Our Game

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With the 1963 publication of his third book, the phenomenally successful The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, British author John le Carré established himself as one of the spy genre’s finest contributors. In the years that followed, le Carré continued to chronicle the cat-and-mouse games of Cold War espionage in such novels as The Little Drummer Girl (1983), A Perfect Spy, (1986), and the three books that make up his acclaimed Karla Trilogy, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1980).

History, however, has overtaken le Carré’s fictional world and rendered it obsolete, with glasnost and later the collapse of the former Soviet Union bringing the Cold War to a close. Le Carré has responded to the changing political landscape by successfully adapting his familiar themes to the times, exploring the new world of thawing relations with the Soviet Union in his 1989 novel The Russia House and the sometimes troubling memories of longtime agents in The Secret Pilgrim (1991).

With Our Game, le Carré turns his attention to the plight of Cold War spies cast adrift by their former employers in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. For Tim Cranmer, the end of the Cold War has meant his forced retirement from the British Secret Service, where company policy has decided that old cold warriors may be ill-equipped to deal with the new world order. Cranmer retreats to his country home and turns his attentions to the family vineyard, determined to build a new life for himself with his beautiful young mistress, Emma Manzini.

For Tim’s friend Larry Pettifer, however, the transition from spy to ordinary citizen is an uneasy one. Tim had recruited Larry for the service early in his career and, in agents’ parlance, had “run” him, supervising him throughout his life as a double agent and acting as mentor, companion, and confidant. Larry is a charming adventurer and accomplished liar by nature—a far more daring and impulsive spirit than Tim, who has in many ways lived vicariously through his friend’s escapades in the field. Forced now to resign himself to the life of a university professor, Larry is clearly ill-suited to the change.

Shortly after Larry’s first meeting with Emma, Tim begins to suspect that his friend and his mistress are having an affair. When the two disappear, Tim is summoned to London and questioned at length by the service about Larry, their friendship, and Larry’s role as a double agent. He learns that Larry has remained in contact with his onetime Soviet supervisor, Konstantin Checheyev, and that the two men have stolen a fortune from the Russian government. Checheyev is a Muslim from the province of Ingushetia, a region in the Caucasus seeking independence from Russia, and it has become apparent to the service that the former Russian spy is now acting on behalf of his small homeland—perhaps with Larry’s help.

Unknown to the service, Tim is harboring two secrets: He has not divulged the news of Larry and Emma’s affair, and he fears that he may have killed Larry during a fight over Emma. Under suspicion himself, he cautiously begins his own investigation and turns up evidence that Larry is indeed alive and that he and Emma are involved with an arms dealer and are shipping weapons to Ingushetia. Following their trail, he finds that the dealer has been murdered by the Russian mafia, and he fears that Larry and Emma have also fallen victim to its violence.

Tim pursues the trail to Paris, where he finds Emma awaiting Larry’s summons to join him in the Caucasus. Traveling under a false passport, Tim reaches Russia and is soon taken prisoner by a group of Ingush rebels, only to learn that Larry has in all likelihood been killed in a recent battle. As suspicions that Tim is acting on behalf of the British government fade, he finds himself treated more as a guest of the rebels than as their prisoner and realizes that he is slipping gradually into Larry’s role. Checheyev arrives to join the group, and the rebels fly to a remote village, where, as the book ends, Tim has left his old life behind and has embraced the people and the cause for which his friend gave his life.

With Our Game le Carré acknowledges the end of the sort of international intrigue that served as his fictional milieu for...

(The entire section is 1817 words.)