Jonathan Pine is the night manager at a hotel in Cairo. A beautiful woman named Sophie, who is the mistress of an Arab playboy and would-be arms dealer named Freddie Hamid, asks him to photocopy some documents for her and then to keep the copy in the hotel safe. Pine reluctantly agrees to do so and speed-reads the documents as he does.
The papers describe an arms deal that Hamid is attempting to orchestrate with a very wealthy and very bad man named Richard Roper. Pine is a patriotic Englishman and a former soldier. Thus he makes an extra copy of the documents and slips it to an official in the British Embassy with whom he goes sailing. But British intelligence obviously can't be trusted and someone gets word back to Freddie Hamid that the documents have been leaked. Hamid assumes that the leak came from Sophie and she is soon found savagely beaten to death.
Jonathan Pine, who by now has fallen in love with Sophie, blames himself for her death. He leaves Cairo and takes a position a night manager of a hotel in Switzerland. And then, six months later, Richard Roper checks into the hotel with a large party, allowing Pine a close-up look at the man Sophie once described as "the worst man in the world."
Pine decides that his life up to this point has largely been wasted, and, still blaming himself for Sophie's death, he offers his services to British Intelligence in an effort to bring Roper down. A clever plan is devised to get Pine into Roper's inner circle so that Pine can provide intelligence from within.
Pine is operating at great risk to himself, but it turns out that the greatest threat to his well-being comes probably not from Dickie Roper and his minions but from the people who are supposed to be supporting him. The book was published in 1993, when the Cold War had just ended and the world's intelligence services were in a state of flux, looking for new targets and, more importantly, for ways to ensure their own survival.
Pine and his mission get caught up in a turf war among and between intelligence agencies both in Britain and the U.S. No one wants anyone else to get the credit for an impressive accomplishment. Worse, some of these agencies have uses for a gun-runner like Richard Roper and don't want to see him brought down.
The result is a book that is very compelling and at the same time very depressing. Le Carre is very convincing when he describes the battles between these competing agencies and when he suggests that the officials in these agencies are much more interested in protecting their respective turfs and advancing their own personal agendas than they are in securing anything like the Greater Good. There is the strong ring of truth in this tale and one closes the book thinking that there are very few "good guys" involved here, and perhaps in the real world of intelligence as well.
This book was recently produced as an excellent six-part mini-series by the BBC, with Tom Hiddleston as Pine and Hugh Laurie as Roper. Both are excellent in the parts and the story has been updated and set in the modern day, rather than in the early 1990s. I enjoyed the book very much, but this may be one of those rare incidents in which the film adaptation is even better. Both are well worth a reader/viewer's time.