“The Mission Song” by John LeCarré (Week 2 – Book a Week)

The Performance

I listened to this book on CD’s borrowed from the Lincoln Square’s Sulzer Library and, first, let me highlight the performance of the actor, David Oyelowo.  He doesn’t need my praise to lift his career, Oyelowo has gone on to act in many successful television shows and films.  As far as I can tell, this is his only performance in an audio book, but what a performance.  He is just as believable as a female British newspaper editor as he is as a grizzled Bembe warrior.

There is no stock Pan-African style voice gets trotted out every time an African character speaks. Oyelowo narrates men and women from all over the world and makes every voice distinct and real. African voices are hard to do and they don’t always come off, see Steve Bucsemi’s reading of Pagan Babies.

With The Mission Song, Oyelowo drew as difficult a read as an actor could hope for and doesn’t just pull it off he impresses the whole way.

The Work

The book itself is a spy thriller.  We follow an interpreter hired by a shady, nameless organization to negotiate a shady and nameless deal to start a war in the Congo.

Unlike older spy novels that followed familiar Cold War dynamics, this one deals with the more unfamiliar political situation in the Congo. Though it’s not as easy to grasp, the novelty makes the book feel fresher and more interesting than yet another story about mounting an attack on the Nazis or the Commies.

The political world makes the creepy syndicate that much more creepy, and makes the many cogs in the machine that much more helpless arousing painful empathy for the characters.

I found some of the situations so uncomfortable that I had to switch over to the radio until I had the courage to move on.  For some reason, it is much easier for me to skip a page when I’m reading than to jump to the next track in an audio book.


It’s a common knock on LeCarré these days that with time his books have become less fun and more political.  I don’t know that I line up on that complaint.  If the author doesn’t have a point of view, what is the point?  I don’t think every book should be as strident as say, The Jungle, but if LeCarré is paying attention to European intervention in Africa I am happy to be filled in.  The political polemics add to the intrigue.

Ultimately, the book satisfies, not as a pamphlet for a cause, but as a story with characters the reader cannot help but care about.


Recommended (especially audio version)



Week 3 – Machine Man

Week 4 – The Magician King