- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

Scribner, $28, 336 pages

Perhaps no one writes espionage fiction as well as John le Carre, and although he has been deprived of the Cold War as his favorite scenario, this book is evidence that he has lost none of his skill at expertly convoluted plotting about international spies — here, in the war on terror.

Nevertheless, the Cold War was Mr. le Carre’s world and some of his recent novels, such as “The Constant Gardner” and “Absolute Friends” seemed to indicate how much he missed it. He appears to have circumvented that loss by demonstrating here how practitioners of 21st-century terrorism can be linked to spymasters of the past. The setting of this latest book, “A Most Wanted Man,” is the German city of Hamburg, and his players a stunning set of characters as complex as only Mr. le Carre can make them.

At the center is the deliberately pathetic figure of Issa, a young Muslim who is a fugitive from Russian and Turkish jails and who has become the protege of lawyer Annabel Richter, who is passionate in her mission for human rights and those deprived of them. She is determined to save the mysterious Issa from deportation and is reluctantly intrigued by his medieval Muslim attitude toward her as a woman. When it is revealed that Issa may be able to claim a fortune from Tommy Brue, a British banker in Hamburg who has for years brooded over the secret of his father’s illegal negotiations with Karpov, a now dead Russian intelligence agent, Annabel springs into action.

It turns out that Issa is Karpov’s illegitimate son, now seeking his father’s money from Brue’s bank. Not only has his family’s past caught up with Brue, but he finds himself trapped in an ominous network of professional intelligence agents hailing from England, Germany, Russia and the United States in a terrorism- linked operation.

The focus on Hamburg is explained by the director of the German intelligence unit, Gunther Bachmann, a “scruffy, explosive mongrel of a man” with a flamboyant background who rants against the failure of the system to track down Islamist terrorists in the German city, including those who blew up New York’s twin towers and attacked the Pentagon.

“When 9/11 happened, there were two ground zeros,” Bachmann tells the team he has assembled in the hunt for Issa. “One ground zero was in New York. The other ground zero that you don’t hear so much about was right here in Hamburg.”

He continues, “We weren’t fighting the Cold War anymore. We were fighting off-cuts of a nation called Islam with a population of one and a half billion. … We thought we could do it the way we’d done it before and we were plain stupid … The rules had changed. Our problem was we hadn’t.”

Having set a scene that updates his glory days of chronicling the dark corridors of the Cold War, Mr. le Carre goes on to provide the details of the small army of agents from around the world who are in Hamburg to prove that they have learned the lesson of the new age.

He still excels in the art of writing conversations that range from the sinister to the silkily diplomatic. He can still rivet his readers with introspective passages that hide a subtle message if you have not been paying enough attention. Skipping passages or pages in le Carre books is risky, because what you have missed may turn out to be a small yet crucial turn in the plot. Which is what makes them so intriguing.

In this case, he analyzes the attitudes of agents from differing backgrounds, from the British to the Germans and the Americans. For example, there is “Newton alias Newt,” former deputy chief of operations at the American Embassy in Beirut who is in Hamburg to track down terrorists like Dr. Abdullah, also known as “Signpost.” He has a reputation for slitting throats.

Yet Aziz, a veteran Arab agent who works with Bachmann, offers a fascinating analysis of Signpost by explaining, “He is a man of God, of the Book … but unfortunately it is our perception that he is also a man of the bomb.”

Aziz goes on to suggest that for Muslims and non-Muslims, there is always the question of whether “good men accept a little bit of bad as a necessary element of their work. … They have a place for terror in their minds. … They regard it as painful but necessary.”

In such a man as Signpost, argues Aziz, 95 percent of him supports the poor and sick and needy of the Muslim world.

“But five percent of him finances terror. Consciously and with ingenuity.”

Bachmann, the quintessential spy master, contends that intelligence agents are not policemen, and do not arrest their targets, seeking instead to identify them, watch them, listen to them and ultimately control them. He views arrests as of “negative value” because they “destroy a precious acquisition.”

That is not the philosophy of avenging agents like the hardboiled American Newt who dismisses the cautious approach and bluntly explains why, after a tumultuous but predictable finale.

“Justice has been rendered, man” he snaps. “We can all go home.”

Questioned about the quality of such justice, Newt asserts, “Justice from the hip, man. Justice with no … lawyers around to pervert the course. Have you ever heard of extraordinary rendition?”

Such terrorists were killing Americans, charges Newt, adding, “We call that original sin.”

As usual, Mr. le Carre spins a tale that treads the line between absolutes. With a background in the British foreign service, in his books he has always emphasized the existence of the gray area when it comes to spies, but his characters run a dramatic gamut, some of it black and white, and he lets them speak for themselves. However, it is interesting that among those who live in the shadows by choice, even realization of the importance of compromise does not necessarily prevent them from choosing the alternative of taking no prisoners.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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