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Issa Karpov is a most wanted man. Arriving in Hamburg illegally, destitute, starving and very ill, he manages to find a kind Turkish family who take him in and nurse him through his illness. He contacts a lawyer, Annabel Richter, who works for a firm specializing in illegal immigrants, and who, for personal reasons, is desperate to ensure that her client stays safe. This is not an easy task when he is apparently wanted by different intelligent agencies for much more than just being illegal, although no-one is quite sure what his crime is. Annabel calls in Tommy Brue, head of a private British bank, in which Issa has a personal interest. Can Annabel and Tommy keep Issa safe? Or is their protection actually putting him, and them, at risk?
Few people will not have heard of John le Carre, most famous for spy thrillers set during the Cold War Period, such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Although now nearly 80, he has continued writing and his books continue to be made into films depicting more modern political issues - The Constant Gardener perhaps being the best-known in recent years. A Most Wanted Man was published in 2008 and has threads of Middle Eastern terrorism woven into it.
I am a big fan of John le Carre's work - I prefer his earlier novels, but I also really appreciated The Constant Gardener and The Tailor of Panama. Unfortunately, this book just doesn't have the same flair as most of his others and I struggled with it at times. The attempt to portray an up-to-date political situation is commendable, but I was left feeling a little confused. At times, the book could easily be set in the sixties or seventies, but then a little modern history and some modern day technology is thrown in to remind the reader that we are in the twenty-first century. It didn't seem to mix together very well and it was a strain to read.
Leading on from that, there were a number of passages that made me switch off while reading. These were primarily passages that tried to explain the banking system and how it affected Issa. I am quite ignorant when it comes to such topics, which could partly be why I found it so dull; nevertheless, an author of John le Carre's skill ought to be able to make it more interesting. At times, it felt as though he was simply going through the motions to ensure that the book had a more modern feel, when actually, he didn't really understand it himself. This is perhaps far from being the truth, but that is certainly the impression I was left with.
Carrying on with the negative theme, I didn't take to any of the characters. These include Issa, Annabel, Tommy and a intelligence operative (read spy) called Gunther Bachmann. Issa is dull as ditchwater, spouting quotes from the Koran and telling Annabel that he will convert her to Islam and then marry her. He obviously had a horrendous background, having spent time in numerous prisons over the years, but he still didn't appeal. Part of this is probably deliberate, to keep the story mysterious, but it was done at the risk of losing the reader, which in my case, it did. Annabel is initially described as being abrupt, short and dumpy, but then somehow turns into a beautiful swan with whom Tommy begins to fall in love. Her reasons for being so protective over Issa at the risk of ruining her career are vague and not all that convincing. Again, I should have felt something for her, but I didn't.
Tommy Brue is another strange character. A man nearing retirement, he has messed up his first marriage, is now married to a woman who doesn't love him and he hates his career. Again, his reasons for becoming involved in the case are unconvincing - it is explained, but it seems to have as much to do with his feelings for Annabel as it does anything else. His apparent desire to follow his sexual feelings rather than his head is not attractive and is just annoying, although I think the point was to give him a soft side that the others don't appear to have. Gunther Bachmann is an enigma. He appears to have a number of different guises, which makes sense considering his career, but generally comes across as being a cocky character who does his job for his own satisfaction, rather than any desire to achieve world peace.
The book isn't all bad. I didn't have too much of a problem finishing it and apart from the boring banking parts, the language flows well. I was hoping for a better ending though. I had a number of questions that I wanted answering, and ultimately they weren't. It is fairly explosive, but I didn't entirely understand what the point was. I suspect that it is partly to make out that the intelligence services these days are blurred, they aren't all working for the same goal, and they don't always do the right thing. However, things were so confused that it wasn't often clear just who was on which side and after a while, I began to lose interest - it just seemed easier to stop asking questions.
I was left disappointed by this book. I hold the author in high estimation, but this book didn't satisfy me and although I finished it, I was glad when I reached the end. I think this is a book for big fans, who are prepared to take the rough with the smooth. I haven't given up hope for the author yet - as long as he keeps writing, I will maintain an interest in his work, but this book is not one that I will turn to again. Issa Karpov may be a most wanted man, but he isn't wanted by me. Not recommended.
