Singe and Single by John Le Carré - review by Douglas Hurd

Douglas Hurd

Invitation to Join the Monsters in their Lairs

Singe and Single


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To summarise a Le Carré plot is to deflate it, for his peculiar merit is to soar above reality. Yet some explanation is needed, even if it brings the tale down to bump along the surface of the real world, like Mr. Branson’s balloon. Single and Single is an exalted London firm of financiers, led into villainy by a small, impeccably dressed man called Tiger. In the decaying days of the Soviet Union, Single and Single form an alliance with two equally villainous but sentimental brothers from Georgia to organise illegal shipments, first of scrap metal, oil and donated blood, then of heroin. The alliance splits disastrously, and the novel opens with the long-drawn-out televised execution of Tiger’s chief lawyer by his former gangster confederates on a Turkish hillside. Tiger’s son, Oliver, has split away in the opposite direction, towards virtue, HM Customs and a sequence of strong-minded ladies. Oliver, diffident in everything except sex, is as much a hero as is permitted by Le Carré in his tarnished world. Having informed against his father, he changes tack and sets out to rescue him from execution by the gangsters.

Le Carré pays tribute to those who helped him with research, but he has no intention of confining his characters to the prosaic actualities of Turkey, Georgia or London. We are in Le Carré land, and it is inhabited by monsters. Both the land and the monsters are familiar to us from dozens of earlier novels by this author and his imitators, and we are content. We are carefully led with meticulous description into each monstrous lair. Each garden, each gate and door, each array of furniture, each career is presented to us before we meet the monster himself, be it Tiger, the Swiss lawyer, the Polish former spy, the British customs chief. We have soared above restrictions of time. The most villainous of the villains carries a platinum cigarette case as if he was devised by Sapper. HM Customs protect virtue with the raffish cynicism normally associated in fiction with Ml6. Tiger’s hair is cut at Trumpers, his boots built at Lobbs, and at the end we see him in a Georgian hayloft awaiting death in a filthy Turnbull & Asser shirt.

And it works. The theatricalities decorate a fast-moving plot. Even the fashionable switchbacks of time, jolting the reader forwards and backwards across the years, do not irritate as much as usual. We sit back and enjoy ourselves, knowing that we are in the hands of a master.

For readers of the Literary Review it is worth pausing to consider the decisive part which style plays in this success. To say that Le Carré is an artist with words is neither pedantry nor platitude; the gift is not widely shared among thriller writers. He shows particular daring with verbs: ‘Oliver released his knees then rearrested them, locking his fingers around them while he stared into the grass as if it was his grave’; ‘Conrad tried to look amused, but fear curdled his smile’; ‘Hoban’s unblinking gun … peering like a surgeon into my brain’. Nor is he afraid of the long sentences from which most of his competitors would recoil. These immense sentences are particularly useful in describing the lair of one of his monsters:

The rented house in a new suburb on the Asian side of Istanbul is gimcrack and unfinished, set in a puddled mess of abandoned builders’ hardware and surrounded by unfinished streets, shopping malls, bancomats, petrol stations, fast chicken stops, all empty, all going gently to the Devil while crooked contractors and frustrated tenants and immovable Ottoman bureaucrats slug out their differences in some archaic courthouse devoted to insoluble lawsuits in this sweltering, howling, heaving, traffic-suffocated city with an uncounted population of sixteen million souls which as Yevgeny never tires of repeating is four times as many souls as inhabit the whole of his beloved Georgia.

Another sentence of equal length follows immediately, and the scene is set.

Le Carré land has changed over the years, and for the better. There are still few pleasant inhabitants. But the savage, somewhat bogus indignation of earlier times, the inverted snobbery, the complicated moral issues, have passed through the author’s system and been expelled. We are content to conclude, as Oliver mumbled, ‘There’s no white horse. More a sort of merry-go-round.’ No one here pretends that the trades of Single and Single could be justified, or that the villains do other than stink. The question is simply how they will be frustrated and who will survive. It is enough, provided that the story itself is, as here, fast and glittering.

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