Jonathan Pine, a former British soldier, is the night manager. We first meet him in that capacity at the Hotel Meister Palace in Zurich. He is on duty when the "worst man in the world", Richard Onslow Roper arrives with his entourage on a cold blizzardy night. Roper is a billionaire criminal who traffics illegal arms and drugs. The novel is about Pine's preoccupation with undoing Roper's criminal enterprise. This begins earlier in Cairo, where again Pine is working as the night manager at the luxurious Queen Nefertiti hotel, when he first encounters Roper.
One night, Pine encounters Sophie, a French-Arab woman who is the mistress of the hotel owner, Freddie Hamid, who has ties to Roper. Sophie characterises Roper as "the worst man in the world". She provides Pine with incriminating documents, asking him to forward them to the Egyptian authorities. Pine does so, but he disregards her warning that Roper has ties to British intelligence and forwards copies to a friend with MI6. A short time later, Sophie is found murdered. Pine angrily confronts his friend, who dismisses Pine's accusations, saying no further action will be taken.
Pine is approached by ex SIS Chief Leonard Burr and his senior civil servant backer Rex Goodhew, who have set up a small counter arms proliferation office and are planning an elaborate sting operation against Roper. Eager to avenge Sophie, Pine agrees to go undercover to infiltrate Roper's vast criminal empire, but the operation is jeopardised by an inter-agency turf war within the intelligence community, with a suspicion of collusion with Roper somewhere.
Burr's operation, a joint effort between Burr and sympathetic American colleagues, is code-named "Limpet." The first stage is for Pine to fabricate a criminal identity and cover story and head to the Bahamas, where Roper's main residence is. Pine wins the confidence of Roper by "rescuing" his son from a phony kidnapping orchestrated by Burr, suffering severe injury in the process when the kidnappers beat him up. When he recovers, Roper recruits Pine into his organisation, in preparation for his latest and largest illegal arms deal, with a Colombian drug cartel.
The other part of Operation Limpet, unknown to Pine, is that the cartel's lawyer, Dr. Paul Apostoll, is secretly an informant for the American FBI and DEA. He explains to Burr that the cartel has grown so large and influential that it considers itself a "state within a state" and, fittingly, has decided to organise its bands of enforcers along the lines of a professional army, complete with military-grade weaponry and training. Roper has agreed to supply the weaponry, and training from experienced mercenaries, in exchange for a large shipment of cocaine, at a discount price, which Roper will then sell in Europe for an enormous profit.
With Burr's prodding, Apostoll plants the suggestion in his employers' minds that Roper's normal front man, Major Corkoran, is unreliable, forcing Roper to use Pine instead. Corkoran is convinced that Pine is a plant, but cannot find any proof. While signing the paperwork Pine gathers information to convict Roper. He has also fallen in love with Roper's innocent English mistress, Jed.
Meanwhile, however, corrupt factions within both the CIA and British Intelligence are profiting from the illegal arms trade and mount their own operation, which they call 'Flagship', to scuttle Burr's sting operation. They subtly threaten Goodhew, who backs off the whole case, and betray Pine's true identity to Roper, who holds him captive on his yacht and tortures him.
The outlines of Flagship are confessed to Burr by a drunken Harry Palfrey, privy to it all but now stricken by conscience. To save Pine, Burr sacrifices his operation and allows Roper to get away, by contacting Roper's "satrap," Sir Anthony Bradshaw, and bluffing that he has enough evidence to send Roper to prison, with harsh consequences for any associates, but will stay his hand if Pine and Jed are released unharmed. Bradshaw and Roper fall for the deception, and Roper complies.
As with many Le Carre novels, the story has an ambiguous ending. Pine is saved and he and Jed live quietly as a couple in England, but Roper and his corrupt allies complete their deal and profit from it, while Burr and the honest American enforcement officers working with him are discredited.
- Author: John le Carré
- Country: United Kingdom
- Language: English
- Genre: Spy novel
- Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
- Publication date: 1993
- Media type: Print (hardback & paperback)
- Pages: 429 pp
- ISBN: 0-679-42513-6