The book is available from play.com for £4.99. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, it has 432 pages. ISBN: 9780340977088
"Hamburg is a guilty city. Consciously, unconsciously. Maybe Hamburg even pulled those hijackers. Did they pick us? Or did we pick them? What signals does Hamburg send out to your average Islamist anti-Zionist terrorist bent on fucking up the Western world? Centuries of anti-Semitism? Hamburg has them. Concentration camps just up the road? Hamburg had them. Too many Arabs love Germans for the wrong reasons. Maybe our hijackers did. We never asked them. And now we never shall."
John le Carre is the best-selling author most famous for his cold war spy novels 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' and 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'. This is his 2008 story about the War on Terror.
Big Melik is a Turkish heavyweight boxer living in Hamburg with his mother Leyla. Both of them are decent people living a quiet life and want most of all for their application for German citizenship to be finally accepted.
On the other side of town, Mr Tommy Brue is the owner of Brue Freres plc, a small bank now based in the city, and fast approaching his retirement with both dread and relief. Brue is the very picture of success and yet he feels empty and is deeply bored with his routine working life and the stilted marriage with his possibly adulterous wife.
Annabel Richter is a young lawyer. Turning her back on family wealth, she is now legal counsel at Sanctuary North, a Christian Foundation that works for the protection of stateless and displaced persons in the region of North Germany.
And Gunther Bachmann is a veteran spy, demoted from his high-status work in Beirut, Mogadishu and Aden and now working in domestic intelligence in Hamburg, of all places, instead of Berlin. Bachmann has a brilliant practical mind and years of experience in the field, yet he is new to the much murkier world of inter-agency politics.
What brings them all together is the arrival in Hamburg of young Issa Karpov, a malnourished Chechen with a Russian surname. Issa has been seriously tortured and still carries the physical and mental scars inside his oversized coat as he trudges the streets of Hamburg, searching for a banker named Tommy Brue...
I won't give any more away as this is one of those books that is impossible to confidently predict. Will everything work out or will it all go tits up? The author keeps you guessing as the plot elements unfold to reveal who did what to whom and whose side everyone is on.
Stylistically, this is a classic case of an aging author writing with such confidence that it comes across as somewhat lazy. Veteran authors have a tendency to use fewer words to tell the story and to be more impressionistic with description. And that's fine, they've put the work in, give em a break, I say. But still, at times in this book it's as if le Carre is turning to you with a wink and saying "look, its not real life and you know this is a novel, I know it's a novel, can we just move on now?". It doesn't ruin it but a little more effort would have been a huge improvement. Much of the plot is moved on through dialogue, which is a faster way to write but can be a little tedious to read. It moves along at a fairly brisk pace, changing character view points to keep things interesting, there's a whiff of love and a sprinkling of humour. Le Carre is an old pro for sure.
Subject-wise, this is marketed as a book about the War on Terror. I even said as much above. But it isn't really. It's only about a small part of it - though some would argue the most important part. What this novel does do is fully illustrate the effect that the anti-terrorism hysteria of 'the state' has upon individuals that find themselves targeted and abused purely on the basis of their faith or ethnic origins.
Le Carre worked in for MI6 in Hamburg in the early sixties and he clearly knows the city very well, despite the massive changes to it that time. However, and more importantly, he clearly doesn't know anything about how the German intelligence system actually works in the 21st Century. I'm not saying I do, I haven't got a clue, it's just that it's obvious from the glaring lack of detail that the guy's totally winging it. That fact doesn't detract overly much from the novel but it means it doesn't have the air of authenticity that le Carre's earlier spy novels do.
However, one thing that has a crystal-clear ping of authenticity is the unapologetic ruthlessness of people in the Intelligence business. What we learn about that subject from this novel is: most Intelligence people are utter bastards, and the American ones are the biggest bastards of them all. Nothing new there, then, sure, but creating believable, sympathetic characters and dropping them into that harsh world really tugs at the old heart strings. These Intelligence people really do not care one jot that they will inevitably abduct, torture and detain innocent men while trying to catch 'proper terrorists'. In fact, the strategy is actually to monitor and if possible round up anyone with views that are labelled by the state as 'extremist' - real life Thought Police in action. And that strategy is certainly self-defeating as increasing numbers get fed up with this persecution and sympathise more with those 'extremist' views. In this book, the only ruthless terrorists are those that work in Intelligence. It's surprising to me that this old establishment figure and cold war veteran holds that opinion but I respect him all the more for it.
It's a good book and well worth a read. It doesn't get a higher rating only because it's a little bit lacklustre here and there.