THE TAILOR OF PANAMA
John le Carré
The fate of nations hinges on an inoffensive bespoke tailor in this archly ironic parable out of Graham Greene. Except for being hopelessly in debt over a rice farm he's unwisely purchased, there's nothing untoward about Harry Pendel, the sole survivor of Pendel & Braithwaite, late of Saville Row. Nothing, that is, except that every detail of Harry's history has been fabricated as lovingly as one of his alpaca suits. Harry's checkered past--a secret even from his proper wife Louisa, daughter of an esteemed American engineer and personal assistant to incorruptible Canal planning advisor Ernesto Delgado--makes him the natural prey of Andrew Osnard, the new man at the British Embassy. Osnard's brief from conspiracy-maven Scottie Luxmore, who's convinced that the American giveaway of the Canal in 1999 will bring world shipping to its knees, is to conscript as intelligence sources on the coming power vacuum some savvy banker, tycoon, or journalist, but he settles for Harry instead. Whatever might have made this seem like a reasonable choice--Louisa's connections, Harry's ear to the floor of the Presidential fitting room--evaporate in a roar of corrosive laughter (not Osnard's or Harry's), as Harry, eager to please and to earn his way out of debt, begins to tailor his intelligence to order. Does Whitehall fear a Japanese plot to cut a rival canal? Harry's only too happy to provide confirmatory rumors. Do Osnard's masters require evidence from other agents? Under appropriate code names, Harry will enlist Louisa, his shop assistant Marta, and a growing army of nonexistent informants. Naturally, this house of cards can't stay aloft forever--even Luxmore realizes that Osnard's dispatches are tosh--but it's a mordant pleasure to watch the structure collapse, along with the fate of nations, in exquisitely choreographed slow motion. Le Carre goes back to the spy story's roots--Our Man in Havana, with a touch of Conrad's Secret Agent--to amuse frazzled millennialists with the refreshing news that we've all been here many times before.