At Forty-Eight, Tim Cranmer is a secret servant in premature retirement to deepest rural England. His Cold War is fought and won, and he is free to devote himself to his stately manor house, his vineyard, and his beautiful young mistress, Emma. But no man can escape his past, and Tim's lives twenty miles away, in the chaotic person of Larry Pettifer: bored radical don, philanderer, and for twenty years Tim's mercurial double agent against the now vanquished Communist threat. Between the two stands an unresolved rivalry that dates all the way back to their shared boyhood at public school.As the story opens, Larry and Emma have disappeared. Have they run off together? Are they lovers? Has Larry lured Emma into some dark game she cannot understand? Setting off in pursuit of them, Tim discovers that he too is being pursued, by his former masters. The hunter becomes the hunted. Raiding his own past like a thief, he follows Larry and Emma into the minefield - physical and emotional - of their new allegiance. And as Tim advances across the moral wastes of post-Cold War Europe - the battered landscape of England after Thatcher, the lawless worlds of Moscow and Southern Russia - his dilemma deepens. Finding himself deprived of both past and future, a dispossessed loyalist, he must grapple with his own leftover humanity as the values he fought to preserve fall away, and the spectre of the reinvented Russian empire begins to haunt the ruins of the Soviet dream.
Love, loss, and post-Cold-War intrigue featuring ethnic conflict in the North Caucasus region of the Russian federation.
I didn't know quite what to expect from le Carré. I'd always assumed he was hardcore when it came to spy novels, which are just not my genre. And I think he pretty much is. But here there was also a large helping of inner human drama, moral conflict, soul-searching, and ultimately something like redemption to elevate this novel above the level of routine cloak-and-dagger action.
The novel is a suspenseful story of a former Cold War agent's search for his longtime friend and colleague, who has apparently run off with the agent's girlfriend. Tim Cranmer's own doubts and questions and his lack of commitment to any ideal create layers of subterfuge and deception that lure us on to try to penetrate the puzzle, both of the escapees' movements and of the character himself. His application of spy tradecraft in the service of a personal mission interested me more than a motivation based in politics or commerce, where the side you're on seems fairly arbitrary and everyone's up to the same thing.
The author draws us in artfully, just as Cranmer is drawn in. As he begins to care about obscure ethnic combatants in the mountainous reaches of the Caucasus, so do I. Off I went to learn more about the setting and the background action. I had to look up the Republic of Ingushetia, which I'd never heard of, and do some reading about its history and geography. And I studied a map of the eastern half of Russia for a while. Abstractions such as statistics and names on a map became real-seeming people and places as Cranmer pursued the fugitive couple. The subtle shifting of his goal as time progresses adds an intriguing dimension to the focal character.
The ending was unexpected and surprisingly satisfying.
It’s been a long time since I read one of le Carre’s more “hardcore” spy novels. The Smiley novels. The ones where hard men make hard decisions and get left out in the cold. This novel, while still perilous, is set a bit after active duty. We have handler and handled, betrayer and betrayed, seducer and seduced. Sure, it’s a bit quieter and more introspective than many a spy novel, but I think it’s more powerful as a result. The relationship between the two main characters Tim Cranmer and Larry Pettifer is the real focus. In some ways, they’re two sides of a single coin, but it’s not that cut and dried. Larry has always been contemptuous of Tim’s more staid personality and safer choices. His hedonism and arrogance make him an effective spy, but a really lousy friend. If they ever were friends. How much of either man’s personality is real? At times Tim’s third-person references made me really understand how much of a role it was for him, but Larry’s tear-away behavior made me think he thought his role all too real.
Cranmer (I couldn’t help wondering what the significance of that name really was) is a man in retirement. He’s beginning a new life with a very young woman, also new. He’s inherited a sprawling estate and has been freshly relieved from his job at the “treasury”. Yeah, he’s a spy. A handler; and his handlee has also been newly put out to pasture. Too bad he’s only 30 miles away at a university, being the best terrible don on campus. Makes it very convenient to pop by for Sunday lunch. During those idyllic lunches on the estate, Larry succeeds in seducing the impressionable and sheltered Emma, Tim’s paramour. I can’t really describe her as more. She’s not really a fully-formed adult to Tim. He buys her clothes for heaven’s sake. What mature, independent woman is going to allow this? Instead Emma represents all objects of affection for Cranmer; lover, wife, child and madonna. No, Larry’s gung-ho, take-charge attitude toward the put-upon peoples of the southern Russian republics have Emma swooning at his feet and soon they’re both gone.
