The spying game

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 1995, 12:00am

Our Game by John le Carre Hodder & Stoughton $195 YOU would think that by 1995, the great reading public would have grown tired of stories of spies and secret agents, wouldn't you? The answer is no, not when they are created with this degree of artistry.

In his new novel John le Carre takes us back to the world of British espionage. But this is no wild-eyed James Bond fantasy. It is a measured, understated journey into the quiet world of a retired spy - a gentleman of 48 who has retired early to the country to spend his time pottering in the garden and interacting with the local villagers. Boring? It doesn't turn out as dull as he would have liked.

Ex-agent Timothy Cranmer lives an idyllically peaceful life, until one day, the past intrudes into the present in an explosive way.

Without giving too much away, I can tell you that retired agent Cranmer is spending much of his time running over past events in his mind - how he found and ' created' a protege for the secret service.

Lawrence Pettifer was a boy who was at the same school, and then the same university as he was, although several years younger. Cranmer steered the younger man's energy and passion into a successful career in espionage. Now the whole life-long adventure has come to end for both of them, as they take the early retirement that is an agent's right.

But Cranmer's friend disappears - along with Cranmer's companion. This being a spy thriller, it all becomes infinitely more complicated, and nothing is quite what it seems.

That's just the start of the former intelligence agent's descent from quiet bliss into a terrifying world where he is forced to use his espionage skills - 'tradecraft' - in the jargon - on his own, with no help or backup from his former bosses and colleagues.

What strikes the reader about le Carre's writing is a depth unusual in this genre of novel. The lead character has a humanity about him that reminds one of the central figures in Graham Greene novels. He is likeable, although naturally suspicious.

The relationships between the three main characters are also intriguing. Although filled with jealousy against Pettifer, Cranmer shocks himself by discovering how much his friend/enemy has influenced him.

The story moves along at a good pace: several strands of narrative move chronologically forwards in turn, with the present taking precedence over the flashbacks. But I would have liked just a little more atmosphere-building and descriptive writing framing the main story, finding it rather heavy in dialogue.

Remarkably the central figures interact with the independent former states of the Soviet Union - particularly Chechens from Grozny. Since this part of the world only became headline news recently, I imagine the writer must have enjoyed a degree of prescience to feature it in this story.

All in all, Our Game finds le Carre in fine form, fleshing out the espionage novel with a fastidiousness and flair that places him well ahead of his competition.