Once the undisputed master of the Cold War spy thriller, John Le Carré has lately claimed a new fiefdom in Africa, a continent that's aroused his conscience with its poverty and strife, and the efforts of Western neo-colonialists to exploit the situation for everything it's worth. As a consequence, readers have had to swallow a tablespoon of didacticism with their intrigue, though The Constant Gardener, Le Carré's righteous swipe against Big Pharma, at least had an affecting love story at its core. His new novel, The Mission Song, about corporate shenanigans in the Congo, feels so dry and programmatic that it might as well be delivered from a lectern. Backroom deals and polite underhandedness have always been a part of Le Carré's work, but most of the book takes place around a conference table, and the minutes of these meetings don't come alive in transcription.

A man between worlds in every possible sense, Le Carré's mild-mannered hero Bruno "Salvo" Salvador was the love child of an Irish Catholic missionary and a woman from a Congolese village. Having married well (albeit not for love), Salvo works as an interpreter in London, but his heart still lies in the Congo, where he picked up many of the obscure local dialects that have made him a valuable commodity. On assignment with British intelligence, Salvo is jettisoned at a secret location in the North Sea and is pleased to find himself in the middle of a negotiation to unify the war-torn nation. Gathered around the table are various players from opposing factions, whom Western officials are hoping to unite under a plan called the Middle Path. Initially excited to be a part of history in the making, Salvo is shocked—shocked!—to discover that the meeting's sponsors have ulterior motives.

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After briskly establishing Salvo's background and his swift ascent through the channels of British intelligence, The Mission Song gets on the island and stays there, growing more inert by the page. As with Gardener, Le Carré attempts to mix love and politics—here in the form of a Congolese nurse with whom Salvo has a passionate tryst—but the whole scenario is so rigged that the players are merely stick figures in his grand design. He's created a suspense novel with no mysteries.