THE COMPUTER NEARLY gives Le Carré away. Our virtuous hero Justin Quayle, in the later part of his middle years, is searching his late wife's laptop for clues about the hidden files that might have led to her murder. The author of The Constant Gardener is himself some 70 years old, and we might guess he'd be out of his element writing about software applications and hard drives. That guess, it turns out, would be incorrect. Le Carré dispatches young Guido, a school tyke from the isle of Elba, to help graying Justin sort through the documentation of a drug company's reckless clinical trials in Kenya. The pair skims a trove of saved files about the Swiss conglomerate, drug-resistant TB, and the doctor who may have been killed alongside Justin's wife. And then, no sooner has Justin logged in to his wife's AOL account than the machine seizes up, its data obliterated by a virus.
The scene is typical of John Le Carré's writing in this, his 19th, novel: It combines the intrigue of the present with storytelling devices that have served him well for ages. In the old days, Le Carré's wheezing white spymasters flitted between European capitals in an existentially pointless game of cat and mouse. In this year's model, morally driven African doctors and mixed-race embassy employees (and our wheezing white hero) globetrot from the British High Commission in Nairobi to a crusty London club to an activist clearinghouse in Hanover to a research lab in Saskatchewan and on to a refugee camp in Sudan. The ruthless traitor of Le Carré's definitive Smiley novel of the Sixties, Tailor, Tinker, Soldier, Spy, was a swinging bisexual with a yen for sailors. The only gay character in The Constant Gardener carries out an earnest e-mail relationship while keeping closeted to avoid the machinations of homophobic African dictators. Where a tone of bleak gamesmanship informed Le Carré's early work, a righteous indignation guides this book.
Yet some story elements remain the same. The women who surround Justin are beauties to the last one. The murdered activist is "young in the high, sharp breasts that never move"; a dissident medical researcher is "beautiful" and nearly a bed partner for grieving Justin; an amoral drug-company collaborator is a raven-haired "beautiful young" woman; the "beauty" of a crusading embassy worker "is a sin." Geopolitics and social mores might change, but in Le Carré's world a murder, missing files, scheming politicos, and a woman seen in "naked silhouette" will still turn the pages.