John le Carre

A Most Wanted Man

  • This summary of A Most Wanted Man includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Most Wanted Man Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre.

Combining John le Carré’s personal experience with more of an “in-the-field” story than his usual espionage work, most notably the classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, A Most Wanted Man (2008) was seen as an attempt to keep his work modern by addressing terrorism and the Bush-era practice of rendition and torture. Le Carré uses thriller plot pacing and tropes to examine the morality—or lack thereof—of a system that is unconcerned with actual guilt in favor of simply assuming the worst and accepting mistakes as collateral damage.

The story opens in Hamburg, Germany. Leyla, a Turkish woman and her boxing champion son, known as Big Melik, are being followed by a mysterious man in a dark overcoat. When they arrive home, the man identifies himself as Issa, saying he is a devout Muslim. He asks them for food and shelter; feeling it is their spiritual duty to provide these, they invite Issa into their home. Issa tells them he wishes to become a doctor.

Issa contacts Annabel Richter, an immigration lawyer working for a human rights organization. Annabel is young, attractive, and idealistic. Issa has been smuggled into Hamburg and shows physical evidence of having been tortured. He tells her that he has been brought to Hamburg to retrieve a large sum of money that had been left in the care of Brue Frères, a British bank based in Hamburg.

Annabel takes his case and meets with Tommy Brue, the aging president of the bank. Brue is smitten with Annabel and does not tell her that his bank is on the verge of collapse. Brue agrees to meet with Issa, and Annabel takes the young man to the bank. Issa claims that his father was a Russian army officer named Karpov and that his father opened the account. Issa is not a Muslim, but a Russian aristocrat; he claims not to want the money. Suspicious of Issa, Brue refuses to release the funds, in part, because he is not sure the bank can survive to loose the money. However, he offers Annabel a personal check to cover her expenses as she works to prevent Issa’s deportation.

Annabel moves Issa into her new apartment, which she recently purchased but has never lived in. Members of British intelligence visit Brue, informing him that they set up the account and handled payments from organized crime. They ask him to alert them if Issa returns. Annabel is visited by Bachmann, a German intelligence agent, who tells her he suspects Issa is a Chechen terrorist who recently escaped into Germany. Annabel is later arrested and interrogated by Bachmann; she finally agrees to work with Bachmann in exchange for getting Issa a German passport and permission to temporarily stay in Hamburg.

Bachmann explains what he wants: He wants Annabel to convince Issa to accept the money and then donate it to an Islamic philanthropist. German intelligence is trying to link this man, Abdullah, to terrorism; they hope they can trace the money to do so. As a sweetener, Bachmann suggests that Issa could make it a condition of his donation that Abdullah pays for his medical education as one of his charitable acts. Annabel tries to convince Issa to accept this deal while Brue agrees to assist the British.

A meeting of various intelligence officials reveals the duplicity going on. The evidence that Abdullah is a terrorist financier is shown to be flimsy, and the plot to track Issa’s money a desperate attempt to justify that belief. The officers openly discuss reneging on their deal with Issa, planning to monitor the withdrawal of the funds with armed men on hand because they believe Issa will come armed and attempt violence.

Annabel and Issa arrive at the bank with Brue. Issa reveals his key to the safety deposit box, and they retrieve the money. Abdullah arrives and accepts the donation. The intelligence officers have the evidence they need; Bachmann arrives on the scene disguised as a taxi driver and begins to take charge of Issa—but before he can do anything, an unmarked van crashes into him, pinning his arm. Both Abdullah and Issa are kidnapped right off the street and dragged into the van, which drives away, leaving a CIA officer behind to deal with Bachmann. The United States has betrayed its allies, pursuing its own agenda, arresting Issa and Abdullah as terrorists, and taking them to extraordinary rendition and certain torture. Bachmann tries to elicit an explanation from the American, but the CIA agent heavily implies that as of that moment, Issa never existed in the first place, and there is little that anyone can do about it.