"One of the great delights of Le Carre is the feeling he engenders of being an insider. "
The tale starts in Antigua where Perry Makepiece, an Oxford don with ambitions to do something useful, and his beautiful barrister girlfriend, Gail, are spending a holiday, relaxing in the sun and playing tennis. They encounter Dima, a large Russian bear of a man, who professes a strong desire to pit his skills against Perry on the tennis court. He does, however, have an ulterior motive. He wants Perry and Gail to be his introduction to the British Secret Service, for whom he has an interesting proposal.
Dima is a strange mixture of violence and sentimentality, and his language varies from brutal to mawkish. He is a hugely rich member of the Russian mafia who has achieved his great wealth from being the best international money launderer around. He has fallen out with the big bosses at home and is in danger of losing his life and fortune at their hands. Perry and Gail are dragged into the intrigue with some reluctance, but also with a sneaking desire to get involved.
The story moves from the West Indies to Paris, to Switzerland via London involving British agents, Russian gangsters and the unfortunate family of Dima and the two innocents abroad, Gail and Perry.