November 18, 1996 12:00 PM

by John le Carré

You’re God’s gift, Harry,” says Andy Osnard, a British operative who recruits Panama City’s finest gentleman’s tailor, Harry Pendel. “Classic, ultimate listening post. Wife with access. Contacts to kill for.” In his first novel set in the Americas, the wizard of spy fiction has reached the point of mastery in which life is no less than a slightly seedy divine comedy.

With a deep bow to Graham Greene’s classic Our Man in Havana, le Carré sets his supple satire in graft-ridden Panama. There, in 1999, the Canal will change from American to home rule, and everyone wants a piece of the geopolitical action. The British have decided what kind of secret intelligence they want to hear: The safety of the vital shipping link between Pacific and Atlantic oceans will be threatened by foreign interests and an unstable local government. The Brits will do anything to convince America to stay in the Zone.

Who better than Harry—near bankrupt and with a past to conceal—to give the intelligence to them? This tailor, after all, works with presidents, generals and drug kings to achieve the triumph of appearance over reality. While Harry dissembles with disastrous consequences—inventing a resistance group here, a secret military cabal there—le Carré, at the height of his considerable powers, reveals with a wink and a smile the skull beneath the skin of a mad century. (Knopf, $25)

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