John Le Carré, The Constant Gardener

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Africans have good reason to fear international pharmaceutical companies. In Kano, Nigeria, Big Pharma was connected to one atrocity that lead to the loss of human life, years of law suits, and, it is speculated, to John le Carré’s The Constant Gardner (2001). Summarized in several newspapers (e.g., Stephens, 2000, 2006), Nigeria, suffering meningococcal meningitis epidemic, allowed Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF) to set up clinics in Kano to treat the sick. MSF treated patients, particularly children, with chloramphenicol, a drug approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) for bacterial meningitis. But the cases overwhelmed MSF’s ability to contain the epidemic.

Then the American pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, offered desperate patients the experimental drug trovafloxacin. Pfizer scientists did not tell these impoverished, poorly educated patients that they were test subjects, human guinea pigs, taking a risky drug in an experiment without independent oversight. Nigeria was ruled by a corrupt military under de facto leader Sani Abacha during Pfizer’s three-week experiment in Kano. No government official ensured that the company obtained the necessary approvals to use the drug. Subsequently, records for the 350 patients treated disappeared. After years of litigation, deaths, injuries (blindness, deafness, brain damage), and deferred approvals, Pfizer withdrew Trovan from the market due to the risk of hepatotoxicity (Washington 2006).

Although claiming the Pfizer tragedy was not his direct model (Edwards, 2009), le Carré vents his undisguised indignation at the death-for-profit scenario by turning a murder mystery and political thriller into an exacting psychological study of a man’s belated discovery of his “authenticity of being” (Snyder, 126). The protagonist Justin Quayle is a diffident, mid-level British envoy in Narobi, Kenya, who is initially suspected of murdering his much younger, activist wife, Tessa Abbott Quayle, and of masterminding the disappearance of her mentor and putative lover, Belgian-African Dr. Arnold Bluhm. Justin sets out to find Tessa’s assassins, but his search turns into a quest that leads him to international duplicities, official betrayals, and his moral redemption.

Typical of le Carré’s diegetic style, the novel depends on embedded narratives told through interrogations, documents, flashbacks, news reports, rumors (both false and verifiable), and contemporaneous revelations that force readers to re-evaluate their inferences about the characters and their motives, and of institutions and the ethical demands and compromises made upon both. The overall, or frame, narrative centers on illegal drug testing done by the “respectful” institution, the Swiss-Canadian pharma-giant Karel Vita Hudson (KVH) and its partner, the ubiquitous conglomerate ThreeBees. While pharmaceutical companies including KVH have devised and carefully tested many beneficial drugs, in this case, working under the cover of AIDS tests and treatments, KVH and ThreeBees are rushing into global distribution a tuberculosis drug, Dypraxa, by testing it in Africa where controls and licensing are far less rigorous than in the West.

KVH publishes claims that the trials show exceptionally positive and reliable results. The tests do not “distinguish. . .between rich and poor countries” and are being conducted “with the informed consent of all patients” (Gardener, 420). However, “the trials were bullshit” (Gardener, 418), and KHV and ThreeBees know Dypraxa has severe side effects—everything from blindness to death. The results were hastily rewritten “by distinguished opinion leaders who did not declare their profitable connections with KVH” (Gardener, 418). Few illiterate patients who complained were told “their children [would] receive no more medicines from America and their men [would] go to prison” (Gardener, 419).

Le Carré adds complexity to KHV’s motives by linking its merger with Sir Kenneth K. Curtiss’ company, “Bell, Barker, & Benjamin. . . known otherwise as ThreeBees”, a Third World venture with a “finger in every African pie but British to the core” (Gardener, 171) to the African experiment. Through “the compulsive Judas” (Gardener, 554) Markus Lorbeer, Curtiss, “golfer and crook” (Gardener, 171), acquired ownership of the Dypraxa and agreed to put up “one quarter of the estimated £500 million research and development costs. . .in exchange for all-Africa sale and distribution rights” (Gardener, 251) and part of the drug’s worldwide earnings. Influence and complicity, greed and violence, are norms, and compliant scientists are cheap and dispensable.

Corruption doesn’t cease with KHV and ThreeBees. Curtiss is not only “a whiz-kid playboy” (Gardener, 251) and nefarious corporate powerbroker, he’s also major political donor (“half a fucking million quid to party funds” (Gardener, 448), an insider to Scotland Yard’s hierarchy, and a highly valued informant for the British Secret Service and the Foreign Office. His confederate is the fulgurous and venal Sir Bernard Pellegrin (the vulture peregrine), “Foreign Office mandarin with special responsibility for Africa” (Gardener, 22-23). Pellegrin has his sights on even higher office in the FO and, so, avoids any act that might jeopardize his or Britain’s political influence or economic position in Africa.

