The Night Manager – John Le Carre
I don’t normally allow the TV schedules to influence my reading list but the recent excellent adaptation of Le Carre’s 1993 novel by Beeb encouraged me to rediscover the book I first read some twenty years ago. My memory, alas not so reliable these days, suggested to me that the Beeb’s version veered widely from the original, particularly towards the end. Having read this 600 odd page thriller for a second time I was pleased to see that my memory had not played tricks on me.
The book’s denouement – I will not spoil it – is rather rushed, somewhat unsatisfactory and smacks of a fairy tale ending, where, to a degree, all ends happily ever after. But it is an ending which is imbued with compromise and betrayal, an underlying theme of the book. There is also a Manichean feel about the book. The Night Manager aka Jonathan Pine and his operator, Leonard Burr – yes a man, not a heavily pregnant Olivia Colman – are battling against the worst man in the world, the rather ludicrous tag with which Richard Onslow Roper is saddled with, and the corrupt forces in the shady quarters of officialdom in the River House, represented by the deliciously named Darker.
It may be black fighting against white but as with many things in life we end up with shades of grey. Roper, well characterised, has some redeeming features. He has that public school Oxford educated insouciance which many find engaging, even charming, which allows him to open doors that for many others would be firmly shut. He has a nice scam going on trading arms for drugs and Operation Limpet is designed to shut him down. The pace of the book and, frankly, the interest picks up when he appears.
His moll, Jed, a Shropshire Catholic, is described wonderfully in a characteristic Le Carre one-liner, “[her] jewelled brilliance and a kind of dressed nakedness”. Although she is central to Pine’s attempts to undermine Roper’s operations – she is the living embodiment of Sophie whom Pine feels he betrayed to her death – she is portrayed as somewhat peripheral, a piece of arm-candy, someone who is too sexualised and disposable for modern tastes.
Pine is a more complex figure but one of the questions I have nagging in my mind is would someone with whom Roper was acquainted – he stayed at the luxurious Zurich hotel where Pine was night manager – be the right person to infiltrate the Roper network? Surely someone completely unknown would be better. Pine is an all-round good egg, resolute under fire, driven by his sense of betrayal and his concern for good to triumph but Le Carre’s portrayal of him doesn’t convince.
The real tension of the book comes in the battle of wills between Roper and the intelligence forces and the internal battle between the various factions of the London and Whitehall. Le Carre is in his element here and displays a deep understanding of the way the men in suits think, operate and talk. Nothing is ever quite what it seems. The result is an efficient, engaging thriller that carries the reader along, imbuing Pine with enough sympathy to hope that he gets through his mission in some shape.
It certainly stood the test of a second reading.