Scribner, 1999, 352 pages
A lawyer from the London finance house of Single & Single is shot dead on a Turkish hillside by people with whom he thought he was in business. A children's magician is asked by his bank to explain the unsolicited arrival of more than five million pounds sterling in his young daughter's modest trust. A freighter bound for Liverpool is boarded by Russian coast guards in the Black Sea. The celebrated London merchant venturer "Tiger" Single disappears into thin air.
In Single & Single the writer who both epitomizes and transcends the novel of espionage opens with a haunting set piece, then establishes a sequence of events whose connections are mysterious, complex, and compelling. This is a story of corrupt liaisons between criminal elements in the new Russian states and the world of legitimate finance in the West. Le Carré's finest novel in years, it is also an intimate portrait of two families: one Russian, the other English; one trading illicit goods, the other laundering the profits; one betrayed by a son-in-law, the other betrayed, and redeemed, by a son.
This is territory le Carré knows better than anyone. Masterful and prescient, he is writing at the top of his creative powers, and Oliver Single, the central protagonist, is one of his most fascinating characters yet.
In this book, written with the USSR recently dissolved, John Le Carré was his typical cynical and pessimistic self, looking ahead to the rise of Russian oil moguls and former apparatchiks turning into arms traders, drug dealers, and money launderers... all with the help of profiteers in the West, of course.
Single & Single is the financial house of the protagonist's family. Oliver Single is the son of the legendary "Tiger" Single, who has built on empire on dirty deals all while maintaining the profile of a very proper, prestigious London money merchant. Oliver is a disappointment to his father — he has scruples. He's not a shark, and he'd really rather be an artist than a banker, but he winds up in the family business anyhow... annoyingly asking pertinent questions about legalities and ethics. Every scene with his father is a wry, cynical delight, as Oliver says "But, but, you can't do that!" and his father, not missing a beat, applauds (through clenched teeth and a rictus smile) his son's candor and directness and very proper reservations before paving them over with bullshit.
Unfortunately, Tiger Single is dealing with a family of Russians (actually, Georgians) who are looking to get rich by picking the corpse of the former Soviet Union. This goes bad places... oil and gas, of course, but also weapons, drugs, and in one bizarre scheme, literal blood money. Then when the sudden but inevitable betrayal happens, Tiger gets blamed and disappears. And Oliver, dutiful son that he is, goes looking for him. Along the way, there are dalliances with hot Turkish women, romantic difficulties, family matters, and of course, British Intelligence trying to do something vaguely in the interests of Her Majesty's government while being full of operatives not much less dirty than the scoundrels they hunt.
What makes John Le Carré so excellent is that he lays out the most complex schemes with a dozen different parties all involved, pursuing their own particular interests, the schemes are complex and multilayered, the double and triple crosses come fast and furious, the characters are all wry and witty and never more than a grayish shade of white when not black-hearted villains, and yet it all comes together in a coherent, believable plot. Reading this novel was like watching a juggler toss a collection of balls and knives and flaming torches into the air and wondering how he's going to bring them all safely to earth, and damned if he doesn't do it.
John Le Carré is always a good read. Single & Single might not be his best novel — I tend to prefer the spy thrillers — but positioned between his Cold War classics and his more recent, somewhat more shrill books, I'd rate Single & Single highly among his works.
Also by John Le Carré: My reviews of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Mission Song, and A Most Wanted Man.
My complete list of book reviews.