June 19, 1989 12:00 PM

by John le Carré

The spy story is more than gripping, focusing on the head of a small English publishing house who gets involved with a Soviet physicist trying to smuggle secrets out of the U.S.S.R. There are, however, deeper satisfactions in the novel, Le Carré’s 12th.

One of those satisfactions is an elegance of language that often transcends the story. Here is part of a scene in which Barley Blair, the publisher, is being courted by Ned and Walter, British Intelligence officers who want him to work for them:

“Barley was still hunting for an answer when Walter supplied it for him, and with an air of finality that brooked no contradiction. ‘You’re from a free society. You’ve got no choice,’ he said.

“The din of the harbour rose with the advancing daylight. Barley slowly stood up and rubbed his back. He seemed to have a permanent patch of pain there, just above the waistband. Perhaps it accounted for his slope.

” ‘Any decent Church would have burned you bastards at the stake long ago,’ he remarked wearily. He turned to Ned, peering down at him through his too small spectacles. ‘I’m the wrong man,’ he warned him. ‘And you’re a fool for using me.’

” ‘We’re all the wrong men,’ said Ned. ‘We’re dealing with wrong things.’ ”

Le Carré’s articulate fascination with moral ambiguities is another reason why this book is absorbing. Bluebird, as the Soviet physicist is code-named, wants to betray Soviet defense secrets because he believes doing so will inspire a disarmament race—if the West realizes how inept Soviet defenses are, they will feel less need to maintain offensive weapons. The Western intelligence network, especially the American part, isn’t so sure. Maybe Bluebird is lying. Even more frightening, perhaps he’s telling the truth: The Western military establishment’s prosperity would be threatened if the Soviets were proved to be a less credible enemy.

Alongside that dilemma is Barley’s personal uncertainty. He is too involved with the Soviet woman who is Bluebird’s courier—and former lover. (The scene in which Barley and the woman sit on the roof of a Moscow safe house, discussing their espionage mission and falling in love, is a masterpiece of subtle writing.) Barley also has moral qualms about his British Intelligence patrons and their U.S. overseers. Chided by a skeptical American agent, he says, “I remember what’s important to me, old boy. If I haven’t got a dirty enough mind to match yours, that’s your bloody business.”

Having skillfully designed his characters and their emotional intricacy, Le Carré tightens the strands of their lives into a tense finish. Nary a shot is fired. No dagger is unsheathed. But the insidious combat of violent philosophies provides more than enough excitement to conclude a novel that is thrilling in every imaginable way. (Knopf, $19.95)

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