Conspiracy Theory: Dressing Gossip Up Into Espionage

The Tailor of Panama,

By John le Carr,

Alfred A. Knopf

320 pp., $25

In John le Carr's latest novel, "The Tailor of Panama," the master of spy fiction is as charmingly convoluted as ever. The tailor of Panama is Harry Pendal, suborned into a role as spy by a blackmailing British agent, who in turn is trying to bleed the intelligence service, which in turn has run out of reasons for its own existence.

Harry dresses the rich and powerful in Panama and surrounding countries, listening for important information. There isn't much, but no one will believe that, and he does what comes naturally to him. He dresses it up, and gossip turns into intelligence. This fiction is passed up through channels, where it becomes fact and produces payments back down the line.

No intelligence service, especially one spinning from the imagination of Le Carr, ever let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory, and Harry Pendal's ring of spies proves it.

This book also ends any chatter about Le Carre's having lost his deft touch in leading readers through an intricate maze of a plot. His characters are all fabulists, making up important backgrounds and experiences for themselves, but then, Harry asks, who doesn't?

Panama is an unreal nation, where some of the world's most important people live and hope for a better world. It contains an overarching sorrow. Despite the marvel of its engineering, the Canal is used frequently for corrupt purposes. So too do the characters in this book squander their creativity on deceiving each other.

I enthusiastically recommend the book in two forms, the printed copy and the recorded audiobook, because, happily, John le Carr reads it himself. He is indisputably the best reader of his own works of any author alive today. And when you hear it, everything is there: the voices, the conversations, the interior monologues. It is clear that Le Carr enjoys himself immensely.

The tape version, abridged is $25.95 from Random House Audiobooks.

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