John le Carre

Dialogue Technique: John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener

To convince the skeptic writer that dialogue, when well written, does not require shoring up with adverbs and verbs other than the standard said, I chose a lengthy example. Not once in this excerpt from The Constant Gardener does John le Carre falter. He demonstrates master-class dialogue technique and, you’ll find, keeps the reader in the palm of his hand.

From John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener: A Novel

Sheila stood back and Woodrow strode past her into the room. Tim Donohue, the six-foot-six Head of Station, was looming in front of his desk. He must have been clearing it, for there was not a paper in sight. Donohue looked even sicker than usual. Woodrow’s wife Gloria insisted he was dying. Sunken, colorless cheeks. Nests of crumbling skin below the drooping yellowed eyes. The straggling mustache clawed downward in comic despair.
      “Sandy. Greetings. What can we do you for?” he cried, peering down on Woodrow through his bifocals and grinning his skull’s grin.
      He comes too close, Woodrow remembered. He overflies your territory and intercepts your signals before you make them. “Tessa Quayle seems to have been killed somewhere near Lake Turkana,” he said, feeling a vindictive urge to shock. “There’s a place called Oasis Lodge. I need to talk to the owner by radio.”
      This is how they’re trained, he thought. Rule one: never show your feelings, if you have any. Sheila’s freckled features, frozen in pensive rejection. Tim Donohue still grinning his foolish grin—but then the grin hadn’t meant anything in the first place.
      “Been what, old boy? Say again?”
      “Killed. Method unknown or the police aren’t saying. The driver of her jeep had his head hacked off. That’s the story.”
      “Killed and robbed?”
      “Just killed.”
      “Near Lake Turkana.”
      “Yes.”
      “What the hell was she doing up there?”
      “I’ve no idea. Visiting the Leakey site, allegedly.”
      “Does Justin know?”
      “Not yet.”
      “Anyone else we know involved?”
      “One of the things I’m trying to find out.”
      Donohue led the way to a soundproofed communications booth that Woodrow had never seen before. Colored telephones with cavities for code lozenges. A fax machine resting on what looked like an oil drum. A radio set made of stippled green metal boxes. A home-printed directory lying on top of them. So this is how our spies whisper to each other from inside our buildings, he thought. Over-world or underworld? He never knew. Donohue sat himself at the radio, studied the directory, then fumbled the controls with trembling white fingers while he intoned, “ZNB 85, ZNB 85 calling TKA 60,” like a hero in a war film. “TKA 60, do you read me, please? Over. Oasis, do you read me, Oasis? Over.”
      A burst of atmospherics was followed by a challenging, “Oasis here. Loud and clear, mister. Who are you? Over”—spoken in a raffish German accent.
      “Oasis, this is the British High Commission in Nairobi, I’m passing you to Sandy Woodrow. Over.”
      Woodrow leaned both hands on Donohue’s desk in order to come closer to the microphone.
      “This is Woodrow, Head of Chancery. Am I speaking to Wolfgang? Over.”
      “Chancellery like Hitler had one?”
      “The political section. Over.”
      “OK, Mr. Chancery, I’m Wolfgang. What’s your question? Over.”
      “I want you to give me, please, your own description of the woman who checked into your hotel as Miss Tessa Abbott. That’s correct, is it? That’s what she wrote? Over.”
      “Sure. Tessa.”
      “What did she look like? Over.”
      “Dark hair, no makeup, tall, late twenties, not British. Not for me. South German, Austrian or Italian. I’m a hotelier. I look at people. And beautiful. I’m a man too. Sexy like an animal, how she moves. And clothes like you could blow them off. That sound like your Abbott or somebody else’s? Over.”
      Donohue’s head was a few inches from his own. Sheila was standing at his other side. All three of them were gazing at the microphone.
      “Yes. That sounds like Miss Abbott. Can you tell me, please: when did she make the reservation at your hotel, and how? I believe you have an office in Nairobi. Over.”
      “She didn’t.”
      “I’m sorry?”
