The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at nine-thirty on a Monday morning. Sandy Woodrow took it like a bullet, jaw rigid, chest out, smack through his divided English heart. He was standing. That much he afterwards remembered. He was standing and the internal phone was piping. He was reaching for something, he heard the piping so he checked himself in order to stretch down and fish the receiver off the desk and say, "Woodrow." Or maybe, "Woodrow here." And he certainly barked his name a bit, he had that memory for sure, of his voice sounding like someone else's, and sounding stroppy: "Woodrow here," his own perfectly decent name, but without the softening of his nickname Sandy, and snapped out as if he hated it, because the High Commissioner's usual prayer meeting was slated to start in thirty minutes prompt, with Woodrow, as Head of Chancery, playing in-house moderator to a bunch of special-interest prima donnas, each of whom wanted sole possession of the High Commissioner's heart and mind.
In short, just another bloody Monday in late January, the hottest time in the Nairobi year, a time of dust and water shortages and brown grass and sore eyes and heat ripping off the city pavements; and the jacarandas, like everybody else, waiting for the long rains.
Exactly why he was standing was a question he never resolved. By rights he should have been crouched behind his desk, fingering his keyboard, anxiously reviewing guidance material from London and incomings from neighboring African missions. Instead of which he was standing in front of his desk and performing some unidentified vital act -- such as straightening the photograph of his wife Gloria and two small sons, perhaps, taken last summer while the family was on home leave. The High Commission stood on a slope, and its continuing subsidence was enough to tilt pictures out of true after a weekend on their own.
Or perhaps he had been squirting mosquito spray at some Kenyan insect from which even diplomats are not immune. There had been a plague of "Nairobi eye" a few months back, flies that when squidged and rubbed accidentally on the skin could give you boils and blisters, and even send you blind. He had been spraying, he heard his phone ring, he put the can down on his desk and grabbed the receiver: also possible, because somewhere in his later memory there was a color-slide of a red tin of insecticide sitting in the out tray on his desk. So, "Woodrow here," and the telephone jammed to his ear.
"Oh, Sandy, it's Mike Mildren. Good morning. You alone by any chance?"
Shiny, overweight, twenty-four-year-old Mildren, High Commissioner's private secretary, Essex accent, fresh out from England on his first overseas posting -- and known to the junior staff, predictably, as Mildred.
Yes, Woodrow conceded, he was alone. Why?
"Something's come up, I'm afraid, Sandy. I wondered if I might pop down a moment actually."
"Can't it wait till after the meeting?"
"Well, I don't think it can really -- no, it can't," Mildren replied, gathering conviction as he spoke. "It's Tessa Quayle, Sandy."
A different Woodrow now, hackles up, nerves extended. Tessa. "What about her?" he said. His tone deliberately incurious, his mind racing in all directions. Oh Tessa. Oh Christ. What have you done now?
"The Nairobi police say she's been killed," Mildren said, as if he said it every day.
"Utter nonsense," Woodrow snapped back before he had given himself time to think. "Don't be ridiculous. Where? When?"
"At Lake Turkana. The eastern shore. This weekend. They're being diplomatic about the details. In her car. An unfortunate accident, according to them," he added apologetically. "I had a sense that they were trying to spare our feelings."
"Whose car?" Woodrow demanded wildly -- fighting now, rejecting the whole mad concept -- who, how, where and his other thoughts and senses forced down, down, down, and all his secret memories of her furiously edited out, to be replaced by the baked moonscape of Turkana as he recalled it from a field trip six months ago in the unimpeachable company of the military attache.
"Stay where you are, I'm coming up. And don't talk to anyone else, d'you hear?"
Moving by numbers now, Woodrow replaced the receiver, walked round his desk, picked up his jacket from the back of his chair and pulled it on, sleeve by sleeve. He would not customarily have put on a jacket to go upstairs. Jackets were not mandatory for Monday meetings, let alone for going to the private office for a chat with chubby Mildren. But the professional in Woodrow was telling him he was facing a long journey. Nevertheless on his way upstairs he managed by a sturdy effort of self-will to revert to his first principles whenever a crisis appeared on his horizon, and assure himself, just as he had assured Mildren, that it was a lot of utter nonsense. In support of which, he summoned up the sensational case of a young Englishwoman who had been hacked to pieces in the African bush ten years ago. It's a sick hoax, of course it is. A replay in somebody's deranged imagination. Some wildcat African policeman stuck out in the desert, half loco on bangi, trying to bolster the dismal salary he hasn't been paid for six months.
The newly completed building he was ascending was austere and well designed. He liked its style, perhaps because it corresponded outwardly with his own. With its neatly defined compound, canteen, shop, fuel pump and clean, muted corridors, it gave off a self-sufficient, rugged impression. Woodrow, to all appearances, had the same sterling qualities. At forty, he was happily married to Gloria -- or if he wasn't, he assumed he was the only person to know it. He was Head of Chancery and it was a fair bet that, if he played his cards right, he would land his own modest mission on his next posting, and from there advance by less modest missions to a knighthood -- a prospect to which he himself attached no importance, of course, but it would be nice for Gloria. There was a bit of the soldier about him, but then he was a soldier's son. In his seventeen years in Her Majesty's Foreign Service he had flown the flag in half a dozen overseas British missions. All the same, dangerous, decaying, plundered, bankrupt, once-British Kenya had stirred him more than most of them, though how much of this was due to Tessa he dared not ask himself.
"All right," he said aggressively to Mildren, having first closed the door behind him and dropped the latch.
Mildren had a permanent pout. Seated at his desk he looked like a naughty fat boy who has refused to finish up his porridge.
"She was staying at the Oasis," he said.
"What Oasis? Be precise, if you can."
But Mildren was not as easily rattled as his age and rank might have led Woodrow to believe. He had been keeping a shorthand record, which he now consulted before he spoke. Must be what they teach them these days, thought Woodrow with contempt. How else does an Estuary upstart like Mildren find time to pick up shorthand?
"There's a lodge on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, at the southern end," Mildren announced, his eyes on the pad. "It's called the Oasis. Tessa spent the night there and set off next morning in a four-track provided by the lodge's owner. She said she wanted to see the birthplace of civilization two hundred miles north. The Leakey dig? He corrected himself. The site of Richard Leakey's excavation. In the Sibiloi National Park."
"Wolfgang provided a driver. His body's in the four-track with hers."
"The lodge's owner. Surname to follow. Everyone calls him Wolfgang. He's German, apparently. A character. According to the police, the driver's been brutally murdered."
"Who's missing? You said he was in the car with her."
"The head's missing. I might have guessed that for myself, mightn't I?"
"How's Tessa supposed to have died?"
"An accident. That's all they're saying."
"Was she robbed?"
"Not according to the police."
The absence of a theft, coupled with the driver's murder, had Woodrow's imagination racing.
About the book:
The novel opens in northern Kenya with the gruesome murder of Tessa Quayle--young, beautiful, and dearly beloved to husband Justin. When Justin sets out on a personal odyssey to uncover the mystery of her death, what he finds could make him not only a suspect among his own colleagues, but a target for Tessa's killers as well.
One of the most compelling and elegant storytellers of our time, John Le Carre portrays the dark side of unbridled capitalism with astonishing clarity, as only he can.
Excerpt from Breakfast at Tiffany's
- Truman Capote
Excerpt from First Love
- Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev