| In the nerve-wracking first chapter of “Single & Single,” his 17th book, John le Carri describes the mounting panic and horror — “a mess of sweat and piss and mud” — of a lawyer for a British investment house who realizes he is about to be killed by Georgian gangsters on a lonely Turkish hillside. Cut to a seaside town in Devon, England, where Oliver Single, the son of the investment house’s proprietor, is trying to create a new life for himself away from the corruption his father has fallen into. When news of the lawyer’s murder gets out and representatives of HM Customs want to know how 5 million pounds have suddenly shown up in Oliver’s daughter’s trust fund, all hell begins to break loose in a way that will make le Carri’s fans rub their hands together in anticipation of another jolly good — if complicated, ambiguous and meaningful — read.
As it turns out, “Single & Single” is neither especially jolly nor particularly meaningful. Perhaps that’s because, except for the occasional shimmering passage, there is nothing terribly surprising about the key components of the plot: corrupt British financiers and nasty gangsters from the former Soviet Union who will trade in blood or drugs or anything else available in the new world order’s glorious free-market economy. Le Carri relates the means by which these two forces come together with a peculiar flatness and at tedious length. We learn little about either Single, except that the father is short and greedy and the son is tall, attractive to women and, eventually, troubled by his conscience.
The ex-Soviets, meanwhile, spend a lot of time eating great hunks of meat cooked over an open fire while tiresomely proclaiming eternal devotion to their ethnicity — “Now you are true Mingrelian!” one of them bellows to Oliver after he has drained a hornful of homemade wine from some part of Georgia. The chief villain, Alix Hoban, wears a “ghostly sneer of the hairline lips” as he whispers into his cell phone, which he does incessantly, even when he’s killing people. If he were a dwarf or a hunchback, the picture would be complete.
A sense of familiarity pervades the book. Oliver’s friendship with the son of his landlady echoes the much more touchingly drawn one of the battered agent Jim Prideaux and the schoolboy Roach (“Jumbo”) in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” The archness le Carri used to such great effect in the mouth of the oafish Percy Alleline (in “Tinker, Tailor”) is overused here — anachronistically, as if he were imitating Evelyn Waugh. It looks, in fact, as though le Carri’s chief goal here was to sell “Single & Single” to the movies: There are certainly enough set pieces to make any decent director’s job pretty straightforward.
But even Conrad and Greene (to whom le Carri has been compared) had their off days. For all its shortcomings, the book has moments that show what le Carri is still capable of when it comes to exploring the human factor. Near the end, he writes of Oliver’s desire “to magic his father out of here and say sorry to him if he felt it, though he wasn’t sure he did … to set him on his feet, but say, ‘There you are, you’re on your own, we’re quits.’” Le Carri may have fallen and bruised himself on this outing. That’s no reason, however, to call it quits.