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The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré

27 December 2007

Picking through the other John le Carré books I’ve read before, I came across this one — one I didn’t care as much for as some of the others I’ve read. I’ve one more John le Carré book in the queue, and that’ll go up over the weekend.

The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré

The title character of The Tailor of Panama is the clever and industrious Harry Pendel, the expatriate British proprietor of Pendel and Braithwaite Ltd (formerly of Savile Row, now of Panama). Pendel counts any number of rich and influential members of Central American society amongst his honoured clients, and his wife works in close contact with a number of the extremely influential individuals who are working to engineer the transition of the Canal from American to Panamanian hands in a few years’ time. But (because this is a le Carré novel) Pendel has any number of secrets he is willing to go to great lengths to conceal from his wife and his family — and the arrival of Andrew Osnard, a man with some unspecified connection to the British Embassy in Panama, threatens to ruin the comfortable life that Pendel has built as tailor to the well connected. So when Osnard asks Pendel to report the idle chatter and gossip he hears from his clientele, Pendel responds with an enthusiasm that is not merely borne of desperation. Indeed, as he begins to embrace his secret life as a collector of information, he becomes increasingly enthusiastic about his work, because sometimes it is easier to start a rumour than merely to report one.

I have never seen the film that was made of this book, but I was interested to see how John le Carré would craft a novel that wasn’t about ‘them wicked Russians’. And I have to say that I think I prefer the wicked Russians, when all is said and done. The substitute for the Soviet Union is a mish-mash of Highly Influential Shadowy Persons, arms dealers and media people and the like, who don’t seem to do much of anything except sit around, drink expensive wine, and conspire for the sake of conspiracy on a level that crosses the border of implausible about two-thirds of the way through the book. Everyone seems to be out to cheat or swindle or sleep with the spouse/girlfriend of everyone else, and the majority of women in the book seem to be nigh incapable of thinking about anything that isn’t in some way related to sex. (That last point is something of a trend that I’ve noticed in most of the le Carré books I’ve read.) Truthfully, that sort of intrigue just isn’t to my taste. The Tailor of Panama was published in 1996, so le Carré also paints a depressing portrait of a Conservative Government on its last legs and a British intelligence service that is so drunk on delusions of post-Cold War grandeur that it swallows Pendel’s fantastic tales whole and begs for more. If nothing else, the book shows that John le Carré is capable of writing espionage thrillers that exist outside the Cold War milieu…and yet making that transition requires an equivalent shift in mentality that isn’t always easy to achieve 100 percent of the time.

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