The Night Manager: John Le Carre (1993)
Having recently watched Hugh Laurie playing a brilliantly villainous role in the BBC series based on this, I borrowed The Night Manager out of curiosity to see what had been changed and what had been kept the same. I’ve enjoyed a lot of John le Carre’s books before now but only one or two that were post Cold War so I approached this with a mix of potential familiarity and expectations of the unknown (dramatic, eh?).
The story is that of an hotelier who falls into a conspiracy involving British Intelligence and a crooked arms dealer who has high-ranking contacts within the service. A single attempt at a good deed gets an innocent bystander killed and draws in Jonathan Pine, who is now motivated by revenge as much as justice. He takes on the job of infiltrating the dealer’s entourage, supported by fanatical enforcement agent Leonard Burr – a man determined to sweep clean the corruption festering inside Britain’s Pure Intelligence service.
OK, as a massive fan of George Smiley and Alec Leamas it truly pains me to say this; but I hated this book. It was just such a chore to get through for a complete anticlimax at the end. Now I’m going to state from the start that I watched the TV series first (which is very different and has a wonderful constant tension about it) and so this may be colouring my views, but then I watched Gary Oldman’s Dracula before reading Stoker’s novel and it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it at all (nor did Eragon for that matter). The book takes a seriously long time to get going and even when it does, so much time is devoted to Pine’s inner monologues about his inner turmoil that it seems to drag even during what should have been the exciting parts.
As this is mostly about a deep cover agent the obvious comparisons to make are with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, where Alec Leamas is in a similar position, or with George Smiley’s recollections of his long-term operations in Germany. But where Spy keeps you on edge and guessing throughout, Night Manager just makes you impatient for some real plot. The attempts to make Pine a ‘deeper’ character are just plain dull, and at no point in this book did I identify with him or feel an ounce of sympathy for him. He gets into all this in a misguided attempt at revenge or redemption (good start), but then just bangs on about Jed for a good two-thirds of his storyline with the occasional mention of Ireland just to remind us that he’s a ‘haunted tough guy’. To me, he just came across as whiney and repetitive and I soon lost interest in whether he got what he wanted or not.
Now let’s compare that to the reluctant heroes that are Alec Leamas and George Smiley: These are actual broken men, dulled by a lifetime of danger and intrigue yet still working at it, ostensibly because it’s all they know but with a hidden morality beneath their cynicism. You can sympathise with them and admire them as well, Alec for his dogged stubbornness and dedication to his double role, and George for that wonderful description ‘the conscience of a virgin and the cunning of Satan’. To me, none of this depth was evident in Pine, and his constant stream of thoughts just left me frustrated and bored.
Burr had a lot of promise as a character but I found he sort of tailed off into nothingness after a while and neither Rooke nor Strelski came across as interesting. I did enjoy Rex Goodhew’s character very much, but he is more than cancelled out by the more boring characters, including bland and colourless secondary villain; Geoffrey Darker (side note – come on John, a villain named ‘Darker’?? Even if you’re being tongue-in-cheek it’s still ridiculous!). Jed especially I found a complete waste of time, despite the seriously lengthy descriptions of how enigmatic/perfect/frustrating/vulnerable she is by our hero. If she’d been a bit more like Sophie I might not have minded, since Sophie was at least an appealing character and supplied one of the few moments in this book that provoked any emotional reaction from me.
Now on the subject of characters I have to say that for all the book’s faults, Roper and Corcoran did at least make decent villains. Roper manages to be a suitably amoral and intimidating nemesis without falling prey to any stereotypes and his unique way of speaking makes him stand out even more. Similarly, Major Corcoran is very unlike most classic ‘right-hand men’ and can be a figure of both amusement and of pity at times.
Once again I will state my great fondness for JLC’s Cold War books (and of his later work I really enjoyed Our Kind of Traitor), but this book brought back unwelcome memories of The Constant Gardener, just without any of the good bits. Much as Gardener liked to beat the reader over the head with the message; ‘Don’t Trust Pharmaceutical Corporations!!’, so this one likes to hammer home; ‘Don’t Trust The Establishment – They’re In On The Arms Trade!!’. I understood this message fairly early on and the constant frustrating of the investigations by the higher powers failed completely to make me sympathise with Burr and his efforts. The threat in that side of the story was so faceless as to become uninteresting, and it made me think more of the general frustration of admin rather than any great complex conspiracy. Don’t get me wrong; JLC does a very thorough job in taking us through how hard it is to work for justice in the political and intelligence communities, but he just doesn’t make it interesting.
Even the writing style of this book annoyed me, not only switching from past to present tense at seemingly random intervals, but also for some truly interminable sentences:
‘The Iron Pasha, one thousand five hundred tons, two hundred and fifty feet long, steel-built by Feadship of Holland in 1987 to the specifications of her present owner, interior by Lavinci of Rome, powered by two two-thousand-horsepower MWM diesel engines and equipped with Vosper stabilisers, Inmarisat satellite-telecommunications-systems radar including an anti-collision set and Radar Watch – not to mention fax, telex, a dozen cases of Dom Perignon – sailed out of Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour, Antigua, in the Antilles on the morning tide bound for her winter cruise of the Windward and Grenadine Islands, and ultimately, by way of the islands of Blanquilla, Orchila and Bonaire, for Cuacao.’
That’s one sentence – and not even an interesting one! What the hell?
I won’t give any spoilers here but I will say that just as I was nearing the end (the last twenty pages or so) the book almost looked as if it might pick up some pace and turn into a thrilling read, but then it ends with arguable the most pointless anticlimax of an ending I’ve ever read, and it made me do something which I rarely do; I wished that I had never bothered picking the thing up. I tend to read during my lunch hour and I couldn’t help but think that I could have spent that time reading something new and exciting, or even re-reading Tinker Taylor if I was in a JLC mood. It would have been a much more enjoyable use of my time that ploughing through this mire that gave me the feeling that the author just gave up about two thirds through.
Overall, as you may have guessed, this book just didn’t do it for me. I’m afraid I can’t in good conscience recommend it to anybody and will simply tell you to watch the TV series – it managed to take what was at best a good idea poorly executed and turn it into something truly engaging. I’m sorry Mr Le Carre – I really love some of your work but this one was a definite swing and a miss.