One question that has been badgering the back of my brain while I’ve been reading this book is: Who is the bad guy here? Who are the villains of this particular piece? I would like to say there is an easy answer, but I would be doing you – and the author – a grave disservice if I did.
Certainly Richard Roper is an unlikeable man in a dangerous and rather vile profession. But as he points out, is he any worse than governments who bend their own rules in the hope of filling their treasuries? For years, the British and American governments armed Saddam Hussein in his war against Iraq – and then stood back in horror when he elected to use those same weapons against his own people. I suppose the question is what he would have got up to if he hadn’t been supplied by governments who viewed their enemy’s enemy as their friend, but it does give Roper’s argument some leverage. Roper is merely supplying the same service, but in a private, non-state supported capacity, which means that the buyers, whomever they are, won’t be attacked by him if they change their minds about what they use the weapons for.
And this is how the question arises; a significant part of the book is spent in the proverbial corridors of power, where Ministers and intelligence officers gather to set policy and relay information. Occasionally, officers of allied agencies (mainly American) get involved as well. And it gradually becomes clear that whilst putting Mr Roper out of business may make a lot of sense, there are an awful lot of people within the Government who actually think they can make more money if he stays in business, so every effort is made to sabotage this particular mission.
Oddly, the person I really dislike in the novel is Major Corkoran; he doesn’t have a single redeeming feature. I dislike his mannerisms, his speech patterns and his motives. I dare say his dress sense would leave a lot to be desired, if I knew anything about it. Horrid little man.
Jonathan Pine is becoming less likeable as the book goes on, but this may be because he takes unnecessary risks, cannot follow orders and essentially does as he pleases. Part of me wants him to succeed, but part of me really wants him to end up in serious trouble. I suspect the latter part will be what happens – I’ve only got ten more chapters to go – but I’m not really in any rush to find out.
That’s one of the problems with this book. You find yourself sweeping through it – and the writing is still wonderful, it’s easily the best part of it – but as a reader you reach a point where you simply don’t care what happens to them. You just want them to hurry up and get on with it so you can move on to the next book with all the loose ends tied up. It’s a strangely grey book (which is no reflection on the cover, which on my edition is blue and orange) and I think I’m finding it frustrating. I suppose I just like my bad guys to be bad and my good guys to be good, with the twain only meeting to end the story.
But this is what happens when you read John le Carre. He knows that real life isn’t like that. No wonder he’s such a good writer.