Our Kind of Traitor

Thursday, 4 November 2010

I've long been inclined to ascribe cultural differences between the British and American ways of doing things to the fact that, for a very long time, British broadcasting was firmly lodged in the iron grip of the BBC. 

Maybe it wasn't that long, and the grip mightn't have quite been iron, but I suspect that cultural landscape did a lot to shape the way British writers went about their business.

It explains why, for instance, John Cleese and Connie Booth only came up with eleven episodes of Fawlty Towers spread over two series. In American TV-land that wouldn't have been enough episodes for one series. Never mind the fact that we've only got this many ideas that actually work, repeat some, chuck in the odd one that doesn't quite work as long as you can get it up to the requisite number of shows to fill in a full season within the ratings cycle.

Possibly, had John Le Carre been American, or had he been used to working in that context, he'd still be churning out tales of Cold War intrigue involving George Smiley, Karla and the rest of a cast of characters that worked well. The end of the actual Cold War would have made things a little difficult, but I suppose there'd have been enough possibilities to explore as you filled in the gaps in the Smiley/Carla back story, and once Carla had defected to the West his successor would've been out for revenge. Yeah, you could get a series out of that.

Le Carre, from about the time of The Little Drummer Girl, however, set off on a different tack, which does a lot to explain mixed reactions to his latest story.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with writing a series using the same characters. James Lee Burke, Andrea Camilleri, Colin Cotterill, Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson do that wonderfully well, and it means the author, given that set of characters and an existing back story, can set about working the nuances of the latest plot idea.

Le Carre, on the other hand, embarking on a new variation on an old theme with a different cast of characters has to set all that up and develop the story line at the same time.

That means his stories tend to unfold gradually as the plot develops, and that approach may be a tad slow for some readers. The Le Carre approach seems to involve taking a more or less innocent protagonist and plonk them down in a suitable setting where there's a bit more than meets the eye and see what happens.

In Our Kind of Traitor the innocents abroad are Oxford don Perry (that's Peregrine) Makepiece and his corporate lawyer girlfriend Gail Perkins, off for a tennis holiday in Antigua. 

Coming from a mildly-left wing point of view, on the surface you wouldn't be expecting these two to become entangled in the murky world of intelligence and counter-intelligence. They're the sort of people who'd be openly, if not necessarily vehemently, critical of government policy and that's possibly how they'd have stayed if they hadn't encountered this mysterious Russian.

Perry, until recently a tutor in English Literature at Oxford is probably a ripe apple just about ready to fall. He's sufficiently turned off by the academic life to want to throw it in and teach in a secondary school where the students don't come from a privileged background. He's looking for something.


© Ian Hughes 2012