The Barnes & Noble Review
John Le Carré is, by a large margin, the 20th century’s greatest
chronicler of the shadowy, morally ambiguous world of espionage. His earlier
novels, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Smiley's People, created indelible portraits of burned-out cold warriors caught between the conflicting demands of their personal and professional loyalties. In later works, such as The Night Manager, Our Game, and his splendid Single & Single, Le Carré has successfully come to grips with the rapidly changing social and political realities of a world formed in the aftermath of Soviet Communism’s spectacular collapse.
Single & Single is the name of an international, British-based financial
institution run by an aggressive opportunist named Tiger Single, who has grown
immensely rich by turning his company into a money-laundering operation for a
firm of corrupt Russian "traders" run by Yevgeny Orlov. Orlov, together with
his brother Mikhail and his sadistic, manipulative son-in-law, Alix Hoban,
has flooded the free world with illegal shipments of drugs and weapons.
Through the expert intervention of Single & Single, the profits from these
shipments are then converted into legitimate business enterprises: hotels,
resorts, night clubs, and various other accoutrements of the bland but legal
The plot of
Single & Single hinges on the actions of Tiger’s son and
junior partner, Oliver Single. Overwhelmed by moral revulsion brought about by
his belated discovery of the true nature of his father’s business, Oliver
betrays his own family, first turning over his knowledge of the firm’s inner
workings -- particularly its relationship with the Orlov family -- to a British
Intelligence agent named Nat Brock, then changing his name and going to
ground in a small town in rural England, where he scratches out a living as an
itinerant children’s magician.
The novel opens four years after Oliver’s betrayal, at which point British
Intelligence has finally begun to employ its secret knowledge against the
Orlov empire. Bank accounts belonging to the Orlovs are frozen. Various Orlov
assets are seized. In the aftermath of a particularly expensive setback -- a
ship carrying a cargo of heroin is boarded and confiscated by Russian forces --
the Orlov’s strike back, executing a lawyer employed by Single & Single, then
forcing Tiger Single to run for his life. The bulk of the novel concerns
Oliver’s attempts to rescue the father he both loves and hates from the
consequences of his betrayal. Oliver’s hunt for Tiger leads from the stately
homes of England to the exotic city of Istanbul, and from there to a final
confrontation in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, deep in the Caucasus
In addition to the usual virtues -- the elegant prose, the flawless sense
of place, the Dickensian flair for creating vivid and varied characters --
Single & Single draws much of its power from Le Carré’s own moral outrage at the exploitation of what he calls "the black economy" -- the multi-billion dollar traffic in illegal substances -- by the forces sworn to oppose such activities.
As one of Le Carré’s minor characters remarks, "Crime no longer exists in isolation of the state." The financial stakes are now too big "for crime to be
left to the criminals." The real villain of
Single & Single is what spymaster
Nat Brock calls "the Hydra," a many headed network of police and government
officials -- symbolized here by a corrupt British policeman named Bernard
Porlock -- whose active and tacit collusion permits such traffic to continue,
and to thrive.
Single & Single is Le Carré’s 17th novel, and nothing -- not even
the passing of his archetypal subject, the Cold War -- has dulled his anger or
diminished the power of his fictional vision. He remains one of the finest novelists of the late 20th century, a moralist and storyteller whose best work effortlessly closes the gap between art and entertainment, between literature and the (usually) less rigorous demands of genre fiction. (Bill Sheehan)
In the nerve-wracking first chapter of
Single & Single, his 17th book, John le Carré describes the mounting panic and horror "a mess of sweat and piss and mud" of a lawyer for a British investment house who realizes he is about to be killed by Georgian gangsters on a lonely Turkish hillside. Cut to a seaside town in Devon, England, where Oliver Single, the son of the investment house's proprietor, is trying to create a new life for himself away from the corruption his father has fallen into. When news of the lawyer's murder gets out and representatives of HM Customs want to know how 5 million pounds have suddenly shown up in Oliver's daughter's trust fund, all hell begins to break loose in a way that will make le Carre's fans rub their hands together in anticipation of another jolly good if complicated, ambiguous and meaningful read.
As it turns out,
Single & Single is neither especially jolly nor particularly meaningful. Perhaps that's because, except for the occasional shimmering passage, there is nothing terribly surprising about the key components of the plot: corrupt British financiers and nasty gangsters from the former Soviet Union who will trade in blood or drugs or anything else available in the new world order's glorious free-market economy. Le Carre relates the means by which these two forces come together with a peculiar flatness and at tedious length. We learn little about either Single, except that the father is short and greedy and the son is tall, attractive to women and, eventually, troubled by his conscience.
The ex-Soviets, meanwhile, spend a lot of time eating great hunks of meat cooked over an open fire while tiresomely proclaiming eternal devotion to their ethnicity "Now you are true Mingrelian!" one of them bellows to Oliver after he has drained a hornful of homemade wine from some part of Georgia. The chief villain, Alix Hoban, wears a "ghostly sneer of the hairline lips" as he whispers into his cell phone, which he does incessantly, even when he's killing people. If he were a dwarf or a hunchback, the picture would be complete.
A sense of familiarity pervades the book. Oliver's friendship with the son of his landlady echoes the much more touchingly drawn one of the battered agent Jim Prideaux and the schoolboy Roach ("Jumbo") in
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The archness le Carre used to such great effect in the mouth of the oafish Percy Alleline (in Tinker, Tailor) is overused here anachronistically, as if he were imitating Evelyn Waugh. It looks, in fact, as though le Carre's chief goal here was to sell Single & Single to the movies: There are certainly enough set pieces to make any decent director's job pretty straightforward.
