I don’t go looking for bleakness, at least not these days. So I finished The Constant Gardener with some puzzlement. What is it that periodically draws me back to John Le Carré? He’s like that bad boyfriend who makes you feel terrible about yourself but whom you can’t resist. The idea of him makes you tense up, but when he comes around again, you can’t help succumbing to his dark charms.
And I did have something of a soft spot for The Constant Gardener among the late Le Carrés, although in retrospect that may be because Ralph Fiennes played Justin Quayle in the rather good film. It is plenty grim, but less grim than some. And as I somewhat unwillingly turned the pages, I remembered why I keep these books on my shelves. Le Carré is just so good at things I care about.
For instance, character development. We meet Justin Quayle as one of those Englishmen whose elaborate courtesy is an impermeable defense and prison. His beautiful young wife Tessa has just been found murdered at a remote lakeside in northwest Kenya. Her death drives him to abandon his manners and his diplomatic career and trace Tessa’s steps unraveling a big-pharma conspiracy. (I suppose Le Carré must provide a certain amount of skulduggery for his readers and I admit I wouldn’t read him without the plots.) Justin discovers that he posses courage and resolve, even recklessness. The energy he used to expend on pruning becomes investigative fervor.
What’s more Le Carré’s always been brilliant with secondary characters. This novel is set mostly in European Nairobi, in the NGO culture of Sudan, in London and European capitals. Lots of variety there and the walk-ons are indelible, like Lara Emrich the melodramatic Russian doctor:
‘I am Lara.’ It was a complaint.
‘Hullo, Lara. Where can we meet?’
A sigh. A forlorn, terminally tired sigh to match the forlorn Slav voice. ‘It is not possible.’
‘There is a car outside my house. Sometimes they put a van. They watch and listen all the time. To meet discreetly is not possible.’
‘Where are you now?’
‘In a telephone kiosk.’ She made it sound as if she would never get out of it alive.
But the cynicism is dispiriting, as always with Le Carré. Do I believe that multinational pharma companies would cut corners on clinical trials to bring drugs to market? Yes, probably. Does aid money get siphoned off before it reaches its targets? Sure. Do politicians bend their convictions to accommodate campaign donors? Of course. But the lines between Good and Evil are rather starkly drawn here, with most of the Good represented by Tessa. Who frankly sounds a little hard to take: beautiful, principled, brilliant, seductive, impulsive, beloved by all and adorned with a post-mortem halo. Le Carré’s heroines are often annoying in their perfection. Yet months will go past and I’ll be looking at my shelves for something to read, and I’ll find myself reaching, once again, for one of his books. Sometimes you just can’t help yourself.