If author John Updike was correct when he asserted wishfully in 1995 that the end of the Cold War would put an end to Cold War thrillers, John le Carré’s career as a writer of international intrigue should have come to an end with the publication of his novel Our Game (1995). However, Updike’s term “Cold War thriller” is not appropriate even for le Carré’s early novels, from Call for Dead (1960) to The Secret Pilgrim (1991). The spy thriller dramatizes the conflict between “us” and “them” and operates in a clearly defined moral and ideological landscape, where the Western democratic forces clash with various “axes of evil,” after World War II identified with the Communist Soviet Union and its satellites. This conflict tolerates no equivocation or indifference: 5 percent evil negates the other 95 percent of virtue or human weakness.
Even in his first novels but particularly in his first major success, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), as well as in his Karla trilogy (1974’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1977’s The Honourable Schoolboy, and 1980’s Smiley’s People), all set against the background of the Cold War, le Carré leaves the confines of genre fiction and elevates his novels of espionage into the realm of the mimetic. His protagonists are not stereotypical superspies in the James Bond mold or demonic villains such as Dr. No. Instead, le Carré shows the world of espionage to be populated by foolish or misadvised politicians, ambitious and jealous spy masters motivated more by thoughts of advancement and internecine agency quarrels than by patriotism, willing to sacrifice their field agents and any innocent bystanders to pad their résumés. It is a world in which empathy, sentimentality, and ethical considerations not only have no place but also are cruelly punished in the end, with the protagonists either dead without having achieved anything or frustrated and disillusioned for having been deceived and thwarted by their superiors.
What Updike could not have known in 1995 was that, far from being dead, the Cold War thriller would be revived with a new set of “thems.” The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent rapprochement of the new Russia and the Western democracies left a brief vacuum during which both politicians and authors were looking for a new set of villains. After some brief excursions in the international arms trade and the machinations of large, multinational corporations, 9/11 and the “war on terror” provided the current set of villainsthat is, Islamic terroristsand authors of spy thrillers have begun to make full use of the subject. David Hagberg’s Soldier of God (2005) and Allah’s Scorpion (2006); Kenneth Floyd’s The Painted Man (2006); and Brad Thor’s Scott Harvath series, beginning with The Lions of Lucerne (2001), all are essentially carbon copies of the Cold War thriller with a different set of villains in a slightly changed physical environment.
A Most Wanted Man, in contrast, is not a thriller, but a masterfully crafted political novel in which le Carré convincingly expresses his anger and sadness at the sacrifice of humanity and civil liberty in the “war on terror,” for which he lays the main blame on the United States, although the novel is set in Hamburg, Germany, the city where several of the 9/11 conspirators had gathered and prepared for the attack on U.S. targets. The fact that they were not discovered is considered a stain on the reputation of the city and German intelligence services. When Issa Karpov, a young Muslim with a connection to Chechen rebels, is discovered to have been smuggled into the city, after having escaped from a Turkish prison, the German authorities are doubly eager to apprehend him to avoid another disgraceful failure. Issahis name is the Islamic form of Jesushowever, insinuates himself into the care of Leyla and Melik Oktay, who shelter him, in obedience to the commands of their religion, because he is ill and clearly has been tortured. Although he carries with him documents and a key that would entitle him to millions of dollars deposited at a private British bank in Hamburg, his avowed goal is to be allowed to stay in Germany and go to medical school. To this...
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