligence who would like to nab the man, break him, and notch up a score. The stakes are high: Change is in the air and power in flux, thanks to the formation of a certain Joint Steering Committee, a “vaporous, all-powerful body in Berlin” whose mission it is to remodel the entire German intelligence community. In such circumstances, the notion that Issa might actually be innocent is inconceivable to the determined, career-minded “espiocrat.”
Meanwhile, Bachmann cooks up a scheme to use Issa and his tainted money to entrap and recruit an Islamic public figure. Soon, too, American and British agents arrive on the scene with their own objectives, boilerplate analyses, and upscale bags of tricks. Le Carré is a master at portraying the banal knowingness of this species of timeserver: incuriosity, condescension, devotion to need-to-know, and urbane cynicism inform every word he puts in their mouths. These are the 21st century’s soi-disant grown-ups.
The plot is complex and, alas, entirely credible; the dialogue, deft and devastating; the suspense, terrific. An atmosphere of doubt, ambiguity, treachery, and menace pervades the story, tincturing the thoughts of the more sympathetic characters. Among them are Bachmann, fighting a losing battle for genuine intelligence gathering, ridiculed for his idealism, and maneuvered into a morass of betrayal; Tommy, feeling alive and in some kind of love; Annabel, dedicated but in constant agony of mind about her own motives, responsibilities, and weaknesses; and Issa, frankly not likable, maybe not good. He is flotsam or jetsam or both in a very cruel world.