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Digging for Moral Truth

A review of The Constant Gardener by John le Carr



Finishing this fascinating thriller, one is filled with the usual Dostoevskian pessimism often experienced after reading a Le Carr mystery. The heart sinks; there is an ominous, pervading sense that the goodness of the individual, in this case English diplomat Justin Quayle, has not won out over the evils of an institution.

Some in literary circles wondered what Le Carr would do now that the cold war has ended. As the old institutions in the Soviet Union began to break up and the might of the notorious KGB supposedly dissolved, where would the talented author turn? Spying, they thought, was a lost art.

Ever attuned to the public pulse, Le Carr has chosen to face off against the huge international pharmaceutical conglomerates.

Beautiful Tessa Quayle, wife of our English diplomat, is found with her throat slashed on a dirt path leading to Lake Turkana in Kenya, the cradle of civilization. She had been on a mission with Dr. Arnold Bluhm, a Belgian medical consultant and watchdog for the U.N. When news of her death reaches the British home office, a hush-up of the unsavory incident commences. We find the members of the exclusive Muthaiga Club in Nairobi, where the British elite indulge in their gin fizzes and notorious affairs, closing their ranks against the discovery of what really happened to Tessa. The cover-up begins.

It seems Tessa, a young lawyer, had been studying the effects of Dyrexa, a new miracle drug to cure tuberculosis that The Three Bees, a pharmaceutical distributorship, had been administering en masse -- with tragic consequences. Having compiled all the data in her laptop computer, Tessa, not surprisingly, experiences threats but is not deterred. Unique among the diplomats' wives -- she has an identity of her own -- she won't swallow the home office's assurances that Three Bees' pills are safe, and she suffers the consequences of her outspokenness and curiosity in a horrifying manner.

When her well-bred Etonian husband, Justin Quayle, begins his search for Tessa's killers, we watch his character evolve, strengthened by his late wife's belief in the truth. In the past he preferred to putter around, tending his phlox, asters, freesias and gardenias. (He claims, "One year gardening in Kenya is worth ten in England.")

Once a rather limp diplomat who never outwardly questioned the British Foreign Office, Justin begins to slowly stand up against the cutthroat intrigues of the gray-suited establishment in his quest for the truth. He diligently digs into the garden of facts, weeding out the half-truths and lies. Soon he is arranging for false passports, traveling to Germany, Ottawa and Italy to face off against the skulduggery of the evil pharmaceutical giants on three continents. It seems he is finally united with his dead wife; she, after all, had been the one with a passion for living.

We share Justin's sense of outrage as the truth surfaces and the puzzle is solved. But when our hero, after his discovery, chooses to visit the site of Tessa's death instead of leaving Kenya, Le Carr, with one plot twist, creates a unique and tragic ending.

The Constant Gardener mixes many genres, but the main theme is betrayal. Justin unwittingly betrays Tessa by his non-involvement. The governments, both British and Kenyan, and the corporate institutions betray the African people. The Brits betray those in their own inner circle.

But the book is also a lovely, tender romance -- besotted, middle-aged Justin enthralled with his new 25-year-old bride.

And it is a typical Le Carr spy thriller. Justin adapts all the techniques of such master superspys as British Ken Philby in order to bring about the truth.

As a tragedy, it evokes a sense of utter betrayal as the story draws to a close. And finally, the novel succeeds as an expos, with Le Carr sharp, incisive focus on "the pharmas," institutions whose purpose is profit.

In the acknowledgments that follow the novel, Le Carr professes his story never really happened; he made it up. It is not based upon any institution or person; all the characters and institutions are fictional. But the full impact of these statements don't hit you until you read the assertion that follows: "By comparison with the reality, my story [is] as tame as a holiday postcard."

-- Betty Howard is a book reviewer whose work has also appeared in The Bloomsbury Review, Springs Magazine and the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

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