Spy novels were never really my thing. Police dramas: definitely. Dark tales of Cold War espionage by John le Carré: not so much. Just never my style.
But I recently saw a copy of A Most Wanted Man on sale in a bookstore, and I was interested enough to purchase it for a bad reason- I wanted to see the movie. But like a neurotic reader, I always have to read the book first. The struggle.
This was not a good choice when it comes to a first le Carré read. However, it wasn’t the worst. I found the saga of Issa, Annabel, and Tommy Brue interesting enough to finish the text. Le Carré moves slowly, almost brutally. The deep introspection allows the reader to feel the heightened alert of the characters, the sneaking about, the carefulness and attention to hiding every move.
Determining Issa’s innocence is compelling enough to finish the book even though I, as a reader, knew this was far from my favorite tale. I was invested, however; I had to see it through.
I also think le Carré uses clever and precise dialogue effectively throughout the novel, something that, through my research, told me is not always as prevalent in his other work. Dialogue can be tricky; too much dialogue threatens the creative storytelling but not enough makes the reader’s eyes glaze over. Le Carré has an excellent balance of believable, credible dialogue that helps move the story along . . . which is excellent because this novel unfolds at a snail’s pace.
While researching A Most Wanted Man, I also came across many readers who accuse this 2008 novel of “trying too hard” to be like Le Carré’s classic spy novels, ones that specifically thrived on Cold War espionage, most notably The Russia House; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the Cold War at a close, Le Carré appears lost, sort of grasping at plot lines from today’s terrorism/security/espionage scene that will fit into a Cold War plot; something we all know will not work. Today is far more technologically complex than the Cold War era, and spy novels of modernity have to reflect this.
This idea seems to have upset many Le Carré fans who show disappointment that A Most Wanted Man is not like their favorite Le Carré classic. I am okay with this fact, though. I think it’s poor judgement from the fans who scowl when a writer breaks the mold slightly, especially when that mold is one that has been broken since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
That being said, A Most Wanted Man is a tremendously demanding “fun read.” This is a book that requires effort and attention, so I give no recommendation of reading this before bed. It easily becomes confusing, and at times, was difficult for me to visualize what was happening based on the writer’s descriptions.
“And while he looked at the pages in some puzzlement- since she had still to explain their purpose to him, she hadn’t quite got around to it but she would- she dived gaily for her rucksack again and this time came up with his uncashed check for fifty thousand euros, for which she felt obliged to thank him yet again, so profusely that she completely put him off reading about Dr. Abdullah, which made them both laugh, straight into each other’s eyes, which she wouldn’t normally have allowed to happen, but it was all right with Brue because she trusted him, and anyway she was laughing louder than he was, until she got hold of herself and checked herself in the mirror for decorum. (pg. 232)
Though an interesting tale of British-German-Russian espionage, A Most Wanted Man lacks strong underlying substance. There’s a lot of intrigue and suspense, but there’s little holding the novel together from there.
The writing is also atrociously poor for a writer with 23 previously published novels. There are certain passages I came across while reading that hearken back to broken rules in eighth grade language arts class. Sometimes, they’re downright painful.
“And she felt comforted again when she saw Brue’s unexpectedly happy face as he breezed through the glass doors of Louise’s restaurant and stepped towards her with both hands held out to her like a Russian. She even had a spontaneous urge to ditch the restaurant and give him a coffee back in her flat, just to show him how much she valued him as a friend in need, but then she counseled caution on herself, because she had a feeling that she was keeping so much inside her head that, if she let got at all, everything would come tumbling out at once; and she would immediately regret it, and so would all the people she owed her loyalty to.” (pg. 230-231)
There is little to no character distinction within the writing; all the characters sound exactly the same. Transitioning from one character to the next becomes problematic for readers simply because everyone sounds exactly the same. Le Carré’s style also drives me slightly mad, especially during scenes of inner monologue where everything blends together into one lump of confusion.
Overall, A Most Wanted Man is not the worst book written, but it is hardly in the running for the best. I’m taking a purgatory stance on this one. I do hope to get a post up with some reflections after reviewing the film. Stay tuned for more Le Carré fun!