In the absence of the Evil Empire, global capitalism takes it on the chin once more in this hypertrophied whodunit, the most intimate of le Carré’s thrillers since the salad days of George Smiley.
Tessa Quayle, an aid worker married to a much older career diplomat currently stationed in Nairobi, has always managed her ambiguous relationship to Sorbonne-trained African Dr. Arnold Bluhm with admirable discretion. But now the lid is blown off their companionship by the news that Tessa’s been found raped and murdered during an expedition she and Bluhm made from a North Kenyan lodge. Among the hothouse world of the British legation, which le Carré limns with merciless precision, the whispers start overnight, soon confirmed by the police announcement that the evidence against the missing Dr. Bluhm is conclusive. After hovering over Sandy Woodrow, who jeopardized his career as Head of Chancery in Nairobi when he sent Tessa a note asking her to elope with him, le Carré follows Tessa’s widower, inoffensive amateur gardener Justin Quayle, whose grilling by a pair of Scotland Yard officers fans into flame his suspicion that the confinement in Uhuru Hospital that ended his muckraking wife’s pregnancy in stillbirth revealed to her a secret dangerous enough to kill for. Beneath the ceremonious blather of the diplomatic corps, the police, the Home Office, and pharmaceutical giant Karel Vita Hudson, Justin finds a conspiracy as broad and greedy as the scandals of Single & Single (1999), and as ruthless in protecting its turf. He follows the trail from Italy to Germany to Canada to a showdown in the Sudan with a pitiable villain who, like everyone else in this elegantly overextended novel, just can’t stop talking.
Under all the sumptuous detail, sensitive psychology, and incisive condemnation of industrial cartels, this is still at its core the old, familiar story of a decent man driven to avenge the wife he never really knew.