Even with the demise of the Cold War, villainy and subterfuge can hardly be expected to vanish from the earth. And while they endure, an author with John le Carre’s gift for irony and instinct for the secrets of the human heart will never lack for stories to tell. In Our Game (Knopf, $24), the collapse of the Soviet Union has meant premature retirement for British secret service operatives Timothy Cranmer and Dr. Lawrence Pettifer. Cranmer has ended up on an inherited estate in rural Somerset; Pettifer in a dreadful academic post in Bath. Friends and rivals since their school days, the two are temperamental opposites. Cranmer is a born bureaucrat; Pettifer a moral adventurer who has spent his adult life successfully impersonating the sort of person who’d spy on his country for the Russians: ” a dabbler, a dreamer, a habitual rejecter; a ruthless, shiftless, philandering, wasted, semicreative failure.” Needless to say, women love him. So when Pettifer suddenly vanishes into thin air, he takes Cranmer’s lover, Emma, an idealistic musician in her 20s, with him-along with some 37 million seemingly embezzled from the Russian government in collusion with an old KGB contact, apparently for the purpose of launching one last crusade: to buy and transport a huge cache of armaments to ethnic Ingush rebels deep in the Caucasus region between Chechenya and North Ossetia. This leaves Cranmer not only heartsick and angry, but also in great danger. The police have no idea of his identity as an intelligence agent and think he’s in league with the thieves; his former colleagues in espionage don’t believe his version and make it clear that he’ll be sacrificed to preserve secrecy; and an alarming number of corpses have begun to accumulate along his friends’ trail.
Equally important, he’s frantic to rescue Emma-”my self-imposed security risk”-from the consequences of her youthful folly. After all, with the Communist threat no longer a factor, why should anybody in the West care what happens in the Caucasian outback? ”Another insoluble human tragedy,” Cranmer tells himself. ”The world is full of them.” Long the most literary espionage writer around, Le Carre has been known to allow his fondness for complex characterization, digression, and moral ambiguity to overwhelm his narratives to the point where reading novels like The Night Manager or The Naive and Sentimental Lover is rather like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Not so in Our Game, whose straightforward first-person narration takes the reader into the heart of a tale as emotionally resonant as it is compelling. A