The Russia House, by John LeCarre

June 2, 2011 at 13:07 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , , , )


A newcomer to LeCarre might be forgiven for expecting a Tom Clancy who didn’t talk quite so much about guns, and in The Russia House at least, that expectation might mostly be borne out. There are the same businesslike spooks; and complex, psychologically shattered “humint sources”; and everything seems to take place in an embassy or a square in Petrograd, or some exotic location like that. Very much the sort of thing that has become standard fare for the secret agent genre.

Of course, le Carre is a much more mature writer than many others of similar genres, and he seems to have much more interesting motivations for his stories. Instead of showcasing how great America is, he seems to focus on the individual characters – and although they are the same recycled stocks as one might expect – the femme fatale, the washed-up middle-class no-hoper, the cynical spymaster with the heart of gold – it is pleasant to have a story focused on what it is like to be a spy, rather than a rehashed plate of leftover geopolitical theories held up by some scenes with machine guns.

Also a pleasant surprise was le Carre’s restraint; in what was essentially a love story based on spies seducing one another, all such scenes were treated modestly and politely, and even his most lurid characters (Niki Landau, for instance) imply much and say and do little. While graphic and torrid sex scenes in novels are becoming the norm, there was nothing in this book that needed skipping, and the book certainly did not seem prudish or awkward for the omissions. His style of narrative was also quite delightful, with incredibly informal moments when it seemed more like the transcript of a pub conversation, woven seamlessly with a much clearer third person style. Whether or not this is one of le Carre’s usual traits or a brilliant experiment in this particular book, it worked very well.


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