THE end of the cold war did not spell the end of spies - or stories about them. The Scarlet Pimpernel and Mata Hari were going strong long before the CIA and KGB hit their stride. And as we look toward the future, espionage seems here to stay.
John le Carre, the leading expositor of the shadowy no man's land between East and West, has managed the transition smoothly. Le Carre's novels began appearing in the 1960s, at the height of the cold war. While Ian Fleming was using the long twilight struggle as material for the exploits of the glamorous 007, le Carre's careworn agents coped with the realities of bureaucratic politics, family worries, and all the moral ambiguity espionage entails.
In "The Night Manager," an Anglo-American team of agents tackles some international arms merchants and drug lords, and, in doing so, they inadvertently cross swords with a network of corrupt intelligence officials who profit from this trade.
The story unfolds against a background of bureaucratic in-fighting and corruption in high places. Jonathan Pine, the night manager of an exclusive Swiss hotel, is recruited to take part in an operation designed to put an illegal arms dealer behind bars. Loyal, discreet, courageous, and resourceful - an old-fashioned, true-blue Englishman - Pine has served his country in the past, but he is still feeling guilty and angry over a mistake that cost the life of a woman he loved. When he's approached again, th is time to play a far more dangerous role in catching one of the men he blames for her death, he agrees.
Richard Onslow Roper, his prey, is a suave, mega-rich Englishman whose chief goal in life is to become even more rich and powerful. At the moment, he's selling heavy weaponry to Latin American drug lords in exchange for cocaine. Surrounded by a retinue of front-men, bodyguards, a mistress, and an eight-year-old son, Roper entertains lavishly in all the best places, including his private yacht, while spouting half-baked social-Darwinist claptrap about the survival of the fittest. Jonathan Pine's job is to
infiltrate Roper's traveling road show.
The first half of the novel lays the elaborate groundwork, telling us more than we really need to know about Pine's background and current transformation. But the suspense picks up considerably once he has insinuated himself into Roper's repellent, yet oddly alluring, entourage. The closer he gets to his goal, the more his life is imperiled by the hidden corruption in his own government.
Le Carre's heroes are the "enforcers": those who believe in catching the lawbreakers. The villains - along with the actual dealers - are the "espiocrats" who would rather "exploit" than enforce, leaving a known criminal at large so as to discover his associates. This, as one enforcer, a hard-boiled American named Strelski, observes, can be "a never-ending story ... recruiting the next enemy so that you catch the next ... ad infinitum. ... [I]n the end you get to ask yourself who's being exploited: the fu gitive, or the public, or justice."
The complexity of le Carre's plotting mirrors the complexity of the world in which his characters operate. But for those who don't relish learning every last detail of an undercover operation, the novel may sometimes seem as endless as the process of "exploiting" each new culprit in the continually postponed hope of catching the next.
Readers of a future age may wonder at the alacrity with which today's public, notorious for its brief attention span, devoured long, murky tales of espionage - even those as well-written as le Carre's. But these stories of conspiracy, betrayal, and idealism clearly speak to the concerns of our time.