Don’t let the title fool you – Single & Single is in fact not the new name for Jon & Kate Plus 8. It’s actually a 1999 novel by John le Carré, who made a name for himself in 1963 with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I picked it up a few years ago solely because le Carré is the author, which should tell you how much I liked The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I don’t know if I was aware that Single & Single isn’t a spy novel when I bought it, but it doesn’t really matter because it might as well be.
All the familiar elements are here, but in the post-Cold War world we have to make do with cutthroat Russian mobsters rather than crafty KGB agents, and put-upon British bureaucrats who lack the zip of the agents of yesteryear. Fighting crime just isn’t as interesting as fighting Commies, let’s face it. Still, le Carré gives it the old college try and manages to wring some excitement out of the situation.
Things start off quite promisingly as the novel shows us the last panicked moments of a British corporate lawyer held captive in Turkey, moments away from his own execution. It’s a grim and evocative scene and serves as a stark reminder that while the Cold War is gone as a backdrop, the stakes in a le Carré novel are just as high. It’s certainly not the last time death makes its mark in the book, although it’s never again as disturbing and personal.
The protagonist for our adventure is Oliver. When we first meet Oliver he is living in an English boarding house under an assumed surname. He spends his days performing magic tricks and making balloon animals for local shows and charities, but a mysterious and troubled past haunts him at every corner. When £5 million ends up in Oliver’s bank account for no good reason, he is forced out of hiding and we learn the reasons for his vanishing act over the course of several chapters.
It turns out our humble Oliver is Oliver Single, son of the illustrious Tiger Single, himself founder of the House of Single & Single and a pretty big wheel in the world of international finance. Single & Single, based in London, specializes in assisting their rich clients finance all sorts of really expensive legal and illegal business ventures. This type of work requires one to accept a lot of legal gray areas, and Tiger is the sort of man whose moral code is written in pencil.
In due course we get to meet Single & Single’s most important clients, a group of shady Russian mobsters (is there any other kind?) led by the Orlov brothers – Yevgeny and Mikhail. le Carré pulls off a neat stunt with the Orlovs – he turns a pair of major league criminals into characters I could actually sympathize with. By giving us glimpses of their vulnerable and sentimental side, le Carré ends up making them more three-dimensional than most of the characters in Single & Single (including Oliver, unfortunately).
That brings me to one of Single & Single‘s major failings – I never really cared very much about most of the characters, as they were generally too flat. Oliver’s story on the surface had all the elements of high drama – he’s a principled lawyer working for a crooked firm, his relationship with his father is strained at best, his marriage recently ended, and on top of all that he makes a conscious decision to follow his conscience and betray his father and his firm. Yet despite all this, Oliver struck me as a rather dour, wishy-washy sort who only developed a real backbone at the very end of the book.
Similarly there’s Nat Brock, a dutiful British customs agent who ends up becoming Oliver’s handler when Oliver turns himself (and his father by proxy) in at Heathrow airport. Brock is no doubt passionate about his work, but that passion never really translates on the page. He’s committed to rooting out corruption on the home front, but why?
My other beef with Single & Single was that the use of flashbacks, while by no means out of the ordinary in any work of fiction, left me feeling disjointed. There were several moments of truth, as it were, that had their impact undercut by the narrative style. One of the biggest is Oliver’s aforementioned decision to betray his father. It just didn’t have the impact I thought it should because of the way the story jerked back and forth between past and present.
All that said, there were enough interesting and fun parts in Single & Single to prevent it from being a total loss. The insular criminal empire of the Orlovs is rich with intrigue, and the exotic locales of Turkey and Georgia (no, not the U.S. state) add a real sheen to the proceedings. And the last handful of chapters, while being pretty standard action fare, were leaner and more enjoyable than the flabby middle section.
As I said before, this really is just a spy novel without the CIA or MI6 being involved, and it is a fairly engaging and well-crafted book. But while le Carré is obviously a skilled author, the lack of a unifying vision or purpose that the world of espionage can provide for stories like his is Single & Single‘s Achilles heel.