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Spies, cops and cover-ups

February 15, 2004|Eugen Weber | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Absolute Friends

John le Carre

Little, Brown: 400 pp., $26.95


Mr. Paradise

Elmore Leonard

William Morrow: 304 pp., $25.95



Michael Dibdin

Pantheon: 270 pp., $23


Voice of the Violin

Andrea Camilleri

Translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli

Viking: 247 pp., $21.95

Celebrities are folk whose names you recognize, you don't quite know why. John le Carre is a celebrity whose name most link with very fine spy novels. After "Absolute Friends," some won't be so sure.

His latest book focuses on one Ted Mundy, born an army brat in once-British India, educated in an English public (meaning private) school, who comes to life in West Berlin of the 1960s, where he has gone from Oxford to study "Germanistics" and where he is swept into the radicalism of that broily age. That's where he meets runty but rousing Sasha (no other name in sight), dedicated to purging the world of everything old and rotten: "Americanism, greed, class, envy, racism, bourgeois sentimentalism, hatred, aggression, superstition and the craving for property and power." That's also where the absolute friends-to-be set out to staunch diseases that ail us: "fascism, capitalism, militarism, consumerism, Nazism, Coca-Colonization, imperialism and pseudo-democracy."

Whenever work, marriage or fatherhood distract Ted from his historic enterprise, Sasha surfaces to reassert higher responsibilities. Commitment to ideals and to each other will turn the friends into double agents, spying for both the East German Stasi and British intelligence, before naive idealism founders in a murderous climax contrived by agents of the industrial-military complex that has come to manipulate the friends as it manipulates the media and other scams against which Ted and Sasha struggled.

The bullet-sprayed end is even less convincing than the obstacle course leading toward it. We take spy craft coming from le Carre on trust and know that a double agent's life is not a happy one. Saving the world from itself is more dodgy still. It seemed silly in the 1960s; it still seems silly today, when costs and complications have gone up. The good guys are fated to failure; the book's unsubtle messages are too. There's more tedium than thrills; the rants get longer and suspense is scant. Punctuated by commercials of political preaching redolent of bourgeois sentimentalism and by heinous revelations about illegitimate war in Iraq, the elegant prose cannot compensate for the banalities of predictable correctness. The rich buffet of cliche and didactic exposition may please the brightest and best. For myself, the longer I read, the more curious I became about how things would turn out. The answer: badly. How else?

Master of Detroit hip-hop, Elmore Leonard has turned out another thriller, "Mr. Paradise," which is as shallow, savvy and seductive as we expect from him. The Michigan metropolis hums with homicides and gang wars and with drive-by shootings that damage the street drug business and frighten off crack house habitues. So a creative lawyer thinks up a professional hit man service that uses bad guys to off bad guys, while steering suspicion away from the drug masters. Unfortunately, in the spirit of American enterprise, the hit men branch out and hit the Mr. Paradise of the title and his chippy. The pit bulls on Prozac have oozed off the reserve.

This brings in the Detroit police and homicide detective Frank Delsa, a man with cool dark eyes and a quiet way about him. Four years before, in a department store parking lot, Delsa shot two brothers, convicted carjackers on lifetime probation doing what they did best; trying to jack an old Honda with 90,000 miles on it. Instead of cheers, this precipitated a wrongful-death suit asking $30 million for excessive use of deadly force. The court threw out the suit, but brouhaha has held him back since. Worse, it has made him reluctant to use his Glock. Now, he nudges the action on, cavorting through the cast of wits, dope dealers, homeys, strippers, whores of all kinds, and just folks, mostly drab but also mostly ready to blow people and other animals away. Frank links up with Kelly, a model, friend and look-alike of the call girl offhandedly slaughtered alongside Mr. Paradise. A crucial witness of the murderous home invasion that offed Mr. Paradise, Kelly is pursued by the hit men wary of her testimony, by the Paradise aide who hired them for the job and in another spirit altogether, by Delsa who makes the collar and the girl without having to use more than his cellphone.

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