Book Review: The Constant Gardener by John le Carre

Now this is one a lot of people will have heard of. John le Carre is a huge name in spy fiction and his fame has been spread by successful films of “The Spy who Came in from the Cold” and especially “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. He had been less in the limelight for a while and I suspect many observers thought he was going into gradual literary decline. Then “The Constant Gardener” hit the world like a bomb blast.

The picture painted of the world is profoundly depressing. A young female lawyer married to a British diplomat discovers secrets about a drug being aggressively promoted on the African market by a British-owned company close to a particularly corrupt African government (which incidentally has since fallen). She and an aid worker friend are brutally murdered. The British diplomats want to avoid awkward fuss but two British police officers sent to look into the matter become suspicious of a high-level cover-up involving the drug company and the two governments. They are abruptly called home.

The diplomat husband, inheriting a lot of money from his wife, suspects the truth, goes underground and investigates, taking on a war in which he is hopelessly outgunned. It’s difficult to review the book without giving away the ending, but the honest and brave are killed or disgraced, the cynical and venal are uplifted, the drug continues to kill and there is just a hint of another ending (1984 style, where the narrator/commentator is clearly speaking from a future time when the totalitarian regime has ended) in mention of continuing campaigns and awkward questions asked in Parliament.

In another sense it’s hopeful. The wife and the husband are good people as are many others who help them. Evil can kill but not entirely crush good or truth. There is social decay but individual redemption (with just a hint of Graham Greene’s leftish Catholicism). Many books written with anger work as politics but not as novels. This works as both.

The diplomatic context, the politics, media and business manoevring are very credibly depicted. I soon cared a lot about the characters, particularly unlucky but noble Justin, the husband. The writing is sharp, compelling and sensitive: le Carre has an excellent ear for nuance, half-truth and dissonance between individuals.

I am just optimistic enough to think the plot lets the cover-up happen a little too easily. There are newspapers which would suspect the worse and have the resources and independence to pursue the truth. It’s hard to believe the last death described wouldn’t set a lot of alarm bells ringing.

It’s a brilliant, painful book nonetheless.