“The Constant Gardener,” (2001), by outstanding British spymeister/author John LeCarre, was written and published in what may be considered a particularly difficult period for him, and for other authors who specialized in Cold War –inspired spy thrillers. Because, after the famous 1989 toppling of the infamous Berlin Wall that separated the western sectors of Berlin, occupied by the Western democracies, from the eastern sectors of the city, occupied by the Russians, there was no more Cold War. And, as Le Carre had that invaluable first hand knowledge and experience of the spy biz, he had been able, before the fall, to give us such masterworks as THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, and the Karla Trilogy, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY, and SMILEYS PEOPLE. What was Le Carre, as serious a novelist as any, to do? Presumably, he wanted to keep on writing, and so started giving us stories about international drug and arms dealers, and pharmaceutical cartels, and tricked them out with all the midnight meetings of the Home Office mandarins, and their ilk, that he previously had done so well. But, unfortunately, the novels of this period frequently read like mountains laboring to bring forth a mouse. The protagonist of THE CONSTANT GARDENER, Justin Quayle, is a British diplomat, born of the upper classes, with rather little interest in the great issues of the day – he prefers working in his lovely garden—who is assigned a job in the British High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya. Quayle has been sent to Africa at a bad time: the continent’s population has been nearly overwhelmed by AIDS, and President Arap Moi's Kenya is a country in its grip. Greed, corruption, and indifference guarantee that nothing will be done to ameliorate the situation. Quayle's beautiful, wealthy wife Tessa, daughter of an Italian countess, who has taken more interest in what is happening around her than her husband has, is raped and killed. The diplomat, for the first time, begins to take an interest in the larger world, and to investigate his wife’s death. Quayle finds his wife has been looking into a major pharmaceutical company eager to promote its "wonder cure" for tuberculosis, and as the diplomat follows his late wife’s lead, his safe, carefully constructed world begins to break apart, making him vulnerable to outside forces. First things first, Le Carre does very well in giving us the physical and social life of Kenya and its capital city Nairobi, a British playground for more than a century. The Muthaiga Club apparently still stood, its pink walls bearing silent witness to the history it’s seen: Danish author/plantation owner/ baroness Karen Blixen, writing as Isak Dinesen (OUT OF AFRICA), meets her romantic, glamorous lover Denys Finch-Hatton, pilot and big-game hunter. And Beryl Markham, renowned African aviator, adventurer and author, meets him too. And on and on, you get the picture…. However, THE CONSTANT GARDENER is almost unbearably slow. At page 200, more than a third of the way into this long, 500 page book, there has been no onstage action yet. It’s all backstory, and Tessa has been killed offstage. At page 300, we have had some minor burglaries, offscreen too, as, presumably bad guys go looking for important documents and wipe clean the hard disks of the computers belonging to persons of interest. At page 350, the plot finally kicks in, for any reader who has lasted so long, but, once again, almost all the action is offstage. We never actually meet the live Tessa, which I consider to be a blessing, as she sounds as if she would be a horrendously self-righteous prig. Another problem I had with this book: its author begins it, if you can remember the famous line of the Peter Finch character in the film NETWORK, by more or less letting us know that ‘he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.’ Of course, Finch’s network news anchor utters that line at the end of the movie; otherwise, where would the movie have gone from there? And where’s the book supposed to go, if it opens in a fine rage? More recently, Le Carre has seemed to be finding his footing again in his work, I’m happy to say. But I’d recommend anyone not a crazed fan of his begin at the beginning, with his best work; then skip to his later works, and avoid the novels of the soggy middle period completely.