John le Carre is definitely a matter of taste when it comes to spy novels. Some, like me, do not have much patience for his complicated plots and convoluted prose. Others think this mystery spy novel writer is the greatest. The Mission Song by John le Carre is the kind of mystery that will certainly please his fans and perhaps interest those who are willing to give him another chance.

I did not ask for the review copy of le Carre’s The Mission Song we received. Perhaps the publicist at Warner Books knows a bit more about mystery or thriller novels than I do for I enjoyed this author’s latest though not enough to make me reconsider my general opinion that le Carre has never met a compound complex sentence he could not lengthen a bit nor has he ever met a character whose thoughts and comments he could clarify. Fans of le Carre will say he obfuscates a lot because the spy business is all about hiding information and veiling the obvious but I, perhaps because I was raised on the hard-boiled detective novel, never had much patience for writers who could not get me from point A to point B without fifty detours and even less patience for spy novelists who would then switch the nature of point B on me. Still, The Mission Song is a pleasant if sometimes arduous and slow moving read that does have its payoff at the end.

The first hundred pages or so of The Mission Song tell the story of Bruno Salvador, Salvo, an African orphan whose father was a Catholic priest. Salvo is a master of many languages, especially African dialects, and sometimes works for the British government as an interpreter. His home and personal lives are as complicated and secretive as the mission he finds himself enrolled in: being interpreter for an undercover hush-hush conference where three various African leaders are to broker a deal that will bring peace and prosperity to the Congo without, as le Carre often has his characters say, the usual self-serving fatherly interest of the white colonial powers or multinationals.

Salvo is an interesting character, the early pages of The Mission Song really get you interested, but after a while you really wish le Carre would hold back on all the undercover secretive nobody is quite who they seem and everybody has an air of mystery about him stuff and get on with the story, short as it may be by his standards.

Part of the reason this mystery novel works is you get hooked by the Salvo character as much as he gets hooked by his mission. Because of his roots, he really wants this conference to succeed and as a reader you know he is in for a serious disappointment but are unsure how it will come to be though you are tempted to guess it will come through him. Things get more complicated after the conference, the last third of The Mission Song, where Salvo decides to undo what the conference set out to accomplish. If this sounds cryptic, well this thriller is too and it rubbed off.

The Mission Song
John le Carre
Little, Brown and Company 2006

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