A Most Wanted Man

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John Le Carré, Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99

John Le Carré's 21st novel continues his wonderful 48-year exploration of Western intelligence agencies as they jostle for influence in an ever-changing world.

A Most Wanted Man is the first to tackle the "war on terror" era. Set in Hamburg, it involves terrified Muslim refugees, money-laundering banks, shadowy intelligence agencies infected by Islamophobic obsessions and, of course, extraordinary renditions.

The novel revolves around three characters. Issa, a devout but confused Muslim, has fled the war in Chechnya. Annabel Richter, a liberal German lawyer, works for a refugee organisation. Tommy Brue, a bored Englishman, runs the private bank Brue Freres.

Annabel, still reeling from seeing her last Muslim client bundled onto a plane heading for torture and probable death, decides that Issa is her chance for redemption. She believes Issa's extraordinary tale - that he is the illegitimate son and sole heir of a Russian monster who raped and pillaged his way to a fortune that is now gathering dust in Brue Freres' vaults.

In pursuit of Issa's claim, Annabel meets Tommy Brue, awakening in him long-dormant lust as well as revulsion at his father's illegal dealings with a Russian criminal.

Meanwhile Issa's temporary hosts, a kindly Turkish mother and son, unwittingly put him on the radar of German intelligence as a suspected "jihadi" when they seek medical help for their ailing guest.

Enter another key character, maverick German agent Gunther Bachmann, who sees Issa as his chance to get one up on other intelligence services by running an agent inside an "Islamic terrorist network".

As the drama unfolds, everyone is drawn into the parallel universe of spookdom, where normal rules, morals and ethics are distorted or absent.

Le Carré subtly captures the intelligence agencies' hostility to all things Islamic - a formerly devout Muslim who starts drinking must be a "sleeper" for al Qaida; a Muslim colleague with top security clearance cannot be trusted "just in case". Le Carré also gives great depth to Issa, Annabel and Tommy, starkly contrasting characters brought together in an unrequited love triangle and as pawns of German, British and US agents.

Le Carré began his writing career by exploring the world of espionage and the dilemmas facing spies like Kim Philby who hated their own ruling class in Britain and were drawn to Russia. As he has aged and the world has moved on, his masterful spy thrillers have become more polemical against capitalism, corporate greed, torture and war. This latest one treats with contempt the state agents who have lost all connection to the humanity so evident in the people whose lives they destroy.