Single & Single

by John Le Carre,
352 pages,
ISBN: 0684859262

Post Your Opinion
Brief Reviews - Mystery
by Wayne Daniels

John le Carré's Single & Single (Viking, 337 pages, $36.99 cloth) begins with the murder, in very cold blood, of an English lawyer named Alfie Winser. We learn a great deal about this man very quickly-in all the time he has left, in fact. The murder is really an execution carried out, not because of what Winser has done, so much as because of what his firm, Single & Single, is accused of having done. The victim is terrified but, one feels, not altogether surprised. His executioners and quondam business associates are a rough bunch indeed-just how rough, their victim discovers only now. The end that looms, instead of concentrating the mind, causes his to flap desperately from one thought to another, from memory to sensation, to anything at all rather than to what is about to take place. His courage rises and ebbs, but in the end, it is all the same. He is spared nothing. Only the shot itself occurs, as it were, offstage.

This first chapter contains passages of bravura writing, and ought to serve as a warning of sorts. Le Carré has never been one to indulge the inattentive reader. He is known for elaborate twists and artful misdirection, and there is enough of both here to satisfy those who expect them in a work of genre fiction. However, it would be unfortunate if the reader were to approach the book as nothing more. There are times when Single & Single requires-and repays-a different sort of reading, and other times when the expectations such reading creates are inevitably frustrated by the conventions le Carré must observe.

This is most obvious in the characters that populate its pages. Oliver Single is the son and heir of "Tiger" Single, founder of a private bank that acts to launder the proceeds of illegal business into legal forms, creating dummy companies that control perfectly legitimate business operations and so forth. The relationship between father and son is crucial to understanding the development of the narrative, but the pressure created by the need to get a great deal of fairly complex business out of the way, as well as maintain the pace a book of this kind normally requires, makes it hard for the author to do justice to this relationship. The character of Oliver seems to move in and out of focus, shifting from an awkward and enigmatic figure at the outset, to an affectless phantom, little more than a pair of eyes serving as witness to events. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, we begin to get a better idea of Oliver, but by then it is almost too late. His father, by design, never does become intelligible, and some may find the author's manner of resolving this to be disappointingly pat. Other characters likewise display this disconcerting tendency to flicker in and out of existence: some are truncated, having been given a promising start only to be neglected afterwards.

All of this might seem obtuse as criticism, a sort of category mistake in which one sort of book has been confused with another. But that's hard to avoid when the novel itself displays the same ambivalence. Viewed strictly as a tale of intrigue, dirty dealings, betrayal, and vengeance, Single & Single offers the usual rewards. A plot summary would embrace a large cast of international criminals, bent policemen and their quietly determined pursuers, and assorted agents, thugs, toffs, and bystanders. There is also elaborate, fairly absorbing description of how a great deal of shady business gets done. But just beyond the threshold of a good page-turner there is another, more substantial novel trying to emerge. At times it does, with tantalizing results.

It is customary to remark, rather fatuously, on how the end of the Cold War has deprived le Carré of his theme. This is nonsense, of course, since his theme is no less than betrayal: of individuals, of ideals. The Soviet era provided him with the setting for this, but the subject itself is hardly so confined. However, the need to keep a balance between two quite different sorts of writing seems to have given the author more trouble on this occasion than previously. The flashes of literary brilliance that, here and there, light up the novel only make one wish the balance might be permanently tipped so as to provide le Carré with greater room to create outside the limitations of best-sellerdom. Whether his fans-or his agent-would agree is, of course, another matter. 

Wayne Daniels


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us