      “Dr. Bluhm made the reservation. Two persons, two cabins close to the pool, one night. We’ve only got one cabin free, I tell him. OK, he’ll take it. That’s some fellow. Wow. Everybody looks at them. The guests, the staff. One beautiful white woman, one beautiful African doctor. That’s a nice sight. Over.”
      “How many rooms does a cabin have?” Woodrow asked, feebly hoping to head off the scandal that was staring him in the face.
      “One bedroom, two single beds, not too hard, nice and springy. One sitting room. Everybody signs the register here. No funny names, I tell them. People get lost, I got to know who they are. So that’s her name, right? Abbott? Over.”
      “Her maiden name. Over. The PO box number she gave is the High Commission.”
      “Where’s the husband?”
      “Here in Nairobi.”
      “Oh boy.”
      “So when did Bluhm make the reservation? Over.”
      “Thursday. Thursday evening. Radios me from Loki. Tells me they expect to leave Friday first light. Loki like Lokichoggio. On the northern border. Capital of the aid agencies working South Sudan. Over.”
      “I know where Lokichoggio is. Did they say what they were doing there?”
      “Aid stuff. Bluhm’s in the aid game, right? That’s the only way you get to Loki. Works for some Belgian medical outfit, he told me. Over.”
      “So he booked from Loki and they left Loki on Friday morning early. Over.”
      “Tells me they expect to reach the west side of the lake around noon. Wants me to fix them a boat to bring them across the lake to the Oasis. ‘Listen,’ I tell him. ‘Lokichoggio to Turkana, that’s a hairy drive. Best you ride with a food convoy. The hills are lousy with bandits, there’s tribes stealing each other’s cattle, which is normal, except that ten years ago they had spears and today they all got AK47s.’ He laughs. Says he can handle it. And he can. They make it, no problem. Over.”
      “So they check in, then sign the register. Then what? Over.”
      “Bluhm tells me they want a jeep and a driver to go up to Leakey’s place first light next morning. Don’t ask me why he didn’t mention it when he booked, I didn’t ask him. Maybe they only just decided. Maybe they didn’t like to discuss their plans over the radio. ‘OK,’ I tell him. ‘You ’re lucky. You can have Noah.’ Bluhm’s pleased. She’s pleased. They walk in the garden, swim together, sit at the bar together, eat together, tell good night to everybody, go to their cabin. In the morning they leave together. I watch them. You want to know what they had for breakfast?”
      “Who saw them leave apart from you? Over.”
      “Everybody who’s awake sees them. Packed lunch, box of water, spare gas, emergency rations, medical supplies. All three of them in the front and Abbott in the middle, like one happy family. This is an oasis, OK? I got twenty guests, mostly they’re asleep. I got forty staff, mostly they’re awake. I got about a hundred guys I don’t need hanging round my car park selling animal skins and walking sticks and hunting knives. Everyone who sees Bluhm and Abbott leave waves bye-bye. I wave, the skin sellers wave, Noah waves back, Bluhm and Abbott wave back. They don’t smile. They’re serious. Like they’ve got heavy business to do, big decisions, what do I know? What you want me to do, Mr. Chancery? Kill the witnesses? Listen, I’m Galileo. Put me in prison, I’ll swear she never came to the Oasis. Over.”
      For a moment of paralysis Woodrow had no further questions, or perhaps he had too many. I’m in prison already, he thought. My life sentence started five minutes ago. He passed a hand across his eyes and when he removed it he saw Donohue and Sheila watching him with the same blank expressions they had worn when he told them she was dead.
      “When did you first get the idea something might have gone wrong? Over,” he asked lamely—like, Do you live up there all year round? Over. Or, How long have you been running your nice hotel? Over.
      “The four-track has a radio. On a trip with guests, Noah is supposed to call and say he’s happy. Noah doesn’t call. OK, radios fail, drivers forget. To make a link it’s boring. You got to stop the car, get out, set up the aerial. You still hearing me? Over.”
      “Loud and clear. Over.”