Andrew (“Sandy”) Woodrow, Head of Chancery at the British High Commission in Nairobi and liaison to its corrupt President, represented the FO in theatre. Sandy, the “status quo man” (Gardener, 45) has hopes that “if he played his cards right” (Gardener, 4) he will someday move into Pellegrin’s post. Sandy is first to receive the news that Tessa has been found near Lake Turkana, naked, bruised, repeatedly raped, her throat slit and her body, along with that of her decapitated driver, Noah, left in an overturned four track with the doors intentionally locked. Dr. Bluhm, who was with Tessa, is missing. While a partially open window attracted hyenas that clawed to “reach the bodies” (Gardener, 14), the locked car protected the bodies and left them as warnings to any others who pursued Tessa’s and Bluhm’s investigations. Facing the police, Sandy’s first duty is to protect the British position above all else.

Sandy Woodrow meets the news of Tessa’s murder in the classic English way le Carré has portrayed in nearly every novel. His “jaw rigid, chest out, smack through his divided English heart” (Gardener, 1). Sandy goes immediately to Tim Donohue, Head of Station and, hence, the mission’s resident spy. Donohue has information that Sandy must gather if he hopes “to head off the scandal that was staring him in the face” (Gardener, 11). Donohue, with his crumbing skin below the drooping yellowed eyes. . .[and] mustache clawed downward in comic despair”, reacts as a representative of the true British spirit, “trained . . . never show your feelings” (Gardener, 9).

Sandy learns that Tessa and Bluhm spent a night at the Oasis Lodge and left the next morning allegedly to visit the Richard Leakey dig through hills “lousy with bandits [who] all got AK47s” (Gardener, 12). Sandy gets what information he can and orders his men away from the murder scene; Donohue glibly asks him “Nothing more we can do for you, old boy?” (Gardener, 17). Donohue’s tone implies that he knew before anyone else of Tessa’s murder. Throughout the novel, public dialogue, such as Sandy’s or Pellegrin’s official statements, is performance while internal dialogue and ghost talking (i.e., Justin’s exchanges with his memory of Tessa) are revelatory.

Sandy’s unarticulated thoughts and his letter to Tessa show him as a graceless bureaucrat with a secret infatuation with Tessa. He deliberately delays telling Justin of his wife’s murder. Like so many others in le Carré’s novels, Sandy will ensure that the problem is camouflaged into obscurity. He begins the cover-up by looking for Ghita Pearson, the “dark-eyed, fair-haired, Anglo-Indian” junior member who was Tessa’s friend and confidant. He wants information on Tessa’s “moral tutor, black knight, protector in the aid jungle” (Gardener, 20), Arnold Bluhm, “without breaking too many eggs” (Gardener, 17). Later Sandy makes sure that, when the British press reports the story, Bluhm is portrayed as “your archetypal black killer. . .[who] cut her throat . . . and [ran] off into the bush to . . .do whatever those salon blacks do when they revert to type” (Gardener, 63).

Scotland Yard detectives provide the interrogation on which le Carré relies. The diplomats disdain the detectives, Rob and Lesley, who interrogate Sandy, then Justin, a move that sets the two men and their propensity for betrayal in stark contrast. Sandy insinuates that Tessa and Justin’s marriage was suspicious because “she was beautiful. Witty. Young. [Justin] was forty-something. … Menopausal, heading for injury time, lonely, infatuated (Gardener, 89). But to protect his service, Sandy degrades her “as a tiresome and hysterical woman who was mentally unstable in respect to matters related to her aid work” (Gardener, 265). She was not trustworthy by his standards. After all, Tessa became “pretty much unhinged” after she and Justin lost their newborn boy, Garth (Gardener, 95).

Justin’s interrogation is significantly different. Already seeking reasons behind his overwhelming loss, Justin knows himself to be a “fully paid up pessimist” who insulated himself from his profession by regarding “any form of idealism with the deepest skepticism” (Gardener, 152). Tessa, “a stranger to deceit” (160), was on a mission to expose “a great social injustice. A great crime; she called it both” (157). He admits to the detectives he failed Tessa by “detaching himself” in favor of his garden, by “letting her go it alone” and “follow her conscience” while he got “on with my job” (142). Groomed for the FO as a member of the British elite, the bereaved widower confesses to his complacency and betrayal of not only his beloved wife, but of her values and commitment.

Telling the detectives about their son Garth’s premature death, Justin explains Tessa chose to have their baby in the Uhuru Hospital where she met and befriended a pregnant woman “from one of the slum villages. … Wanza, surname unknown” (Gardener, 161). Wanza dies, and her body and her baby disappear not only from the hospital but from all records. No post mortem. No death certificate. There is only Tessa telling Justin that Wanza had last been seen by a white doctor and his students who sported “three golden bees embroidered on the pocket of each coat” (Gardener, 163). Justin keeps from his interrogators Tessa’s lament that ties the novel’s narratives together: “They killed her! she blurted, straight into his face because he was holding her so close. Those bastards killed Wanza, Justin! They killed her with their poison” (Gardener, 166).