But even Conrad and Greene (to whom le Carre has been compared) had their off days. For all its shortcomings, the book has moments that show what le Carre is still capable of when it comes to exploring the human factor. Near the end, he writes of Oliver's desire "to magic his father out of here and say sorry to him if he felt it, though he wasn't sure he did ... to set him on his feet, but say, 'There you are, you're on your own, we're quits.'" Le Carre may have fallen and bruised himself on this outing. That's no reason, however, to call it quits.
Single & Single provides a fascinating journey through the new landscape of corruption....The power of Single & Single stems from the author's portrait of a world in which individuals are no match for the organized mania of greed. Time Magazine
Today [le Carre] faces the same problem as his spies: he has to find something else to do....The moral center of the story is a young man who betrays his father in order to save him. In le Carre's hands betrayal becomes a formof loyalty. it is a rich idea....But try getting it across in a real bank!
The New York Times Book Review
...[H]e continues to write convincing and inventive [books]....his prose...is leanerfaster.
...[A] decidedly unusual, satisfying book: literary novel and thriller combined...
...le Carre reveals a world at once deeply disquieting and oddly reassuring...
Reading a novel by Le Carre is a lot like peeling an onion from the inside out. You're dropped into the middle of the story and fro there you learn the before-and-after...
Le Carr reads his new thriller with the voice of a master of the genre, gamely throwing himself into long passages of the dialogue-driven plot. He jumps right into the complex story, set in locations that shift back and forth from Turkey to England, with little set-up explanation. The sense of atmosphere is rich, the polished, descriptive scenes exquisite. However, perhaps due to the abridgment process, a listener is left playing catch-up throughout the tape, struggling to discern what's really going on with the characters. At heart, this is a story of a struggle between father and son, shadowy financier Tiger Single and children's magician Oliver Hawthorne. Tiger has deserted the family to consort with Russian mobsters, and Oliver, having betrayed his father once, now must fight to save his life. They're joined by a complex financial thread that provides the central framework for the international intrigue propelling the action. As audio, the listening experience is frustrating because the material sounds so wonderful, yet it's difficult to keep a grip on what's happening. Simultaneous release with the Scribner hardcover. (Mar.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Plainly, the first essential of a top-rate tale of intrigue is that it catch and excite interest in the telling of its uncertain tale. And the longer it keeps readers guessing, the more intriguing it is likely to be. These two essentials are eminently satisfied by le Carré's latest offering. The story revolves around the fortunes and misfortunes of two ice-cold opportunists, Tiger and Oliver Single, father-and-son partners in the London-based venture capital firm of Single and Single and their involvement with two nefarious Russian brothers and their unsavory cohorts. No one in the book is a model character in the moral sense of the word; dark deeds involving murder, bribery, false identifications, betrayals, money laundering, and other forms of villainy are the order of the day. Though it is sometimes difficult to follow the action precisely, in true le Carré fashion the scattered story elements gradually fall into place. Guaranteed to keep ennui at bay.
A.J. Anderson, GSLIS, Simmons College, Boston
...[K]ey events unfold with Mr. le Carré's usual authority and aplomb....The reader is immersed in Oliver's psychologial drama and at the same time ineluctably drawn into the dizzying world of international contraband and high finance.
The New York Times
Now that the Evil Empire has fallen, le Carré (
The Tailor of Panama) continues to explore the endless opportunities for junior-grade evil when East meets West through the accommodating offices of a wealthy banking family. In one forgotten corner of the world, a butterfly flaps its wings; in another, a life rebuilt of carefully planned lies begins to unravel. The butterfly is Alfred Winser, chief legal counsel to the banking firm of Single & Single, executed on a Turkish hilltop, to his astonishment, by financier Alix Hoban in the tour de force opening. A continent away in a Devon coastal town, children's magician Oliver Hawthorne gets the news that his daughter Carmen's trust fund has been credited with a deposit of 5,000,030 pounds. The authorities who follow the news posthaste want to know the deposit's source, but Oliver is more troubled by its figure: half a million pounds plus 30 pieces of silver (only the most obvious of le Carré's many biblical references). Oliver is shocked that his father, shadowy financier Tiger Single, knows how to find him four years after he bolted from the family business, horrified by the licentious scope of Tiger's dealings with Georgian mob alumni Yevgeny and Mikhail Orlov. But Oliver's sickened recollections of how his father's business penetrated every crevice of Oliver's life, from his family ties to the Orlov brothers to the affairs he commenced in a futile attempt to act out his independence, will inevitably yield to a more urgent imperative: his return to the fold when it becomes obvious that he's the only person who has a chance of saving Tiger from the forces - the Georgian mob, an ambitious assassin, a treacherousflunky, the Inland Revenue - who seem to have been queued up for years awaiting their chance to destroy him.
Deprived of the great subject of Cold War espionage he handled better than any other novelist, le Carré now argues that individual greed, not ideology, is the villain to watch out for, and individual enterprise the only possible hope.
People Le Carré reveals a world at once deeply disquieting and oddly reassuring.
The New York Times Any reader who feared that the end of the Cold War would deprive Mr. le Carré of his subject can now feel a measure of relief. If anything, his subject of East-West misunderstanding has grown richer, and he now possesses vast new territories to mine.