A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

This is a novel that readers need to be prepared to invest a considerable amount of time in because this is not a quick read. Although the book isn’t terribly long, it is heavy going and full of detail. Is there a pay off? Not in the traditional sense. More of a thought provoker than a wrap up in the end.

A young Muslim, of somewhat indeterminate origin is transported illegally to Germany. He hangs around the Hamburg railway station until he identifies a fellow Muslim, who happens to be Turkish, and follows him home.

He and his mother take in the illegal immigrant because of their beliefs in hospitality and the Koran, but not due to any militant factionism or inherent Islamism. The young man appears to understand some aspects of the Koran and Islam and not others which is puzzling to his hosts.

An attorney who works for a civil rights and human rights agency is contacted by the family. He has a letter of introduction to a private bank and a private account. He does not want to touch the money because it was deposited their by his father – a high ranking KGB member during the Cold War. The money is ostensibly blood money. The young man wishes the money to be distributed to organizations to assist Chechen’s who have been affected by Russian occupation.

But here lies the rub. Islamic organizations who do such work, also funnel money into terrorist activities. The banker who has inherited his father’s private bank, likewise inherits his fathers connections with the British and German secret services. The young attorney is also pulled into the affair.

And so begins the political, espionage and private machinations and interests that are at odds with one another. Each player – the accidental hosts, the banker, the attorney and the illegal immigrant become caught up in the much larger picture of the post 9/11 world: stop the funds, thus halting the spread of terrorism.

The end result is a series of moral quandaries that the reader must ponder. Is helping someone who appears to harbor no terroristic ambitions and who has been tortured for his beliefs and managed to escape, right or wrong? And further, what will happen to the hosts? Can one be labeled a terrorist for aiding someone by accident? What are the repercussions if the hosts are only on permanent resident visas to their host country?

What are the roles of private banks in holding and laundering blood money? What responsibilities do they have beyond acting as responsible stewards for the money with which they have been entrusted? What is the role they play between “old money” (in this case funds that have sat in cold storage for 50 or more years) and the transfer of that money back to areas from which it was misappropriated in the first place? How liable or not are bankers? What are their fiduciary trusts?

How far can a civil right attorney go? At what point do personal feelings and agendas start to cross and blur lines with professional responsibilities? Is that kind of work ultimately soul crushing as individuals get caught up in larger political and social agendas? How far can an individual go to help and when does it stop being aid and assistance and start to be aiding and abetting?

Then there are the macro pictures and agendas: politics, secret services, anti-terrorist organizations, intelligence services, police at all levels. Can they really identify what is a true agenda? Can they really stop the flow of funds without actually hurting people on the ground who need those funds to stay alive and to fight terrorism from their end of the pipeline?

As I said, this book raises more questions than it answers. However, it is a great jumping off point for book clubs who might like to use fiction to discuss these questions. Or for discussion groups on world affairs, to use fiction as a tool to open up a discussion about how the world works. Especially the post 9/11 world.

This is a four star read but if you want a neat, tidy bow on the end of the story – you will be gravely disappointed.


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