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What did I hear that Emma didn’t, when Larry did his material for her, sang his political arias, excited her, drew her out, shamed her and forgave her, drew her out a little more? I was listening to Larry the great seducer, I decided, replying to my own question. I was thinking that my prejudices were leading me astray, that Larry was far smarter than I had ever been at stealing hearts. And that for twenty years I had harboured a very one-sided delusion about who, in the great Cranmer-Pettifer stand-off, was running whom.

Once again this blog affords me an opportunity to read an author I have not yet tried. Le Carré’s novels occupy large swathes of shelf space in bookshops all around the English-speaking world. I once found myself cornered at a Christmas party by the father of a friend who swore to me that the British spy-lit author was one of the great masters of the English language.

Tim Cranmer is many things. He is a well-thought of figure within his small village community, as well as a politely tolerated vintner of very poor wine. He also claims to be a civil servant operating out of the British government’s Treasury Department. All of this, however, is a front. Cranmer has been working as a spy-master for British intelligence for years and the double-agent he trained, Larry Pettifer, has gone missing.

His former handlers are denying all knowledge of the affair and have made sure Tim knows they don’t want him spilling government secrets to anyone. Meanwhile the Metropolitan police have decided he is a person of interest in the case. So used to lying professionally Tim sets about trying to resolve the mystery himself. After all he has managed to keep something from both the police and the intelligence officers. His lover Emma has been involved in an affair with Larry. And maybe he knows exactly where his former student in espionage can be found.

Le Carré proves that the end of the Cold War was no barrier to his fiction. If anything the raising of the Iron Curtain allows the author to cast his eye over the plight of former Soviet nations such as Ingushetia. Cranmer’s easy complicity with the consequences of the vacuum left after years of aggression between East and West is contrasted with Larry’s effusive idealism and passion for the native Ingush. Where he offers security and a mansion home to Emma, Larry appeals to her sense of romance, both intimately and politically. For Cranmer romance means clearing his prospective lovers with London central and not taking a peek at their file.

This is not only a tautly plotted spy thriller; it also introduces a startling degree of psychological detail in its descriptions of Cranmer’s growing paranoia. His jealousy of Larry is twinned with a sense that maybe the younger man has a greater understanding of how the world works. Le Carré ruefully apologises for his descriptions of moribund academic life, the career chosen by Larry’s masters for his retirement from active spying.

Part Cold War-commentary, part dissection of one man’s descent into jealous obsession, this is a well-told spy-tale that does not shy away from political realities.

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