The Tailor of Panama Critical Essays

John le Carre

The Tailor of Panama

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

John le Carre’s fifteenth novel begins as light entertainment and evolves into something darker.

Harry Pendel is a half-Jewish, half-Irish Catholic orphan who takes the blame for his beloved Uncle Benny’s arson crime and goes to prison. Upon his release, Pendel goes to Panama to reinvent himself with a successful tailoring business, a loving wife, and two children. A bad business investment makes Pendel vulnerable to Andrew Osnard’s request that he spy on his customers, who include the nation’s leaders. The British are nervous about the United States turning over control of the Panama Canal and about possible Japanese influence on the future of international shipping.

Pendel throws himself into the role of spy, taking fragments of truth and embroidering them into an opposition movement headed by his drunken friend Mickie Abraxas. Osnard is unaware of the deception until it is too late, just as Pendel and Osnard’s superiors do not realize the agent is stealing much of the money intended for Pendel’s supposed rebels. Pendel’s elaborate lies are amusing until he begins losing control of the situation. Soon, everyone he cares about is harmed in some way by his scheme.

In Pendel and Osnard, le Carre has created two of his most memorable characters. Pendel is at once a con man, an artist, and a naive everyman, while Osnard is a more corrupt version of his protege. As usual, le Carre excels at showing self-deceiving intelligence professionals and bureaucrats working away blindly in the background. His achieving an almost perfect balance between the entertaining and the more serious sides of his story makes THE TAILOR OF PANAMA one of his most compelling novels.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. October 27, 1996, p. N19.

Chicago Tribune. November 17, 1996, XIV, p. 6.

The Christian Science Monitor. November 4, 1996, p. 13.

The Economist. CCCXLI, December 7, 1996, p. 3.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 20, 1996, p. 3.

National Review. XLVIII, December 23, 1996, p.56.

The New York Times. October 18, 1996, p. C17.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, October 20, 1996, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, September 2, 1996, p. 109.

Time. CXLVIII, October 28, 1996, p. 102.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 18, 1996, p. 22.

The Washington Post. November 5, 1996, p. D2.