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Book review: <i>The Russia House</i> by John Le Carré

If you want a good spy novel, you really can't beat the master of spy; John Le Carré. He's been around for some time, writing prolifically on the topic of the British secret service, and he was apparently in the British secret service himself in his youth. So not only is he in the know, but he's also a great writer with a cynicism for organisations and governments, and a staunch belief in human nature. The Russia House is no exception in his achievements.

The story

Nicky Landau, an English publisher from Poland with a love for the ladies, heads to Russia for an audio book fair. On his last day, he is approached by the lovely Katya. Mr Barley Blair, a publisher from Abercrombie and Blair, hasn't shown up to his stall and Katya has something important for him. Nicky, unable to resist a pretty face, takes the package and smuggles it back to England in the hope of finding Barley. Unable to track him down, Nicky ends up taking the package to the secret service, under the impression that Barley is a spy. Once the package has reached the right hands, all hell breaks loose with a secret that could change the world. People might say the cold war is over, but the arms race is still in force. But is Russia's firepower what it seems? Who has sent this information? What do they want? And why do they want Barley to have it, who, far from being secret service, is a drunken publisher with an abysmal financial record? The secret service must run Barley to Russia, and try to crack open the information. And, to add insult to injury, the information is so delicate that the Americans are all over it, and the investigation spirals out of everyone's control.

The style

The Russia House is narrated very well; by Harry dePalfrey, one of the secret service's legal team who oversaw the operation. Harry doesn't play politics, and usually the story is narrated as though it is being told in the third person limited. But occasionally the voice of Harry comes through, as he describes how he was there, what he thought, or comparisons about other secret service lives to his life. Harry has a witty way with descriptions; each character unfolds under Harry's observation. We learn very little about Harry himself, except that he is in love with a lady who he has failed and that people often confide in him... which is how the reader learns much of the information in the book. This is a good technique because the narrator isn't imposing, but helps keep the story feeling very connected and keeps an element of humanity about it that spy novels often forgo in the excitement of the plot.

There are some genuinely funny descriptive passages done in that dry wit only the British can manage. Le Carré is an excellent writer with the ability to create herose brimming with humanity, and while his characters are often flawed as people Le Carré understands that sometimes, people do make amazing sacrifices and that you don't always have to be cynical to be realistic. He also understands the arts of pacing and suspense, which are so important in this kind of book. Furthermore, Le Carré manages to wade through some pretty big philosophical ideas without preaching or spoon-feeding. The Russia House is thought provoking and, while the whole Russia/America thing has given way to newer and more exciting dramas on the world stage, there are still a lot of relevant political and philosophical ideas in the book. Le Carré has even managed to stick a heroine in the book; which is nice considering spying is most often a boy's game. I won't say Katya is overly well developed or many dimensioned, and from the point of view of sexual politics if you're looking to read something that strikes a blow for women's lib, this isn't your book. It also has a lot of secretaries and girlfriends swanning throughout the pages. But it's not completely bereft.

Who is this book for?

Fans of the spy genre who are looking for a little class. It's not difficult to read, but it does leave you feeling like you've just read something worth-while and you've had a little (not painful) think about things. It really is good quality stuff, and Le Carré is considered one of the leaders of this genre. So if you want spy, he really is your man.

If you like this book, you would also like...

If you haven't read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, one of Le Carre's oldest and most famous books, or Absolute Friends, one of his newer and acclaimed books, then you really should.

In short

Title: The Russia House
Author: John Le Carré
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN: 0743464664
Year published: 1989
Pages: 340
Genre(s): Spy fiction/Political thriller
Review Type: