Ahh, John le Carre…a staple of my teens, when I would raid my parents’ bookcase having run out of my own reading matter! I hence went through a phase of reading various cold war novels by le Carre, Martin Cruz Smith, Len Deighton et al. Mostly belonging to my Dad.
I re-read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy late last year when the latter came out at the cinema (incidentally I really enjoyed the film, the styling of it and the strong performances, but felt that if you hadn’t read the book, the story might be a bit tough to follow). The Constant Gardener was written in 2001, much later than the others and I wondered how it might compare to his classic spy novels.
It’s longer than the other books, and I’m not sure it needed to be. It became a bit of a struggle keeping up with what was going on by the end. Unlike the earlier books, this isn’t a spy novel, but a conspiracy story. When it was published critics wondered how a writer like le Carre would continue to ply his trade at the end of the cold war, being so synonymous with the spy thriller. The Constant Gardener proved he could write outside the espionage genre, was well received and later adapted into a film.
The story tells of Justin Quayle a British Diplomat in Nairobi, whose activist wife, Tessa is murdered while out in the bush chasing information that can prove conspiracy and corporate corruption in the pharmaceutical world. Although he doesn’t know what she was investigating, because she worked hard to protect him from the details, Justin knows he must find out what is behind her death. The story then follows his trials at attempting to uncover what happened to his wife, while being under constant threat from unknown followers.
Like all previous le Carre works I’ve read, there are so many characters, some with similar or instantly forgettable names, it is tricky to keep up, especially to remember their link to each other. I found myself on more than one occasion thinking “who was he again?”. On reflection, I also think Le Carre makes some assumptions about his readers and has decided that they must all be a bit dim. I feel some characters were only added to explain something really simple that the stupid reader can’t work out for themselves. This is quite annoying and I’ve come across it before with Le Carre.
In terms of spy/conspiracy fiction, if it’s action packed, Bourne type thriller you’re after then Le Carre is not your man. My understanding is that, unlike the highly charged, fast and furious world of espionage popularised by Ian Flemming and Len Deighton et al, the real world of foreign intelligence is much more like a Le Carre novel. It’s about who has information and how they are using it. There are however some tense moments in this book; there is a car chase in Canada and he is followed and beaten up while meeting Tessa’s friend in Germany.
This lack of action is replicated in all of le Carre’s books I’ve read including The Constant Gardener; not much happens in the way of plot. But that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. The story is engaging in the way it is revealed in fragments by various sources. Although the narrative is 3rd person, most of the main characters get their chance to tell their part in the story. As the book opens Tessa is already dead and we hear of her work and research into the pharmaceutical industry as the police begin to investigate her murder. As the reader, you sit in on interviews with various Foreign Office staff members and their wives, once Justin gains access to his wife’s computer he unearths documents which you read over his shoulder, he meets people she was in contact with who fill in the gaps in her story. Rather than a linear storyline le Carre cleverly allows Justin to unravel the mystery of Tessa’s death after the fact. This style of writing requires some concentration from the reader as more information is disclosed, especially as much of it is medical research speak.
What I also enjoyed about this book was witnessing Justin’s transformation during his investigation of Tessa’s murder. He goes from being a timid, bland, bureaucrat to putting much of his initial Foreign Office training to good use while evading detection and embarking on a one-man crusade for justice. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted a happy ending, the book closes on a typically le Carre note – the little man never wins against the state or tyrannical big business.
Le Carre loosely based this book on an event that took place in Nigeria, and its subject matter does make you stop and think about what some businesses will do to get ahead in the marketplace and what some states will do to ingratiate themselves to big business leaders.
After reading something like this I have to be careful not to see conspiracy in everything around me!