Larry started his career as a spy under Cranmer’s tutelage. Ostensibly, Tim feels responsible for changing Larry’s life and to some extent it’s true, but Larry has chosen his own course, serving as a double agent to Russia. With any double agent, you can’t really be sure where his loyalties lie. As the years press on, Larry becomes more and more sympathetic to the Chechen oppression and extermination by the Russians. In the end, it’s clear he and his accomplices have stolen a great deal of money from Moscow. It isn’t to feather his own nest though, but to fund a revolution against the Ossetians and their Russian overlords.
Naturally, Tim comes under suspicion as an accomplice from both his former employer and the local cops. I loved the tradecraft he devised to evade them in the immediate sense and also on the larger scale. Keeping the cops in the dark about the Office. The false identity ready to hand. The secret room in the church tower. Getting into Larry and Emma’s erstwhile safe house. Oh it was great. There is a lot of idealism and hope, danger and deceit. And of course le Carre’s writing has that lolloping grace it’s always had. He creates some great characters, sprinkles just enough back story into the main narrative and teases you with hints before giving you solid information. Altogether a really enjoyable novel that I’m ashamed took me 20 years to finally read.
But I found Our Game to be different in nature to many Le Carre novels - I found it to be one of his most human and accessible novels, concerned not just with the betrayal of country but the onset of middle age and with it the fears and second-guessing that come with it. And possessed of a surprisingly lyrical tone
"I have invited him here for a clandestine meeting up here on the Mendip Hills, on this moonscape plateau nearer to the sky than to the earth, where the trees throw deadman's shadows on the whited lane and no cars pass."
Our game explores (as Le Carre always does) the geography and emotional landscape of betrayal and the familiarity that sometimes breeds contempt in those we've known for a long time. Our Game also manages to explore infidelity, middle aged self deception and ennui and what we owe our friends, even if they betray us. Recommended.
Whereas the last two chapters (4 stars out of 5) were set in the Caucasian Mountains of Russia and dealt with the ethnic conflicts there and is set just to the West of Chechenia. The plot state that the Georgians participated with the Russians in ethic cleansing of the Ossetians, which prepared the Ossetians for participating in the ethic cleansing of the Ingushetians . This section focuses on the leadership and customs of the latter group and was actually quite interesting.
Recommended only for students of mountain peoples or diehards of the Le Carre canon. (Average: 2½ stars out of 5).
The protagonist, Tim Cranmer comes late to the important things in his life. All the "action" has already happened in this novel - many of the important events in this novel are past memories, either remembered in flashback (or revealed through interrogation). Other main events are discovered by Cranmer as already happened as he picks his cautious way through crime scenes or recent battlefields. Even love, or his recognition of it, has come to him late.
So Cranmer's quest is his attempt to discover his real past so as to provide him with a future, or at least a present. Le Carre's writing is at the peak of its form. Sometimes drol, often witty, always poetic and wonderfully intelligent, his writing captures the humanity of its character and the inhumanity of the uncaring world in deft strokes.
This is not a novel of gunplay, hi-tech espionage, car chases and narrow escapes. Neither is this a George Smiley novel. They were written almost 30 years ago and the author has moved on. This novel sits outside the genre of the spy novel, whose vague trappings the author hijacks for his own uses. The ending, which some people may not like as it is not "neat" and "final" is wonderfully unresolved, just like life.
I read this book when it was first released and have just reread it. In 10 years time, I will probably read it again. And probably enjoy it even more.
This novel is entirely forgettable. Although it is ostensibly a thriller, there is not a high thrill level here. The plot is ponderous and not particularly believable. This novel failed to meet expectations. Unless you are a diehard John LeCarre fan, I would recommend skipping this novel.
Carl Alves – author of Blood Street