John le Carre is an honorable man. In his acknowledgements, he gives due credit to Graham Greene as follows: "Without GrahamGreene this book would never have come about. After Graham Greene's OUR MAN IN HAVANA the notion of ................ " With that out of the way, THE TAILOR OF PANAMA is pure John le Carre and is his alone. Like most of the better spy genre authors, le Carre had to make some adjustments in theme since the end of the Cold War. In my opinion, he again shows that he is up to the task in THE TAILOR OF PANAMA.
Andy Osnard, "young Mr. Osnard" to his rather pompous, conspiracy minded, Intelligence chief back in London, is posted to the Panamanian Embassy with the express objective of finding a plot to take over the canal when the Americans leave. He rightly understands that he is to find a plot even if none exists. "Young Mr. Osnard," has larceny in his heart and sees this posting as a golden opportunity to get rich.
As his man in Panama, he picks Harry Pendel, gentlemen's tailor to the rich and powerful. Harry is already living a double life. He is actually an ex-convict who learned tailoring in a British prison. He has come to Panama and invented a background for himself that has him being the junior partner of what was once London's finest tailor shop, and who relocated to Panama after the heart-wrenching death of his beloved partner. He has also gotten himself into serious financial difficulties in Panama.
Along comes "young Mr. Osnard" with threats to expose Harry if he refuses to spy on his important clientele. Along with the threats are promises of substantial monetary gain if he cooperates. Harry succumbs to the combination of the stick and the carrot.
In reality Harry is privy to nothing, but there's really nothing to be privy to anyway. This doesn't present much of a problem to a man with Harry's creative imagination. Before long there is a network of spies made up entirely of Harry and his creativity. There is "the silent opposition" and the "students" and the "fishermen" and the mysterious folk from "the other side of the bridge." There are clandestine meetings between high ranking Pandamanian officials and mysterious foreign delegations, and even a serious plot to build a bigger, better canal. And above all, there is the threat of rebellion and violence. Harry's information leaves no doubt that revolution is brewing.
As if this wasn't trouble enough, there is a real meeting of a small powerful group of millionaire power brokers and military opportunists back in Jolly Old England. These movers and shakers can make the unbelievable believable to the public in order to justify a military takeover of the canal. To top this off, a few highly placed British politicians need a boost in their popularity to keep their careers moving. The Panama plot is just what they need.
This tale of deviousness, incompetence, lies, ambitions run amok, and con artists conning other con artists keeps us chuckling until we realize its explosive nature. By the time Harry Pendel, the spy tailor, comes to the same realization it is too late. Way too late.
There is a moral to this tale: Only the innocent and naive shall be punished, the guilty shall be rewarded.