Le Carre to drug companies: Heal thyself

John le Carre should lock the door and keep his .22-caliber umbrella cocked. Writing about the craftiness of communist spies during the cold war was daring. But writing about the venality of the pharmaceutical industry is downright reckless.

If you've been disappointed by the spymaster's work since the fall of the Berlin Wall, "The Constant Gardener" will bring you in from the cold.

The story opens with a report that Tessa Quayle and her African lover have been gruesomely murdered in a remote area of the Sibiloi National Park. For Sandy Woodrow, a career functionary in the British Foreign Office in Nairobi, this is particularly bad news. The death of a beautiful philanthropist, "the Princess Diana of the African Poor," will raise a chorus of complaints about Kenya's political instability and the failure of the British government to protect its nationals.

To complicate matters, Sandy was in love with Tessa, and in a moment of uncharacteristic candor wrote her a letter that may now fall into the hands of her tepid husband, one of Sandy's close friends and colleagues.

Told of his wife's murder, Justin Quayle reacts with the refined composure colleagues have come to expect from this constant gardener. After all, he's a man who never raised an objection to his wife's political activism nor an eyebrow at her relationship with a prominent black doctor.

But in the shadow of her death, Justin starts to look at Tessa, himself, and their marriage in a fresh light. "She followed her conscience, I got on with my job," he confesses. "It was an immoral distinction. It should never have been made. It was like sending her off to church and telling her to pray for both of us."

Disguised in quiet mourning, Justin assembles his wife's papers and retires to England for some much needed rest. But actually, the gardener is sharpening his shears. Armed with Tessa's research, Justin starts to pursue her crusade against the drug companies who are using Africa as a giant petri dish for experimental medicines. Before long, he's being tracked by the British police, who want to solve Tessa's murder; the Foreign Office, which wants to protect its relationship with the Kenyan government; and KVH, a giant pharmaceutical corporation, which doesn't mind making a killing to make a killing.

Frustration, terror, and panic swell slowly in this story as pretenses melt away. Justin is a man rising from moral slumber, learning to love his courageous wife in a way he never did when he was busy ignoring her inconvenient principles. In some of the most affecting passages, he carries on conversations with her, reveries that recall her practical idealism and show its new influence on him.

With his previous novel, "Single & Single" (1999), Carre explored the crusade of one man in the dark labyrinth of international business, but now that novel seems to have been a rough draft for this far more sophisticated production. As always, he delineates a global thicket of corruption, but most of the villains in "The Constant Gardener" are conflicted people participating in a system that rewards their sins by conveniently disposing of them far away.

"The modern pharmaceutical industry is only 65 years old," he notes. "It has good men and women, it has achieved human and social miracles, but its collective conscience is not developed."

This is a smart, rousing novel laced with concern about how the world's most profitable industry treats the world's poorest people. There is no ominous Dr. No here. The reality it presents is more nefarious: the cumulative effect of thousands of moral lapses and expedient decisions soothed with lucrative reasons to look the other way. Strong medicine, indeed.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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