Picks and Pans Review: Absolute Friends

updated 01/26/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

THRILLER

by John le Carré

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The secret agents in le Carré's latest spyathon look nothing like Pierce Brosnan and would have a double-O chance of bedding Halle Berry. Instead, gangly Brit Ted and gnomish East German Sasha are spies like us—regular joes with bad fathers, sad love lives and a fatal knack for trusting the wrong people. Le Carré, 72, whose undercover man Smiley had a sly, sleuthy way about him, takes a warts-and-all approach in this decades-spanning epic about the unlikeliest of chums, who work first to defeat Communism and later to set up an antiwar university with a mysterious businessman. If Ted and Sasha are heroes, then they are tragic ones, whether as Cold War snoops working both sides of the Berlin Wall or present-day outcasts paranoid about their pasts.

Readers hoping for cool cloak-and-dagger doings should look elsewhere: Except for a bloody finale, le Carré forgoes gunplay for a thoughtful if sometimes meandering study of two flawed but honorable agents dealing with "the high cost of living a double life" and a constantly shifting political climate. It's about the men, not the missions. "Let's all pretend to be someone else," Ted thinks, "and then perhaps we'll find out who we are." Le Carré shifts to the style of a news report in a jarring final chapter. Blending fiction with a blistering attack on the war in Iraq, he takes aim at U.S. antiterrorist task forces, which he portrays as shooting first and evading questions later. He obviously longs for the days when the enemy wasn't so difficult to spot. After reading this sobering work from a modern master, you'll realize that 007 had it easy.

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