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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Our Game

John le Carré

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To purchase Our Game

Title: Our Game
Author: John le Carré
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995
Length: 337 pages
Availability: Our Game - US
Our Game - UK
Our Game - Canada
Notre jeu - France
Unser Spiel - Deutschland
La passione del suo tempo - Italia
Nuestro juego - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : doesn't entirely work, but what does works very well

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainmentb Weekly A 17/3/1995 Gene Lyons
The LA Times . 26/3/1995 Tom Carson
The NY Times . 2/3/1995 C.Lehmann-Haupt
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/3/1995 Michael Scammell
Sunday Times . 7/5/1995 Mark Lawson
The Times . 29/4/1995 Douglas Hurd
The Washington Post . 26/2/1995 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Le Carre has been known to allow his fondness for complex characterization, digression, and moral ambiguity to overwhelm his narratives to the point where reading novels like The Night Manager or The Naive and Sentimental Lover is rather like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Not so in Our Game, whose straightforward first-person narration takes the reader into the heart of a tale as emotionally resonant as it is compelling." - Gene Lyons, Entertainmentb Weekly

  • "(A)ll Le Carre’s sophistication can’t hide the fact that, despite the layers of anguished resonance he freights it with, at bottom this is the familiar Clara-and-Heidi story of a repressed soul who’s opened up by contact with a free spirit and learns to be uninhibited and so forth. Plenty of Le Carre fans are sure to feel that they deserved better from him than that--and just conceivably, the Ingush will, too." - Tom Carson, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A)ny reader who feared that the end of the cold war would deprive Mr. le Carre of his subject can now feel a measure of relief. If anything, his subject of East-West misunderstanding has grown richer, and he now possesses vast new territories to mine." - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

  • "As an adventure novel in the British tradition of John Buchan and Eric Ambler, Our Game is moderately successful. But Mr. le Carré has also tried to endow the book with psychological subtlety and political relevance. (...) Yet these larger ambitions seem ineffectual. (...) The problem with the fancier aspirations of Our Game is that not only do they not work on their own terms, but they also get in the way of these simpler virtues. Mr. le Carré's great strength is that he is a master plotter. His premise of intelligence agents running amok since the end of the cold war is totally plausible, and the way he links his major characters through their professional roles is ingenious. After taking forever to get there, the reader comes across some 40 pages that are as taut and thrilling as any adventure story I have ever read." - Michael Scammell, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Our Game, though, is a book which tries to make a case for passion and commitment against the "moral indifference" and "planned apathy" which Larry and le Carre find in the West's attitude to those people for whose freedom they so noisily claimed the credit. (...) Finally , the book establishes the vital difference between advocacy journalism and politically committed fiction." - Mark Lawson, Sunday Times

  • "The key to le Carre's success is apparent here more than in earlier books. It lies not so much in the plot (relatively simple) or in the characters (relatively convoluted ). His strength is in the tough use of language to conjure up a scene so extraordinarily vivid that it stays in the memory. The use of contrasts is masterly." - Douglas Hurd, The Times

  • "High among the pleasures of reading le Carre has always been watching him slowly create his plot. He rocks us smoothly back and forth in time, shifting focus from one character or group to another, unpacking worlds of meaning from a casual utterance or half-forgotten incident. (...) Is this then another le Carre classic, comparable to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ? Alas, not quite. While Our Game keeps one turning the pages with pleasure, there are annoyances. (...) Yet, these faults notwithstanding, le Carre fans shouldn't pass on Our Game. At times the book reads like a valedictory, a final reviewing of some favorite themes and obsessions" - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Our Game is narrated by Tim Cranmer, put out to pasture from his British intelligence job, now that the Cold War is over, when he is still only in his forties. He may have served the government well, but he understands that it's a new game now, with new experise needed: "I'm not invited to the new party, am I ?" At least it's a nice pasture: Cranmer inherited well and quite extensively, and he's able to retire to his uncle's old estate, where he continues his uncle's efforts, dabbling in making wine. (Yes, that's a fairly hopeless undertaking in England, as he well understands, but entirely appropriate for the character and book.)
       Among those also eased out of the spying game and life is Larry Pettifer, who was three years Cranmer's junior at Winchester, and also, for a while, a fellow Oxford-student. Larry had been a double-agent in Cranmer's charge, having very successfully infiltrated the Russian secret service, where his contact was a man named Checheyev -- a "one-off" in KGB terms, as an Ingush, a rare member of the Muslim minorities to break into the ranks. The novel opens with Larry having: "gone a bit missing", as the local police explain to Cranmer.
       In fact, Larry has gone very missing -- and, it seems, so has a whole lot of money. Close to forty million pounds. This puts Cranmer in an uncomfortable position -- though he doesn't make it easier for himself, given the things he's trying to hide. For a while, he's been living with -- and doting on, including with expensive gifts -- the very lovely and much younger Emma, but Emma recently abruptly left him -- for Larry, it would appear. With the police now interested in Larry (and the missing money), Cranmer is finding himself increasingly boxed in: his first concern is that no one find out that Emma has left him, but he soon has much bigger problems. The police -- investigating separately from his old employers -- suspect Cranmer is in on it (the money-grab) with Larry. Meanwhile, his old bosses make clear that they will disavow any knowledge of him if the police come asking; he shouldn't count on much help from them. (And, with them taking his passport so that he can't leave the country, they have their suspicions and concerns as well.)
       His former employers don't so much advise as command him:

