John LeCarre,
Absolute Friends
(Time Warner, 2004)

"It's not my fault that I'm six different people," says Ted Mundy, but it is telling that he doesn't say it aloud. Somewhere in the middle of Absolute Friends, John LeCarre's hero is feeling defensive about his position, though spying suits him and he is an expert at his craft. It's the juggling of the characters he assumes and the knowledge that the British Crown expects its men to be both honest and shifty, as the occasion demands, that makes him feel beleagured at times.

John LeCarre likes Mundy. That much is evident. We readers like this hero, so whatever happens to him in the course of this story will matter to us. That is why we wonder about Sasha, Ted's old friend from the Cold War days, when he shows up at the castle acting as if the old dangerous days are back again. When they talk, Sasha is secretive and Ted knows something is afoot. His work guiding tourists through Mad Ludwig's castle is necessary to him and his new dependants so he must be prudent.

Flashbacks flesh out the Mundy-Sasha connection. It is 30 years since they first met and they have been in touch only sporadically since. Europe has re-configured itself and alliances have shifted. There is a new menace catching fire in the world of international relations. The war in Iraq is the catalyst.

Sasha draws Mundy to a bizarre acquaintance. The two are offered large sums of money to join in an enterprise that sets alarm bells ringing in Mundy's mind. Who is really in charge of this operation with its access to the latest technology and weaponry? It is not an eccentric's desire to open a cultural library but something chilling that runs on money from around the world. Who are these people?

When it comes to spy stories, LeCarre is incomparable. This one is tightly plotted, with tension that mounts and explodes as Mundy and Sasha realize, too late, that this is the terrorism that was closer than it looked in the rearview mirror.

If readers enjoy audiobooks, they will find that LeCarre reads beautifully. There are bits and pieces of music between sections of the book that are much like the music between segments on National Public Radio. I found it momentarily as relaxing as a cup of Earl Grey tea, and an unexpected pleasure.

- Rambles
written by Jean Marchand
published 18 September 2004

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