      “Except Noah never forgets. That’s why he drives for me. But he doesn’t call. Not in the afternoon, not in the evening. OK, I think. Maybe they camped somewhere, gave Noah too much to drink or something. Last thing in the evening before shutdown I radio the rangers up around the Leakey site. No sign. First thing next morning I go to Lodwar to report the loss. It’s my jeep, OK? My driver. I’m not allowed to report the loss by radio, I’ve got to do it in person. It’s a hell of a journey but that’s the law. The Lodwar police really like helping citizens in distress. My jeep went missing? Tough shit. It had two of my guests and my driver in it? Then why don’t I go look for them? It’s a Sunday, they’re not expecting to work today. They got to go to church. ‘Give us some money, lend us a car, maybe we help you,’ they tell me. I come home, I put a search party together. Over.”
      “Consisting of whom?” Woodrow was getting back into his stride.
      “Two groups. My own people, two trucks, water, spare fuel, medical supplies, provisions, Scotch in case I need to disinfect something. Over.” A cross-broadcast intervened. Wolfgang told it to get the hell off the air. Surprisingly, it did. “It’s pretty hot up here right now, Mr. Chancery. We got a hundred and fifteen Fahrenheit plus jackals and hyenas like you got mice. Over.”
      A pause, apparently for Woodrow to speak.
      “I’m listening,” Woodrow said.
      “The jeep was on its side. Don’t ask me why. The doors were closed. Don’t ask me why. One window open like five centimeters. Somebody closed the doors and locked them, took away the key. The smell unspeakable, just from the little gap. Hyena scratches all over, big dents where they’d tried to get in. Tracks all round while they went crazy. A good hyena smells blood ten kilometers away. If they’d been able to reach the bodies they’d have cracked them open one bite, got the marrow out the bones. But they didn’t. Somebody locked the door on them and left the bit of window open. So they went crazy. So would you. Over.”
      Woodrow struggled to get his words together. “The police say Noah was decapitated. Is that right? Over.”
      “Sure. He was a great guy. Family’s worried crazy. They got people everywhere looking for his head. If they can’t find the head they can’t give him a decent funeral and his spirit will come back to haunt them. Over.”
      “What about Miss Abbott? Over—” a vile vision of Tessa without her head.
      “Didn’t they tell you?”
      “No. Over.”
      “Throat cut. Over.”
      A second vision, this time of her killer’s fist as it ripped off her necklace to clear the way for the knife. Wolfgang was explaining what he did next.
      “Number one, I tell my boys, leave the doors closed. Nobody’s alive in there. Anybody opening the doors is going to have a very bad time. I leave one group to light a fire and keep watch. I drive the other group back to the Oasis. Over.”
      “Question. Over.” Woodrow was struggling to hold on.
      “What’s your question, Mr. Chancery? Come in, please. Over.”
      “Who opened the jeep? Over.”
      “The police. Soon as the police arrived, my boys get the hell out the way. No one likes police. No one likes to be arrested. Not up here. Lodwar police came first, now we’ve got the flying squad, plus some guys from Moi’s personal Gestapo. My boys are locking the till and hiding the silver, except I haven’t got any silver. Over.”
      Another delay while Woodrow wrestled for rational words.
      “Was Bluhm wearing a safari jacket when they set out for Leakey’s place? Over.”
      “Sure. Old one. More a waistcoat. Blue. Over.”
      “Did anyone find a knife at the scene of the murder? Over.”
      “No. And it was some knife, believe me. A panga with a Wilkinson blade. Went through Noah like butter. One swing. Same with her. Vump. The woman was stripped naked. Lot of bruising. Did I say that? Over.”
      No, you didn’t say that, Woodrow told him silently. You omitted her nakedness completely. The bruising also. “Was there a panga in the four-track when they set out from your lodge? Over.”
      “I never knew an African yet who didn’t take his panga on safari, Mr. Chancery.”
      “Where are the bodies now?”
