Tessa is the wife of a minor British diplomat in Nairobi, and an active campaigner for human rights. When she is murdered, her husband Justin rouses himself from his careful indifference and, unravelling the threads that led to her death, sets off in her footsteps. His journey will take him around the world, to a village retreat in Italy, a non-government organisation in Germany, an ostracised scientist in Canada, a food distribution area in southern Sudan, and in the end back to Kenya and the scene of Tessa’s death.
In “The Constant Gardener”, Le Carré offers a typically compelling account of a man on the run, chased by his “own” side (Intelligence and the Foreign Office) as well as by the bad guys (thugs working for a pharmaceutical company). He teases us with a complex, interlocking information web — who knows what and what can we deduce about their relationships from that? And he presents a characteristically unflattering portrait of the machinations of bureaucracy and bureaucrats. (As well as following Justin, we see inside the mind of his timeserving and lecherous colleague Sandy, an example not of overt evil — the thugs and the corporate executives who send them remain in the background — but of those who allow evil to happen by averting their eyes, refusing to rock the boat, and following orders rather than their conscience.)
The Constant Gardener is not, however, as taut as it could be, or as gripping. We follow Sandy’s wife Gloria for a couple of chapters, for example, in a sub-plot that goes nowhere and could easily have been trimmed. And there’s little ongoing suspense, with pretty much all the key facts apparent to the reader right from the beginning. There are also a few implausibilities — unlikely scene-setting dialogue in police interrogations, a fantastically powerful computer virus, and a protagonist unbelievably clueless about computers.
But The Constant Gardener does offer something new. Le Carré’s earlier novels painted a bleak picture of the abuses and corruptions and betrayals of power; here that is augmented with a hard look at a specific issue — the abuse of power by pharmaceutical companies. The integration of this into the plot is occasionally awkward but mostly effective, touching on the testing of defective drugs in Third World countries, the corruption of governments and corporations, and the twisting of scientific research agendas. And while the ending of The Constant Gardener is dark in trademark Le Carré style, it has an unusually positive twist, ending with a hopeful defeat rather than a tainted victory, and with a call to political action.
Danny Yee is an independent book reviewer, and has reviewed over 1,100 books. Born in Sydney, Australia, he currently lives in Oxford, England. Read more reviews by Danny Yee at his excellent website – http://dannyreviews.com/