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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Amateur Tricks Ruin Vintage Thriller

The appealing hero of "Single & Single,'' Oliver Single a k a Oliver Hawthorne a k a Mark West, is a familiar le Carr? figure - a disaffected son, in thrall to (and in rebellion against) his prodigal father; a sleight-of-hand artist who has gone to work for the British government as a spy; a loner torn between loyalty to his family and loyalty to his own ideals. He will remind faithful le Carr? readers of both Magnus Pym, the conflicted, father-obsessed hero of "A Perfect Spy'' (1986) and Jonathan Pine, the title character of "The Night Manager'' (1993), a man haunted by his past and in hiding from himself.

Although this novel is flawed by a predictable villain and a silly action adventure ending, it gets off to a fast start, sailing along on John le Carr?'s narrative panache. Once again we are plunged into the author's shadowy world of informers and double agents, a world in which betrayal - of one's family, country, principles or loved ones - is the operative word.

As in "The Night Manager,'' the Cold War has ended, and international dealers in guns and drugs have replaced the communists as the bad guys. Money, not ideology, is the motivating force now; at stake are the millions and millions of dollars to be made as the former Soviet Union collapses and ruthless cartels move in to exploit an emerging free market.

Chief among these power brokers is Yevgeny Orlov, a fabled Moscow fixer who has been facilitating illicit trade in everything from "Afghan heroin for teenagers to Czech Semtex for Irish peace lovers and Russian nuclear triggers for Middle Eastern democrats. "Yevgeny's own personal fixer is Tiger Single, Oliver's father, whose firm specializes in the laundering of ill-gotten gains and the creation of the "best legal loopholes that illicit wealth can buy."

Domineering, arrogant and ruthless, Tiger Single not only recalls Magnus Pym's flamboyant father, Rick, in "A Perfect Spy" but also bears more than a passing resemblance to le Carr?'s own father, as the author has described him in interviews - a charming, silver-tongued con man whose globe-spanning, entrepreneurial schemes read like a more innocent, less sophisticated version of Tiger's.

While Oliver grows up worshiping his father, his adoration soon turns to disillusionment when he goes to work for the family firm and realizes just what sort of activities it's been engaged in. After falling in love with Yevgeny's daughter, Zoya, who urges him to take a stand against their fathers' nefarious dealings, the prince regent of Single & Single turns informer, contacting Nat Brock, a member of a British "interservice task force" investigating black market trade and domestic corruption.

Filled with anger at his father and guilt over his own betrayal, Oliver Single tries to begin a new, anonymous life as Oliver Hawthorne. He marries, has a daughter, separates from his wife and settles down to a new life as a children's magician in a small English town near the coast of Devon. Five years pass, and Oliver's new life is suddenly shattered with the news that a mysterious stranger has deposited pounds 5 million in cash in his daughter's trust.

It is followed by the disturbing news that one of Single & Single's agents, a man by the name of Alfie Winser, has been killed gangland style in Turkey, and that Tiger Single has vanished.

These key events unfold with le Carr?'s usual authority and aplomb as he builds tension by cutting back and forth in time and back and forth between several seemingly independent story lines. The reader is immersed in Oliver's psychological drama and at the same time ineluctably drawn into the dizzying world of international contraband and high finance.

As Oliver, accompanied by Brock's operatives, sets out to find his missing father, he must puzzle out the story behind his disappearance. Why was Alfie Winser murdered, and what does it have to do with the Russian government's seizure of a ship bound for Liverpool? What caused the sudden estrangement between Tiger Single and Yevgeny Orlov? And what role in all this was played by Alix Hoban, Yevgeny's sinister right-hand man? In sorting out the answers to these questions, Oliver must come to terms with his feelings about his father, and in doing so, must also decide where his own conflicted loyalties lie.

As the novel proceeds, le Carr?'s orchestration of these narrative strands relies increasingly on the sort of crudely manipulative techniques favored by directors of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. In the latter stages of the novel, he frequently resorts to wordy debriefings of crucial witnesses to pull information together, and he ends "Single & Single" with a highly implausible set piece that reads like a cartoon script for James Bond.

It is a singularly inappropriate punctuation point for a novel (and, for that matter, a body of work) predicated upon psychological subtlety, hardheaded realism, meticulous knowledge of trade craft and wonderfully human heroes like the tortured Oliver Single.

"Single & Single" by John le Carr?. 345 pages. Scribner. $26.