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Drunks With Power : THE RUSSIA HOUSE by John le Carre (Alfred A. Knopf: $19.95; 353 pp.; 0-394-57789-2)

June 18, 1989|Elliott Roosevelt | Roosevelt is the author of "The Eleanor Roosevelt Mystery Series." Last of the series published was "Murder in the Oval Office" (St. Martin's Press). and

I have to apologize at the outset of this review. I sold my house the end of March; went on a cruise for the month of April and agreed to read and review this book during the month of May and, at the same time, pack and move out of my house.

The result is that "The Russia House" has been digested between packing chores and maybe my viewpoint has suffered somewhat. John le Carre is a very popular best-selling author with a fine reputation in the intrigue and thriller field. Such books as "The Spy Who Came In Out of the Cold" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" enjoyed wide acclaim, as have most of his other novels.

"The Russia House" is his latest offering. It gives a clear picture of the British Intelligence operation and how the Brits work with their counterparts in the American Intelligence community. Obviously, the object of their joint maneuvering is to get vital statistics out of the Soviet Union concerning their nuclear development.

The tool used by British Intelligence was a singularly unsuccessful English publisher, who comes across to the reader throughout most of the book as a liquor-besotted, upper-class Englishman who long ago abandoned any attempt to better himself. The fact that he has fallen into bed with half the women he ever met does not prevent him from finally falling truly in love with a beautiful Soviet girl. The girl, Katya, is quite experienced herself. She has twin offspring and a number of affairs of varying intensity before meeting Barley.

Barley's counterpart is a Soviet scientist who is referred to through most of the book as Goethe, but Katya always called him Yakov. His code name to the British-American Intelligence community was "Blue Bird." He had another real name but it only surfaced once in the tale.

I found that the debriefings that constantly took place, first by the British, then by the Americans and finally by an awesome gathering of British-American dedicated professional spooks, could become very confusing and convoluted. Palfrey, who relates this tale, is the English legal counsel for the Brits. He talks glibly of the numbers of British and American inquisitors, referring to each by name and developing character portraits of so many that I became quite confused about the pecking order of their importance within their respective organizations.

Don't draw the wrong impression from the previous paragraph. The author is very skillful in his ability to create an atmosphere of intrigue and counter-intrigue through the use of cross-examinations and analysis rather than resorting to an excess of action throughout the length of the story.

Both of the central characters should be classified as real drunkards. It amazes me that both could achieve such moments and periods of clear thinking, as they do at critical periods of the story. Both Barley and Yakov are products of totally different worlds, who develop an identical philosophy about the salvation of the human race. They both love the same beautiful woman, and both seek to protect her from the death that will be her lot if she gets caught in the middle of their dangerous machinations.

All in all, if you are a confirmed Le Carre fan, this latest book will satisfy your cravings to the nth degree. If you are a newcomer to his works you will find it slow in developing, but building in intensity as you proceed.

There have been many Soviet spy offerings of late that I have read with great personal interest. During the last great war, when Russia was our ally, I had numerous contacts with the Soviet people, from Stalin down through the Communist social scale to the downtrodden peasants. This book gives a clear and vivid picture of the Soviet Union of today with its promises of open expression and freedom for the masses of people who look at Mikhail Gorbachev as their savior.

Maybe there is a warning being voiced in this novel. We should not expect Gorbachev to relinquish all the trappings of the old Communist empire. The KGB will remain as a great gray monster to terrify the native Soviets and to threaten the Free World with its secret and subversive activities.

If I were to give my considered advice to you, as an avid mystery reader, read this novel. It will intrigue you. It will give you a valuable insight into the way American and British Intelligence works and, certainly, will give you a fresh glimpse of glasnost under the New Order in the Soviet Union.

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