Tommy Brue is a very English banker, running a small and failing bank in Hamburg. Issa Karpov is a Chechen; he may be a terrorist, or a refugee. The two of them come together in a complex post-Cold War novel, linked by the attractive human rights lawyer, Annabel Richter, who has taken up Issa’s case. A Most Wanted Man is typical John Le Carré – or typical of his post-Smiley writing; there is a fierce and burning anger at the abuse of human rights by the supposedly liberal governments of Europe and America, a passionate denunciation of double standards, and of American heavy handedness and intolerance, and a jolly good fast moving yarn, complex and full of human interest, lively characters and acute observation. Many of Le Carré’s later books have major characters burdened by father figures who have in some way betrayed their children – rogues and failures of every description – and here, two for the price of one, both Issa and Tommy Brue have fathers they wish to renounce.
While Brue is trying to come to terms with his deceased father’s flirtation with dirty money coming across the Iron Curtain in the last days of the Soviet Union, and with the multiple dislocations in his family life (his daughter by his first marriage is estranged, he realises he should never have left his first wife, and his second wife is visibly leaving him), he is drawn more and more into an affectionate regard for the lawyer representing Issa and late in life, suffers some sort of apotheosis, regretting past entanglements, and looking at the end of his life for something truer, something you might even call love.
On the other side (skip this paragraph to avoid major plot spoiler) is the volatile, brilliant, forceful Bachmann, a spy, but a liberal defender of liberty at odds with his masters and with the American (and, Le Carré charges, the British) methods and attitudes. He is “the man who makes the weather”, and he reminds me of Kurtz in Little Drummer Girl (the best, oh the very best of Le Carré’s post Smiley novels, possibly the best espionage novel ever), all energy and passion and rule-breaking creativity. He fights against the odds, but he is gaining ground – he has made the breakthrough – he convinces the sceptics, but in the end cannot deliver. The disappointment is intense, angry, and you share it with Bachmann, Issa and Brue, vicariously provoked by the words of one of the agents who have smashed the liberal, human-rights crockery, and are taking Issa off to a fate beyond our ken, but probably Guantanamo:
Justice has been rendered, man ... justice from the fucking hip ... no crap justice ... no fucking lawyers.
This is a wonderful novel, and I recommend it warmly. It has all the old Le Carré magic, and is a shining example of his success in freeing himself from the Cold War idiom, and in perpetually creating new characters, rather than carrying on remorselessly with the brilliant George Smiley in his old age. If you know Le Carré, you should read this; if not, you could start with this, or Little Drummer Girl, or return to early glories with Tinker, Tailor.