      “Noah, what’s left of him, they give him to his tribe. Miss Abbott, the police sent a motor dinghy for her. Had to cut the jeep roof off. Borrowed our cutting equipment. Then strap her to the deck. No room for her downstairs. Over.”
      “Why not?” But he was already wishing he hadn’t asked.
      “Use your imagination, Mr. Chancery. You know what happens to corpses in this heat? You want to fly her down to Nairobi, you better cut her up or she won’t get into the hold.”
      Woodrow had a moment of mental numbness and when he woke from it he heard Wolfgang saying yes, he had met Bluhm once before. So Woodrow must have asked him the question, although he hadn’t heard it himself.
      “Nine months back. Bear-leading a party of fat cats in the aid game. World food, world health, world expense accounts. Bastards spent a mountain of money, wanted receipts for twice the amount. I tell them to get fucked. Bluhm liked that. Over.”
      “How did he seem to you this time? Over.”
      “What’s that mean?”
      “Was he different in any way? More excitable or strange or anything?”
      “What are you talking about, Mr. Chancery?”
      “I mean—do you think it possible he was on something? High on something, I mean?” He was floundering. “Well, like—I don’t know—cocaine or something. Over.”
      “Sweetheart,” said Wolfgang, and the line went cold.
      Woodrow was once more conscious of Donohue’s probing stare. Sheila had disappeared. Woodrow had the impression she had gone to do something urgent. But what could that be? Why should Tessa’s death require the urgent action of the spies? He felt chilly and wished he had a cardigan, yet the sweat was pouring off him.
      “Nothing more we can do for you, old boy?” Donohue asked, with peculiar solicitude, still staring down at him with his sick, shaggy eyes. “Little glass of something?”
      “Thank you. Not at present.”
      They knew, Woodrow told himself in fury as he returned downstairs. They knew before I did that she was dead. But that’s what they want you to believe: we spies know more about everything than you do, and sooner.
      “High Commissioner back yet?” he asked, shoving his head round Mildren’s door.
      “Any minute.”
      “Cancel the meeting.”
      Woodrow did not head directly for Justin’s room. He looked in on Ghita Pearson, Chancery’s most junior member, friend and confidante of Tessa. Ghita was dark-eyed, fair-haired, Anglo-Indian and wore a caste mark on her forehead. Locally employed, Woodrow rehearsed, but aspires to make the Service her career. A distrustful frown crossed her brow as she saw him close the door behind him.
      “Ghita, this one’s strictly for you, OK?” She looked at him steadily, waiting. “Bluhm. Dr. Arnold Bluhm. Yes?”
      “What about him?”
      “Chum of yours.” No response. “I mean you’re friendly with him.”
      “He’s a contact.” Ghita’s duties kept her in daily touch with the relief agencies.
      “And a chum of Tessa’s, obviously.” Ghita’s dark eyes made no comment. “Do you know other people at Bluhm’s outfit?”
      “I ring Charlotte from time to time. She’s his office. The rest are field people. Why?” The Anglo-Indian lilt to her voice that he had found so alluring. But never again. Never anybody again.
      “Bluhm was in Lokichoggio last week. Accompanied.”
      A third nod, but a slower one, and a lowering of the eyes.
      “I want to know what he was doing there. From Loki he drove across to Turkana. I need to know whether he’s made it back to Nairobi yet. Or maybe he returned to Loki. Can you do that without breaking too many eggs?”
      “I doubt it.”
      “Well, try.” A question occurred to him. In all the months he had known Tessa, it had never presented itself till now. “Is Bluhm married, d’you know?”
      “I would imagine so. Somewhere down the line. They usually are, aren’t they?”
      They meaning Africans? Or they meaning lovers? All lovers?
      “But he hasn’t got a wife here? Not in Nairobi. Or not so far as you’ve heard. Bluhm hasn’t.”
      “Why?”—softly, in a rush. “Has something happened to Tessa?”
      “It may have done. We’re finding out.”
      Reaching the door to Justin’s room, Woodrow knocked and went in without waiting for an answer. This time he did not lock the door behind him but, hands in pockets, leaned his broad shoulders against it, which for as long as he remained there had the same effect.
