Recent headlines of two women agents tagged as the killers of Kim Jong-nam, half brother to the North Korea leader, bring to mind John Le Carre’s classic, The Little Drummer Girl.
History shows women have been as involved as men in the business of spying so the issue isn’t gender, but rather why and how women thought to be life nurturers and caregivers got involved at all. Le Carre’s book explores this theme.
I’ve read the book, intricate plot and longish at 500 pages, three times. It’s my second favorite of Le Carre’s after The Night Manager. The book, apart from The Constant Gardener, is I think the only one of the author’s that puts a woman as the central figure.
The story opens with a bombing in Germany at an Israeli diplomat’s house, where the diplomat, his wife and his young son are all killed. An Israeli investigation into the bombing points to a terrorist known as Khalil. Khalil has a brother, Michel, who is known to be a a playboy. He recruits young women to deliver his bombs for him. The Israeli intelligence service decides to plant an attractive female agent into this organization in the hopes that she will lead them all the way up to Khalil. Since a Jewish girl would be unlikely to succeed, they decide to recruit an outsider, choosing Charlie as their agent because of her acting ability and because of her political background, which lends her credence. To bring Charlie around to their side, they send in Joseph, an experienced agent, to romance her, hoping her feelings for him will make her sympathetic towards their cause.
Charlie is a young girl from a middle class background, working as an actress on the fringe of the theater world. She’s insecure, lying about her past to make her life sound more traumatic, and flirting with leftist political causes, but more for the bohemian air she believes this gives her than because she truly believes in anything. She sleeps around with many men and her current boyfriend, when the book begins, abuses her physically and emotionally. This is in many ways, her coming-of-age story.
Actors, acting and spycraft’s variety of guises, secret identities and motives are used to create a remarkably rich and impressive sense of irony, as lie is built upon lie, matching an actor’s craft with that used by an agent to create a false identity.
In the overall scheme of things, world peace and national security, the message of the book is not to say who’s wrong or right, rather:
When the book was published in 1983, it reportedly offended both Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides felt that they were shown in a bad light. What Le Carre did in the book, and to a lesser extent in the movie, is what he has always been so good at, which is showing things in shades of grey. In truth he shows neither side as being evil, but shows both of them doing evil, or at least immoral things in the name of their beliefs and causes.
The book was adapted into film, in 1984, with Diane Keaton as Charlie. It looks like it opened to not-so-warm reviews, one of which was of a thirtyish Keaton said to have been miscast for her character who is according to the book in her early 20s. I have yet to watch the movie though. I’m putting it in my list.