Here is le Carré writ small yet still tense in a quiet thriller set amid the less glamorous work of back-office surveillance for the British government.
It’s two weeks before Christmas 1981 in London, and Stephen Donaldson—28, single, and Oxford-educated— is headed for a crisis. He works for the government’s Institute, which bugs people of questionable politics—Reds, revolutionaries, Irish Republican Army operatives. He listens to the recordings and makes note of anything significant. Nothing much is: his “caseload seldom offers the possibility of drama.” That changes when his superior tells him a top-secret case code-named Phoenix may involve disloyalty by an Institute insider, but the case also may be closed if nothing of substance emerges soon. This threat furnishes another sort of drama, for Stephen has become infatuated with Helen, part of the Phoenix equation, merely by listening to her on a daily basis. In his desperation to maintain the connection with her, he begins fudging reports and breaking Institute rules. Will he be caught? Will he bag Phoenix? And who is the friendly, foreign-accented Alberic, met in a pub proscribed by the Institute? Kay (The Translation of the Bones, 2012, etc.) uses fine observation to create the mind of a desperate, faceless bureaucrat in a tedious job. Stephen's past life emerges through his own and his mother’s memories. Perhaps his love for Helen is rooted somehow in the lost twin sister who died shortly after birth or in being raised by a woman alone after his father abandoned them in Stephen’s childhood. His fantasy of love exists at Mitty-esque extremes ranging from chivalry to the heartthrob treacle James Joyce mocked in the character of Gerty MacDowell. Yet Helen brings meaning to a life-eroding job, and like the femme fatale Stephen will never encounter, she represents a danger he cannot help flirting with.
Kay is consistently entertaining in this subtle, sad psychological thriller.