Despite the fact that he made his reputation writing about the duels between NATO intelligence agencies and their Soviet counterparts, no-one could accuse John Le Carré of failing to adapt to the end of the Cold War: with books like The Constant Gardener, Single & Single and The Mission Song (Bookgeeks review), he has explored international money laundering, the Russian mafia, corrupt pharmaceutical research in Africa and foreign involvement in the interminable civil wars of the Congo. Now, with A Most Wanted Man, we have his first true post-9/11 novel, an examination of the differing responses of Western intelligence agencies to the threats posted by Islamist terrorism.
The setting is Hamburg, present day. The lives of a Turkish family, Melik and his mother Leyla, are interrupted by the arrival of Issa, a scrawny refugee, on the run from the Swedish authorities and bearing the scars of torture from incarceration in a Turkish prison. Issa claims to be a devout Muslim, fleeing from the fighting in Chechnya, but parts of his story don't stack up: he doesn't speak the Chechynyan language, and aspects of his religious practice are distinctly awry. Troubled by the presence of this mysterious waif, Melik and Leyla contact asylum specialists Sanctuary North, and get Issa a lawyer to try and regularise his immigration status. Issa explains to his lawyer, Annabel Richter, that he carries in a pouch round his neck the means to access a bank account at the private bank of Brue Freres plc, which will enable him to pursue his dream of studying to be a doctor. Thus we meet Tommy Brue, last of his line, a banker to the wealthy and powerful, saddled with his father's legacy in more ways than one.
Brue's private bank is the holder of a special type of account: the Lipizzaner, so called because like the famous horses, the money starts out black and turns white with age. These accounts were instituted by his father, Edward Amadeus Brue, as a means for corrupt Soviet officials to move money out from behind the Iron Curtain during the collapse of Communism and launder it, and Brue's not particularly fond of their existence - so it's with mixed feelings that he greets the news that a claimant to the last account in existence has turned up. Perhaps given the state of his marriage, he's fascinated by the upright, proper Annabel Richter, and agrees to meet with Issa to establish his credentials as the claimant to a fabulously large sum of money.
Of course, the German intelligence services have been watching the comings and goings around Issa with a great deal of interest - they don't know what to make of him, and consider him likely to a Jihadi. When Issa is drawn to the attention of Gunther Bachmann, an experienced field operative and agent runner, he perceives the beginning of an opportunity to do something that Western spooks have conspicuously failed to achieve: recruit and run an agent or agents inside the Islamist terror networks that represented a substantial threat worldwide. Bachmann steers approval of his plan through the factionalised German secret intelligence apparatus, and soon Annabel Richter is presented with the stark reality that she has no choice but to co-operate with them in using Issa to reach the target of the operation, a Muslim cleric believed to be involved in funding terror through charities. Meanwhile, Tommy Brue has been visited by British intelligence, and he too is co-opted. From this point forwards, Issa, Annabel and Tommy are unwitting and unwilling participants in the machinations of the German, British and American intelligence agencies.
Le Carré imbues his characters with plenty of depth, and the unspoken love triangle that is forming between the three central characters lends added poignancy to the events that follow; for despite the apparent success of the climactic operation, the Americans intervene in a style that is more Jack Bauer than George Smiley, undermining the assurances given to the parties involved. It's not difficult to read this book as a parable for how the intelligence community, through a comprehensive failure of empathy, an unwilligness or inability to run agent networks, and a heavyhanded if nor downright inhuman approach to information gathering, has proved itself unworthy to meet the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. But that doesn't change the fact that it's also an affecting and wonderfully crafted story about human relationships under strained circumstances. It's proof, though none should be needed, that John Le Carré has transcended the confines of the spy thriller to become one of our best, and most successful, novelists.