The Reading Room

The Russia House

Review of The Russia House by John Le Carré….

John Le Carré’s The Russia House (1989) was my first book of choice for my recent holiday. There is something about reading JLC on a long-haul flight and holiday which is hard to describe. I usually save him for vacations as a guilty reread treat and this, his last but one book written during the Cold War epitomizes the author’s ‘slow burn’ approach to his stories.

I haven’t read this in years, I vaguely recall Sean Connery as the duffle-coated Barley Blair in the 1990 film of the same name but much of the story was forgotten to me. Le Carré’s skill at crafting a story is seldom matched, his vision of intelligence work eschews the gadgets, car chases and explosions for a deeper, complex journey in which the end usually comes in a slow, understated way in which the general public are none the wiser but become the stuff of legend in the annals of intelligence history.

Barley Blair is the world-weary, drink sodden pawn of choice for Le Carré, an interesting character let down by a weakly written romance with the beautiful Katya. Here the author struggles; Blair’s interest is hardly surprising but Katya’s less so and unconvincing, that he would give up his life in the West a la Philby for a woman he barely knows and why she would settle for an alcoholic in the autumn of his life is poorly executed, an add-on for a lengthy build up.

The Russia House is a reminder of how the intelligence world operates outside the normal moral and ethical boundaries of society, where Le Carré triumphs so often is in his ability to show the human cost of ‘games’ played by the unelected, the futility of so many gambits using unwilling pawns. When he hits the spot Le Carré is virtually untouchable, when he doesn’t it’s a disappointing curve ball and in this, his two central characters left me wanting.

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