A white Englishwoman and a black African man leave their Nairobi hotel one morning, purportedly to do some aid work. She is next seen in their borrowed vehicle, her throat cut. Her driver is with her, his head cut off. Her doctor friend who was traveling with her is gone without a trace.
The woman is Tessa Quayle, an impassioned, vivacious lawyer and activist who is married to the older and more staid British diplomat Justin Quayle. Her murder is almost immediately imbued with traces of sex and racism. Her beauty and youth are much discussed, as is her attachment to the African people. Her doctor friend and supposed lover killed her, it is said. Or perhaps Justin had her killed in a fit of jealousy. Other possible affairs are mentioned. She was asking for trouble is the unspoken subtext of all the chatter. But Justin refuses to accept this. Even as his colleagues attempt to keep him out of the investigation, he quietly works on his own to find out just what happened. He unearths a web of greed and exploitation, and the people behind it seem to now be just a step behind him.
I saw the film version of this book a few years ago, so I knew what was going on from the start. But that didn’t keep me from enjoying this book—as much as one might “enjoy” a story of such horror that, according to author John Le Carré, is a fairy tale in comparison to the reality. I liked the complex way that murder was framed, the way the conspirators fed on people’s biases to brush it under the rug. I also liked Justin for his dogged loyalty. The book was far superior to the movie here. Justin in the film is played by the luscious Ralph Fiennes and Tessa by the ethereal (but annoying to me) Rachel Weisz. In the book, Justin came across as older and more plodding—kind of a sad sack type, which I found endearing. And Tessa remained ethereal without irritating me. (Seriously, I don’t know what it is about Rachel Weisz. I can see that she’s talented, I guess, but I almost always find her performances grating.)
There are some great scenes in the book. I laughed at the moments when Justin is trying to get into Tessa’s computer with the help of a younger, computer-savvy friend. But when the book leaves Justin, it tends to drag. Most of the other characters were just a blur to me, and the details of the conspiracy are not always clear. The lack of clarity was exacerbated by the audio format, which prevented me from looking back and putting details together.
Tessa is depicted as a perfect white savior of Africa, which is problematic. But the book is at its core a British book, not an African one. It’s also a suspense novel with a social conscience, not an in-depth exposé. It does a pretty good job at what it sets out to do.
For much of the book, I was moderately interested, sometimes amused, sometimes moved, but I wasn’t fully absorbed. I liked it. I didn’t love it. But I must tell you, the ending was fantastic. It’s similar to the movie’s ending, but the way it’s executed is even more chilling, and the last line will stick with me. I remember being stunned by the ending of the only other Le Carré novel I’ve read, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Apparently the guy can write endings. If I give him another try in the future (which I’m willing, but not chomping at the bit to do), I’ll remember that and probably persevere through the slow bits.