It's strange to think that a generation of John le Carré readers has grown up without a Soviet Union. Le Carré (the pen name of David Cornwell, a onetime British-intelligence officer) was the definitive Cold War spy novelist, but his career didn't end with perestroika: 10 of his 22 novels appeared after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He's since channeled his talent into literate, complex thrillers about everything from pharmaceutical-company corruption (2001's The Constant Gardener) to extraordinary rendition (2008's A Most Wanted Man).
Our Kind of Traitor (Viking; 306 pages) is one of the deftest of his recent novels and certainly the most timely. It's 2009, and the financial meltdown that has ravaged Britain's banks has helped put a vacation at a recession-hit resort in Antigua within reach for Gail Perkins, a rising young lawyer, and Perry Makepiece, an academic disillusioned with his job and England in general. There they meet Dima, a gregarious Russian millionaire who loses to Perry at tennis and pulls the couple into his orbit. Dima, a mobster who wants out, sees Perry as a straight shooter he can trust"He's the Professor of fair play, hear me?" he boasts to his cronies after the matchand confides in the couple. As the gang's chief money launderer, Dima knows where a lot of bodies, and cash, are buried. That's music to the ears of spymaster Hector Meredith, to whom Perry and Gail entrust Dima's story.
It's a meaty tale, told with consummate skillparticularly the first act, in which Perry and Gail's encounter with Dima is peppered with flash-forwards to their debriefing in London. But at heart, Our Kind of Traitor is a big slice of Cold War nostalgia. Dima hopes his new British friends can help him find asylum, immunity, a new life. He's less gangster than would-be defector, and the unfolding scheme to spring him reads straight from a KGB-era playbook. This is by no means a bad thing, as it allows le Carré to indulge in the spycraft at which he excels: clandestine encounters, secrets smuggled on microcassettes (who trusts the Internet these days?), a von Trappstyle moonlit escape across the Alps.
Even his characters seem energized by the author's return to form. For Perry, the job is an exhilarating release from his ennui. For Hector, an old-school spy sidelined by an increasingly politicized intelligence service, it's a last lunge at glory. Gail, meanwhilebeautiful, self-aware and the book's best-realized characterhas her own reasons for seeing Dima to safety. You don't need to read a lot of le Carré to know that none of this bodes wellas a writer, he prefers his heroes flawed, tragic and short-livedbut in this case, their odds keep tilting until the very last page.
Le Carré doesn't do big action set pieces. His best books pivot on a lovingly honed edge of moral outrage, and Our Kind of Traitor is no different. Dima's anger at his brethren for giving up their Godfather-style code for a fortune in dirty money, Perry and Hector's antipathy toward the grasping capitalists who brought Britain low and the author's disdain for petty bureaucracy all propel an excoriation of a country that perhaps more than the U.S. was forced into a crisis of faith once the markets fell. Honor, hubris, perfidywith themes like these, it's hard to miss the Cold War.
This article originally appeared in October 18, 2010 issue of TIME.