You're to do nothing, young Tim Cranmer, d'you hear ? You're to sit in your castle, perform your good works, churn out your vintage pipi, act natural, and look innocent.
       That is asking rather too much of him: he can't simply do nothing. And, as his former employers should have realized, former spy Cranmer has a few tricks up his sleeve as well, and aside from being well-aware that he is being watched and tailed, he, like any good agent, has a "personal escape kit" at the ready, with a new identity and ready cash should he need to bolt. (They're onto that -- and hence him -- soon enough, but he does take good advantage of his head start.)
       Cranmer is a bit blinded by his love for Emma. He is well and truly besotted and does his best, for example, to avoid peeking into a dossier about her background, helpfully compiled by a colleague. He is still trying to protect her but has lost track of her -- he doesn't know where she is, or how deep she is in this whole mess, and so he bumbles around some with the various authorities at first, hoping to keep them off her track. Pretty soon, however, it's clear that, whatever the truth, appearances suggest she -- and indeed Cranmer himself -- are neck-deep in this, and so he takes matters into his own hands and starts sniffing around seriously. All the while, the situation he finds himself in confounds him:
Was I framed, set up, the target of a devilish conspiracy ? Or am I merely the fool of love and my own menopausal imaginings ?'
       Larry is a peculiar, almost clownish figure. Apparently good in the role he played as double agent, he is in many ways unreliable and hard to pin down. But Cranmer is puzzled by the apparent theft: Larry doesn't care much for money -- spending it freely when he has it, but not much concerned about accumulating it. (Readers can guess -- pretty much from the outset -- what the huge sums are, in fact, for.)
       Once Cranmer is on the run, trying to get information from various sources, Our Game is very much good old-fashioned spy thriller, with tricks of the trade and all. Post Soviet-break-up politics -- and Soviet history -- play a role, too, with le Carré offering a then (and now) timely history lesson about Ingushetia and the Caucasus. Ever the idealist, Larry would seem too have succumbed to a noble cause: "I've found it. I've found the perfect note", he told Cranmer's ex-wife. Eventually, Cranmer to has to consider what's worth fighting for (even if it's hopeless ...).
       From Cranmer's blinding obsession with Emma to the odd circumstances of him uncertain, for a time, whether or not he might have killed Larry -- not to mention Larry's own, much larger than life persona --, some rather odd bits hang over Our Game. But the basics of the novel are solid -- and the writing often very, very good. Various extended confrontations with the authorities are very well-handled, and the back and forth of dialogue, and what is going through Cranmer's mind, expertly handled. And Cranmer in spy mode is good fun, especially at its basics, as when he evades those he knows are watching and following him.
       Our Game isn't entirely satisfactory, but le Carré's command is still so strong that it is an engaging and at times even enthralling read, a thriller that gets you into its grips. It's not le Carré's A-game, but he still shows a lot of mastery here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 March 2023

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Our Game: Reviews: John le Carré: Other books by John le Carré under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Popular British author John le Carré (David Cornwell) lived 1931 to 2020.

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© 2023 the complete review

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