Spoilers ahead, including details of book endings
You’ve invested days, maybe weeks of time in a relationship, but at the end, you’re disappointed. It happens in real-life relationships, and it happens to readers invested in a novel’s characters. Fortunately, the latter is a rare thing, but when it happens, it can be a gut punch. I was stunned by the ending of a book by one of my favorite authors, John le Carré, who’s best known for his espionage novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carré has a storytelling style that reminds me of peeling layers off an onion while blindfolded. It’s a labyrinthine journey of discovery.
Disappointment with Le Carré descended on me while I was listening to the last few minutes of an audiobook version of Our Kind of Traitor, the author’s 22nd novel. It’s the story of a young Oxford academic and his barrister girlfriend, who vacation on the island of Antigua and meet Dima, a Russian millionaire who came by his wealth by less-than-honest means. The plot focuses on a plan to rescue him and his family from the Russian mafia by giving him a new life in England. In exchange, he promises to tell investigators everything he knows about his money-laundering ways, betraying his criminal colleagues.
Before I get to my letdown, I’d like to bring up another novel, which I happened to read right after Le Carré’s. West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan, fictionalizes the last three years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, starting with his move to Hollywood in 1937. I’m a sucker for movies and novels about Hollywood and Los Angeles in the late 1930s and 1940s, so I was ready for something noirish. (Humphrey Bogart is a minor character in West of Sunset.) Most people know Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, the Great Gatsby, but I was unaware of his screenwriting credits. While not a noir novel per se, West of Sunset starts optimistically but grows darker by the page as Fitzgerald self-destructs.
Here’s the main spoiler for both books: Central characters die at the end. That’s no surprise for Fitzgerald, a real person who died in 1940. With the writer’s inevitable end in the back of my mind, O’Nan managed to draw me in, a little like rubber-necking at the scene of a car wreck, marked ahead with flashing lights of police and fire, but unseen until you’re on top of it. The book’s ending was sad, but satisfying.
With Our Kind of Traitor however, there’s no such warning. Dima, the millionaire who wants to escape his mafia enemies, is pursued, but Le Carré never really hints at his death on the last page. Sure, there’s a sense that the mafiosi are just around the corner, but Le Carré makes a hero out of this criminal, and you’re rooting for him to start a new life, just as Le Carré pulls the rug out from under you, emotionally. It was unsatisfying and frustrating. I almost never yell at authors while I’m reading a book (or listening), but I cursed Le Carré at the close of Our Kind of Traitor.
Ironically, Le Carré’s decision to kill Dima was a betrayal of the reader, a theme the author explores in all his best books. I doubt I’ll read another Le Carré book soon, because I can’t trust that the ending will flow from the setup. It’s not the death of the character that bothered me, so much as the way he died in a narrative sense. I never saw it coming, and while it was always possible, Le Carré doesn’t properly prepare the reader. Let the character die after he has achieved his goal. O’Nan does it better, handing Fitzgerald a line on the next-to-last page that suggests the writer would’ve given us more, had he lived. That ending took flight, while the last page of Our Kind of Traitor simply crashed.