      Justin was standing with his elegant back to him. His neatly groomed head was turned to the wall and he was studying a graph, one of several ranged around the room, each with a caption of initials in black, each marked in steps of different colors, rising or descending. The particular graph that held his attention was titled RELATIVE INFRASTRUCTURES 2005–2010 and purported, so far as Woodrow could make out from where he stood, to predict the future prosperity of African nations. On the windowsill at Justin’s left stood a line of potted plants that he was nurturing. Woodrow identified jasmine and balsam, but only because Justin had made gifts of these to Gloria.
      “Hi, Sandy,” Justin said, drawing out the “Hi.”
      “Hi.”
      “I gather we’re not assembling this morning. Trouble at mill?”
      The famous golden voice, thought Woodrow, noticing every detail as if it were fresh to him. Tarnished by time but guaranteed to enchant, as long as you prefer tone to substance. Why am I despising you when I’m about to change your life? From now until the end of your days there will be before this moment and after it and they will be separate ages for you, just as they are for me. Why don’t you take your bloody jacket off? You must be the only fellow left in the Service who goes to his tailor for tropical suits. Then he remembered he was still wearing his own jacket.
      “And you’re all well, I trust?” Justin asked in that same studied drawl of his. “Gloria not languishing in this awful heat? The boys both flourishing and so forth?”
      “We’re fine.” A delay, of Woodrow’s manufacture. “And Tessa is up-country,” he suggested. He was giving her one last chance to prove it was all a dreadful mistake.
      Justin at once became lavish, which was what he did when Tessa’s name was spoken at him. “Yes, indeed. Her relief work is absolutely nonstop these days.” He was hugging a United Nations tome to himself, all of three inches thick. Stooping again, he laid it to rest on a side table. “She’ll have saved all Africa by the time we leave, at this rate.”
      “What’s she gone up-country for, actually?”—still clutching at straws—“I thought she was doing stuff down here in Nairobi. In the slums. Kibera, wasn’t it?”
      “Indeed she is,” said Justin proudly. “Night and day, the poor girl. Everything from wiping babies’ bottoms to acquainting paralegals with their civil rights, I’m told. Most of her clients are women, of course, which appeals to her. Even if it doesn’t appeal quite so much to their menfolk.” His wistful smile, the one that says if only. “Property rights, divorce, physical abuse, marital rape, female circumcision, safe sex. The whole menu, every day. You can see why their husbands get a little touchy, can’t you? I would, if I was a marital rapist.”
      “So what’s she doing up-country?” Woodrow persisted.
      “Oh, goodness knows. Ask Doc Arnold,” Justin threw out, too casually. “Arnold’s her guide and philosopher up there.”
      This is how he plays it, Woodrow remembered. The cover story that covers all three of them. Arnold Bluhm, M.D., her moral tutor, black knight, protector in the aid jungle. Anything but her tolerated lover. “Up where exactly?” he asked.
      “Loki. Lokichoggio.” Justin had propped himself on the edge of his desk, perhaps in unconscious imitation of Woodrow’s careless posture at the door. “The World Food Program people are running a gender awareness workshop up there, can you imagine? They fly unaware village women down from South Sudan, give them the crash course in John Stuart Mill and fly them back aware. Arnold and Tessa went up to watch the fun, lucky dogs.”
      “Where is she now?”
      Justin appeared not to like this question. Perhaps it was the moment when he realized there was purpose to Woodrow’s small talk. Or perhaps—thought Woodrow—he didn’t take kindly to being pinned down on the subject of Tessa, when he couldn’t pin her down himself.
      “On her way back, one assumes. Why?”
      “With Arnold?”
      “Presumably. He wouldn’t just leave her there.”
      “Has she been in touch?”
      “With me? From Loki? How could she be? They haven’t got telephones.”
      “I thought she might have used one of the aid agencies’ radio links. Isn’t that what other people do?”
