Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Le Carre's A Most Wanted Man: The Thrill is Gone

Consider two disparate reviews of John le Carré’s new book, A Most Wanted Man:

In the October 11, New York Times author Alan Furst writes:

“And, coincidentally, a few weeks after the cold war sat up in its coffin and smiled, John le Carré publishes one of the best novels he’s ever written. Maybe the best, it’s possible.”

Later Furst writes, “The concept of ‘best book’ is difficult for the writer and reader; there are too many variables. Truer to say that this is le Carré’s strongest, most powerful novel, which has a great deal to do with its near perfect narrative pace and the pleasure of its prose, but even more to do with the emotions of its audience, what the reader brings to the book. There the television has once again done its work, has created a reality, and John le Carré has written an extraordinary novel of that reality.”

Yet, in the October 5 Washington Post, book critic Jonathan Yardley writes, “As one who has reviewed his work for more than three decades, always with admiration and at times with unfettered enthusiasm, I'd place A Most Wanted Man toward the lower end of the 21 novels he has now written. It is intelligent, of course, and immensely informative about espionage and the people who engage in it, but its prose occasionally is flabby (especially when the heroine is involved), the feelings its central characters have for each other are utterly unconvincing, and it ends on a note of clichéd, knee-jerk anti-Americanism that I find repellent. Now in his late 70s, le Carré perhaps has earned the right to phone a novel in, and phoned-in is what this one is.”

I admire both gentlemen. Furst’s books are taut, realistic thrillers. The erudite Yardley’s reviews are always insightful. So, who is right?

I am inclined to side with Yardley rather than Furst. A Most Wanted Man was a bit of a bore, lacking narrative tension and peopled with flat, two-dimensional characters. Unlike Yardley I wasn’t disturbed by the anti-Americanism prevalent in this novel. Granted, it was heavy handed, but I couldn’t get worked up about any aspect of Carré’s A Most Wanted Man. There is just no thrill in this thriller.

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