Tessa’s death leads to le Carré’s core narrative, the transformation of Justin Quayle from shy, detached observer to engaged, thinking humanist. Searching for why Tessa was murdered, Justin inevitably takes up her crusade which “was more important to her than her own life” and became more important than his life (Gardener, 261). He finds himself seeking “to extinguish his own identity and revive hers; to kill Justin, and bring Tessa back to life” (Gardener, 250). He discovers that Tessa had sent evidence to Sir Pellegrin proving members of the British and Kenyan governments were, for profit, secretly aiding KHV and ThreeBees in testing Dypraxa. Pellegrin made sure the information was “lost”. Subsequently Tessa received death threats [“PIGBITCH … GO BACK TO YOUR RIDICULOUS EUNUCH HUSBAND AND BEHAVE YOURSELF. GET YOUR SHITTY NOSE OUT OF OUR BUSINESS NOW! IF NOT, YOU WILL BE DEAD MEAT AND THAT’S A SOLEMN PROMISE” (Gardener, 259)] but hid them from Justin. He crisscrosses the world following leads as Tessa and Dr. Bluhm did, quietly tracking this international conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions. At each juncture, “New landscapes of information are unfolding before his eyes” (Gardener, 296).

Justin identifies her betrayers—such as Pellegrin, Woodrow, Crick, and “the compulsive Judas” (Gardener, 554) Markus Lorbeer—, rewrites “her scandalously discarded memorandum for her”, and shares “with her the last of all her secrets” (Gardener, 555). Justin’s psychological quest, as is typical of le Carré’s secret sharers, leads to him understanding the many levels of betrayal that he has sanctioned, to an empowering freedom from deceit, a decisive existential change, and, inevitably, to his death in the African bush by Tessa’s murderers.

But betrayal continues even after Justin is silenced. While Justin has ensured Tessa’s incriminating documents become public, the revelations only lead to rumblings in press and parliament about a conspiracy behind Tessa’s murder. Otherwise, nothing. Justin’s London employers report that, “deranged by despair and grief, [Justin] had taken his own life at the very spot where his wife Tessa had been murdered only weeks before” (Gardener, 540).

The FO’s official statement is not the last betrayal. After “the unhappy passing of Justin Quayle” (Gardener, 540), Sandy is rewarded for dealing diplomatically with Tessa Quayle's murder by being made high commissioner. Pellegrin, “an uninterested public learned”, retires early “to take up a senior managerial post with … Karel Vita Hudson” where, thanks to his “fabled skills at networking” (Gardener, 539), he is most welcome. Kenny Curtiss is forced out of ThreeBees, but the removal is seen as “nothing less than an act of daylight sandbagging” (Gardener, 539); Curtiss is shortly thereafter made a lord. The Scotland Yard officers doggedly investigating Tessa’s death, leave the police service with “no publicity at all” (Gardener, 540). Ghita is denied a post as a British foreign servant perhaps because she is deemed “too easily swayed by her personal feelings” but certainly not because of her “mixed race” (Gardener, 540).

Le Carré’s novel is neither easily summarized nor conventionally categorized. The Constant Gardener is a detective and spy story endowed with serious political content and the gripping storyline of a well-turned thriller. Filled with characters reminiscent of Dickens’ best work, the novel borrows the hunted eluding the hunter as well as any Graham Greene entertainment, and it probes far beyond the superficial in its portrayal of human beings and their deceptive relationships.

Le Carré shades every character, engages each in revealing mental dialogues, and makes them mirrors to other characters. These mirrors flip some characters and distort others; but each character comes across as complicated, nuanced, and difficult to view from one position. At the center of this labyrinth of characters and motives is Justin Quayle, who dies but transcends victimization because he chose to pursue his quest to its end. He controls his narrative, wins his moral victory, and arrives at a honorable self-understanding.


Edwards, Jim. “Claim: LeCarré’s ‘The Constant Gardener’ was Based on Pfizer Trovan Case,” Money Watch 17 February 2009. Retrieved from
Le Carré, John. The Constant Gardener. New York: Pocket, 2001. All quotation are from this edition.
Snyder, Robert Lance. The Art of Indirection in British Espionage Fiction: A Critical Study of Six Novelists. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2011.
Stephens, Joe. Where Profits and Lives Hang in Balance. The Washington Post. 17 December 2000. Retrieved from
Stephens, Joe. Panel Faults Pfizer in ‘96 Clinical Trial in Nigeria Unapproved Drug Tested on Children. The Washington Post 7 May 2006. Retrieved from
Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Anchor Books, 2006. pp. 392-393.

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Citation: Beene, LynnDianne. "The Constant Gardener". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 12 January 2018 [, accessed 08 February 2023.]

1185 The Constant Gardener 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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