      “Tessa’s not other people,” Justin retorted, as a frown collected on his brow. “She has strong principles. Such as not spending donors’ money unnecessarily. What’s going on, Sandy?”
      Justin scowling now, shoving himself away from the desk and placing himself upright at the center of the room with his hands behind his back. And Woodrow, observing his studiously handsome face and graying black hair in the sunlight, remembered Tessa’s hair, the same color exactly, but without the age in it, or the restraint. He remembered the first time he saw them together, Tessa and Justin, our glamorous newly wedded arrivals, honored guests of the High Commissioner’s welcome-to-Nairobi party. And how, as he had stepped forward to greet them, he had imagined to himself that they were father and daughter, and he was the suitor for her hand.
      “So you haven’t heard from her since when?” he asked.
      “Tuesday when I drove them to the airport. What is this, Sandy? If Arnold’s with her she’ll be all right. She’ll do what she’s told.”
      “Do you think they could have gone on to Lake Turkana, she and Bluhm—Arnold?”
      “If they had transport and felt like it, why not? Tessa loves the wild places, she has a great regard for Richard Leakey, both as an archaeologist and as a decent white African. Surely Leakey’s got a clinic up there? Arnold probably had work to do and took her along. Sandy, what is this?” he repeated indignantly.
      Delivering the death blow, Woodrow had no option but to observe the effect of his words on Justin’s features. And he saw how the last remnants of Justin’s departed youth drained out of him as, like some kind of sea creature, his pretty face closed and hardened, leaving only seeming coral.
      “We’re getting reports of a white woman and an African driver found on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. Killed,” Woodrow began deliberately, avoiding the word “murdered.” “The car and driver were hired from the Oasis Lodge. The lodge’s owner claims to have identified the woman as Tessa. He says she and Bluhm spent the night at the Oasis before setting out for the Richard Leakey site. Bluhm’s still missing. They’ve found her necklace. The one she always wore.”
      How do I know that? Why, in God’s name, do I choose this moment to parade my intimate knowledge of her necklace?
      Woodrow was still watching Justin. The coward in him wanted to look away, but to the soldier’s son it would have been like sentencing a man to be executed and not showing up for his hanging. He watched Justin’s eyes widen in injured disappointment, as if he had been hit from behind by a friend, then dwindle to almost nothing, as if the same friend had knocked him unconscious. He watched his nicely carved lips part in a spasm of physical pain, then gather themselves into a muscular line of exclusion turned pale by pressure.
      “Good of you to tell me, Sandy. Can’t have been pleasant. Does Porter know?” Porter was the High Commissioner’s improbable first name.
      “Mildren’s chasing him up. They found a Mephisto boot. Size seven. Does that figure?”
      Justin was having difficulty coordinating. First he had to wait for the sound of Woodrow’s words to catch up with him. Then he hastened to respond in brisk, hard-won sentences. “There’s this shop off Piccadilly. She bought three pairs last home leave. Never seen her splash out like that. Not a spender as a rule. Never had to think about money. So she didn’t. Dress at the Salvation Army shop. Given half a chance.”
      “And some kind of safari tunic. Blue.”
      “Oh she absolutely hated the beastly things,” Justin retorted, as the power of speech came back to him in a flood. “She said if I ever caught her wearing one of those khaki contraptions with pockets on the thighs I should burn it or give it to Mustafa.”
      Mustafa, her houseboy, Woodrow remembered. “The police say blue.”
      “She detested blue”—now apparently on the verge of losing his temper—“she absolutely loathed anything paramilitary.” The past tense already, Woodrow noticed. “She once owned a green bush jacket, I grant you. She bought it at Farbelow’s in Stanley Street. I took her, don’t know why. Probably made me. Hated shopping. She put it on and promptly had a fit. ‘Look at me,’ she said. ‘I’m General Patton in drag.’ No, sport, I told her, you’re not General Patton. You’re a very pretty girl wearing a bloody awful green jacket.”

For other examples of dialogue techniques in practice and the principles of writing good dialogue:

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist