For much of his career John Le Carré has been pigeonholed as a practitioner of genre fiction. But whereas the spy novel has traditionally induced an appealing but limited frisson of fear in the reader, presenting a threat to the moral and political establishment which is then resolved by the triumph of the hero and the State whose interests he represents, Le Carré has never dealt in comfort or certainty. His novels depict a bleak world in which the clarity of ideology, morality, patriotism, professional duty and personal loyalty dissolves into a fog in which his characters flounder, groping for some sort of basis on which to live and act. In this respect his work feels closer to post-war Existentialism or the Central European Absurdist tradition than the kinetic action thrillers or puzzle-solving whodunnits with which it is often shelved.
With the end of the Cold War there were those who wondered whether Le Carré would survive the collapse of the binary opposition which gave his fictional grey area its compelling atmosphere. In the nineties and early two-thousands, in novels such as The Constant Gardener, he turned his attention to the new nexus of corporate and state power, the decentralised network of interests which defines the twenty-first century global order. Now, as the contours of the post-911 state of emergency become clear, he has published his twenty first novel, A Most Wanted Man, which deals with the War on Terror and its attendant abuses. It opens as a Turkish immigrant couple in Hamburg reluctantly take in a young Russian vagrant, a devoutly Muslim young man called Issa, who says he is from Chechnya. Issa’s presence in Germany is a mystery. He has been smuggled across the border, bears the psychological and physical scars of torture, and is carrying a large sum of money. Is he a militant? A refugee? Is his unworldly persona in fact an elaborate cover for something more sinister? Drawn into his orbit are several recognisably Le Carré types. Annabel Richter is a young and idealistic immigration lawyer who takes on Issa as a client, hoping to prevent his deportation. Gunther Bachmann is an experienced intelligence agent, who sees in the boy a thread on which he can pull to unravel a complex skein of jihadi finance. Tommy Brue is the aging Scottish head of a small private bank, an old-fashioned operation which has a number of financial skeletons in its closet.
The fact that these people feel immediately familiar to his fans is both Le Carré’s strength and his weakness. Bachmann the spy is sketched in a few paragraphs, which are both rich in incidental detail (“[he] had by the age of thirty run away to sea, trekked the Hindu Kush, been imprisoned in Colombia, and written a thousand-page unpublishable novel” [p46]) and somehow perfunctory. The banker Tommy Brue and the lawyer Annabel Richter are more interesting, affording the author an opportunity to pick at scabs of class and status to get at the wounds beneath. Richter is the daughter of a senior diplomat, and her radicalism seems to be a way of escaping her privileged background. Brue, the nearest thing in the novel to an authorial proxy, is trapped in the ossified world of European old money and falls in modest and distant love with the young woman, taking on her problems, and discovering that “in doing so he had consciously and deliberately entered her danger zone, which he now shared with her. And in consequence, his life had become vivid and precious to him, for which he thanked her from all his heart.” 
In a recent interview Le Carré was asked if he ever considered defecting. “Well, I wasn’t tempted ideologically… but when you spy intensively and you get closer and closer to the border . . . it seems such a small step to jump . . . and, you know, find out the rest.” Though this has been reported as some sort of tabloid confession (“I was tempted to defect, says spy novelist Le Carré”), it seems primarily interesting as a key to his fiction, whose central concern is the exploration of the metaphorical borderland occupied by the proponents of any polarised conflict. In the Cold War, the security establishment was deeply invested in proclaiming the evils of communism. Why? Le Carré offers the wry suggestion that it was prophylactic: they beat the drum for certainty because they understood the perilous ease with which they – they in particular, the cold warriors - could slip over to the other side, the small step it would take to find themselves in the Communist mirror-world. So the pathological Anti-Communist becomes, like the swaggering homophobe, a figure of insecurity, protesting loudly and too much. And the ordinary spy, a man perhaps like the young John Cornwell, toiling in his Bonn office, immersed in the minutiae of the system on whom he is spying, finds the bureaucratic abstraction of his task leading to a sort of Marxian disillusionment: All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind… As a key to A Most Wanted Man, Marx’s apprehension of the brutal truth of human social relations can usefully stand alongside another famous quotation, EM Forster’s statement that “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope that I should have the guts to betray my country.” Betrayal and the conflict between different kinds of loyalty form one recurrent theme of his fiction. The all-too-human desires of his characters - for loyalty, love and friendship - become terrible vulnerabilities when exposed to the ‘real conditions of life’, the inhumanity of the realpolitik that governs the secret world.
In A Most Wanted Man, such vulnerabilities are ruthlessly exploited. The novel’s centre, the damaged young man known as Issa (whose name, significantly, is an analogue of Jesus) becomes a kind of blank screen for the hopes, fears and desires of the banker, the lawyer and the spy. At times his plight makes him genuinely poignant. At others he is little more than a cipher, a sort of faint echo of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, a ‘monk with coal-dark eyes’ [p205] who speaks in a wildly uneven linguistic register, sometimes childlike, sometimes incongruously using words like ‘malodorous’ [p205]. Issa is another incarnation of a familiar Le Carré type, the loose cannon, someone whose psychological precariousness and social disconnection make them disruptive of the established order – and useful to the puppeteers of the human soul who run the intelligence services. Many of Le Carré’s agents are people for whom this is an active talent – Jerry Westerby in The Honourable Schoolboy, Leamas in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Others, such as the actress Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl, are mere pawns in the intelligence game. Here Issa’s passive unworldliness is a trait that destablises the very worldly people who are drawn to him, inducing a sort of sentimental nobility that opens them up to tragedy.
As ever, Le Carré is particularly good at portraying the quiet ruthlessness of intelligence organisations, and the terror of the moment when an unsuspecting person drops through the trapdoor that separates the everyday world from the secret one. He understands the ecstasy of confession (“there was a certain relief, even pleasure, in becoming a child again, in handing the big decisions of her life to people older and wiser than herself” ) and the subtleties of the relationship between interrogator and subject. The exploitation of human weakness both fascinates and disgusts him, and he is able to weave the familiar elements of his fictional universe into a plot that unwinds satisfyingly and with a certain sickening inevitability. A Most Wanted Man is an uneven book, but despite its flaws it stands as one of the most sophisticated fictional responses to the War on Terror yet published, a humane novel which takes on the world’s latest binarism and exposes troubling shades of grey.