Friday, 20 July 2001

John Le Carré: The Little Drummer Girl (1983)

Edition: Pan, 1984
Review number: 879

This novel is a departure from the spy stories which were the norm for le Carré, and a more successful one than The Naive and Sentimental Lover, because more along the lines of his usual writing. It is about a spy infiltrating an organisation, but not the KGB or the British secret service - this is a Palestinian terrorist cell intent on attacking Jewish targets in Europe. The infiltrator is a British actress, Charmian (known as Charlie), who has been picked for this extremely dangerous task by Israeli intelligence (this is the most unlikely aspect of the novel). They are portrayed just like the Palestinians, unpleasant in some ways, idealistic and admirable in others. This evenhandedness, a refusal to demonise either side, is the major strength of the novel.

Charlie is very well drawn, a believable would-be radical, ready to espouse any cause that she thinks the authorities would disapprove of. The main agents and terrorists are also convincing. The backgrounds, which include hippie communes on Mykonos, refugee camps in the Lebanon, English provincial theatres and German towns, are quite sketchy; the effort has gone into characterisation instead.

The Little Drummer Girl is, I think, the best of all le Carré's novels in which George Smiley is not a character, and is a thought provoking thriller.

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