By L.S. Klepp
November 15, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

With the Cold War folded up and put away, John le Carré has sent his 16th novel, The Tailor of Panama, to follow in the black-comic footsteps of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (as he notes in the acknowledgments). Greene’s humble vacuum-cleaner merchant, Jim Wormold, was made into a reluctant agent by British intelligence. Likewise, le Carré’s humble tailor, Harry Pendel, of Pendel & Braithwaite Co., ”Tailors to Royalty, formerly of Savile Row,” now of Panama City. Wormold makes an ass of his superiors by feeding them fabricated, vacuum-cleaner-inspired blueprints and plots, causing all hell to break loose in sultry Havana. In le Carre’s version, all hell doesn’t need any more encouragement to break loose in sultry Panama, where the Americans are uneasily preparing to turn over the canal to the natives. Le Carré supplies some familiar Latin American comedy of corruption, assorted Panamanian customs and costumes, and tailoring as a loose-fitting metaphor for life. The satire finally gives way to sermonizing, and Graham Greene retains his title as literary champion of slippery ambiguity and furtive redemption, but Le Carré has, as usual, written a deftly subversive and delectably sour fictional confection. B+