John le Carré's novels are an acquired taste. It wasn't until I read TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and SMILEY'S PEOPLE, and then viewed the BBC's marvelous screen adaptations of these two books, that I came to appreciate the author's methodically intricate plot and character development that results in more of an identity profile of the chief protagonist than anything else. (For me, le Carré's Smiley will always bring to mind the features of Alec Guiness, who starred in the aforementioned BBC productions.) There are no Bond-like capers here, and those expecting such will become excruciatingly bored.
In THE CONSTANT GARDENER, Justin Quayle is a faceless, government bureaucrat attached to the British High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya. His job is to represent Her Majesty's government on an international committee of other faceless bureaucrats charged with monitoring the efficiency at which aid moneys for the poor and starving reach the intended recipients. The committee has no investigatory authority, so high level and endemic African venality is ignored. On the other hand, Justin's wife, Tessa, belongs to a private group that investigates corruption with a vengeance. Her efforts have uncovered the criminally negligent misuse of a new drug, Dypraxa, designed to treat tuberculosis. The drug's manufacturer, megapharmaceutical KVH, is trialing Dypraxa on the indigenous African population, and apparently covering up the drug's fatal side effects. As THE CONSTANT GARDENER opens, Tessa has been found murdered on a field trip into the African bush. Is there a link?
The storyline unfolds from three viewpoints. First and foremost, there's Justin, whose guilt over his hear-no -evil, see-no-evil detachment from his wife's investigations compels him to follow her lead posthumously, reopen the probe in the face of Foreign Office opposition, and attempt to discover the true circumstances of Tessa's demise. (Did KVH have her killed? Was the British government somehow involved?) Then, there are Sandy Woodrow, the ambitious and morally flaccid Head of Chancery for the Brits in Nairobi, and Gita Pearson, an Anglo-Indian admirer of Tessa's employed by the High Commission as a low-level functionary.
The novel's conclusion, like most of life, is painted in muted gray tones, not stark black and white as one might wish. It's certainly an unhappy ending, although that's appropriate considering the nature of Justin's internal demons brought on by his beloved's lonely death. Yet, the evil he confronts is both banal and ambiguous. Perhaps it's a tragedy of the 21st century that such is the nature of the baseness now pervasive in the world, not the more focused deviltry of Hitler, Stalin, or the Red Menace. I guess I'd have to say that I miss the good old days of the Cold War. That period enabled the author to script endings that were personally more satisfying, that of SMILEY'S PEOPLE being a case in point, which engendered more a sense of triumph of "good" over "evil". Thus, while THE CONSTANT GARDENER is meticulously crafted with the usual le Carré penchant for excellence, for me it lacks punch. Where's George Smiley when you need him?