Spies within and without: Deciphering John le Carré

By Craig D. Wilson
May 27, 2004

Spies and spying have been around forever. Popular fascination with the secret trade is equally ancient. Fictionalized spy stories appeal because they provide an entertaining illusion of explanation by using readily grasped “good guys vs. bad guys” formulas. In a violent, uncontrollable world, anxiety fuels our curiosity about spying’s detail, process and result because now the need for real espionage and its reliable interpretation has become acute. We ask fiction to interpret and to reassure because reality is terrifying, irrational and inexplicable.

Britain’s John le Carré is considered the premier espionage novelist writing in English. As a masterful storyteller skilled at spinning intricate tales, he’s set the standard against which other practitioners are measured. Le Carré uses spy-novel forms to explore profound moral and ethical issues by showing the human toll on individual lives that collide with intelligence bureaucracies.

Exploring beyond strategic issues, he probes the grim personal costs when battles with ruthless adversaries ignore ethical values. He deftly surveys the soul’s murkier precincts where spies operate. His artistry lies in compelling readers to consider dark, troubling and unsavory themes as they follow his characters.

But his best work is so complex, subtle, understated and nonlinear that it challenges and perplexes as much as entertains. He assumes a level of knowledge, worldliness, curiosity and contemplation in his readers. In a career spanning more than four decades, he’s attracted a huge and appreciative worldwide audience. But he’s intentionally pushed the “spy story” so far that one can ask whether what he writes is really “espionage fiction” at all because he’s turned the genre’s conventions on their head.

More ominously, the world has greatly changed since le Carré began his career and won acclaim for his taut, somber Cold War narratives. It’s fair to ask if his work still has relevance in a time of global terrorism, hit-and-run guerrilla attacks, ideological extremism and shadowy, non-state paramilitary conspiracies. Today, the Cold War’s rigid “East-West” conflict seems not only Paleolithic, but quaint and predictable by comparison.

Now reading itself has been eclipsed by spectacular multimedia entertainments that offer sensationalism, immediacy and compelling involvement. Does le Carré’s written “period” fiction still matter – especially to anyone born after the Cold War’s end?

Le Carré’s books do reflect a Cold War sensibility. They are historic artifacts, but in the same way as are Dickens’ sagas and Shakespeare’s plays, and they endure equally as vivid chronicles of their era. His finest material transcends not only genre but time and place as well, for it portrays eternal dilemmas that perpetually beset us in trying to survive and comprehend our bewildering and menacing world.

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Like an “agent-runner spinning a legend,” “John le Carré” is the author’s creation as much as any of his imaginary characters. John Le Carré is the pen name of David J. M. Cornwell, who was born in Poole, Dorset, England, in October 1931, and educated at the University of Berne and Oxford. Following graduation, he was an instructor at Eton before joining the British Foreign Service as a German-speaking officer. The Foreign Service forbade any employee from publishing under his actual name, so Cornwell adopted “le Carré” as his literary alias (which translates as “the square”). His third novel, “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” earned international acclaim and a financial success that freed him to leave the Foreign Service and write full time. He has penned a total of 19 novels, most of which deal with espionage themes.

“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” is a gritty, sinister account of double agents and triple crosses. Millions around the world found the 1963 publication so fascinating that it forever cemented le Carré’s reputation.

But the book also provoked a raging debate. During the Cold War, spy novels were enormously popular on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Throughout that fierce, decades-long rivalry, both opposed camps used popular literature as propaganda to promote the “rightness” of us-vs.-them ideologies. Le Carré, however, described the spy’s secret world unsentimentally. His spies are frequently distasteful: They regularly coerce betrayal and treason, and coolly employ theft, blackmail, torture or murder to prevail. Even worse, they become what they behold. The Cold War’s long run, le Carré forcefully argued, moved Western intelligence agencies closer in attitude and practice to the unaccountable, conspiratorial extremes of their totalitarian adversaries. This was one of le Carré’s most insistent themes, and it still resonates – do worthy ends justify ugly means? There’s never been an easy answer.

More dismayingly, instead of a noble band of right-thinking, courageous and decisive patriots, le Carré cast all intelligence services as bureaucracies saddled with the petty, callous rivalries, inertia and institutional myopia of any large organization. “A committee is a horse with four back legs,” one of his characters acidly observes.

Le Carré’s stories tap deeper reservoirs of emotion and reflection in his readers than most other espionage writers, but his refusal to join in promoting spies as attractive heroes earned him official condemnation. His Cold War books were condemned by the CIA’s director and by official Soviet literary journals – perverse endorsements.

Le Carré’s early novels create an elaborate fictional intelligence service that was based on the actual MI-6 (the British CIA). His stories seem very real because of a dense and artful blending of fiction with history, and imaginary settings with actual places. His fictional service stands in London’s Soho district at a crossroads named Cambridge Circus; so this agency is always ironically referred to as “the Circus”. He formulated an entire vocabulary of code words and phrases to characterize agent running and intelligence gathering; many of these are now used commonly in describing actual espionage.

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Rather amusingly, the foundation of le Carré’s reputation rests upon the shoulders of his most memorable character, the redoubtable master spy George Smiley. Smiley’s formidable intellect, frumpy appearance and very human foibles set him apart in the annals of espionage literature.

This “old spy in a hurry” appears in eight of the author’s first 13 books, either as the central figure or a peripheral observer. He embodies the best qualities of le Carré’s “Circus.” It is through Smiley’s myopic and care-worn eyes that readers view the clandestine battles of Cold War spying. Smiley is not only an unlikely “hero,” he’s an even more unlikely spy: short, fat, bespectacled, ill-tailored and excessively self-effacing, most frequently an owlish “desk man” burrowing in files rather than a gun-toting secret field agent. His dowdy, vulnerable, grandfatherly appearance belies an accomplished history and truly formidable intellectual skills. He was a clever and successful behind-the-lines operator in wartime Germany, so he’s well seasoned in the spy’s traditional “courageously heroic territory.” But Smiley, unlike most fictional spies, is meditative, profoundly doubt-wracked and perpetually agonized – a “failed priest” grappling with his conscience. While he believes passionately in his “mission,” he must constantly suffer as his values are trampled by his ruthless secret work. Worse, he bears greater hurt and shame over repeated betrayals by his elegant but faithless wife. He’s the absolute antithesis of James Bond – a bumbling cuckold rather than a dashing Casanova. Assailed constantly by crippling uncertainties, usually answerable to far lesser men, Smiley still unravels the many espionage riddles he confronts. Overcoming emotional wounds, personal foibles, bureaucratic treachery, Smiley’s wisdom, sincerity and determination always shine through. His very earnest qualities and failings distinguish him. Smiley has an Everyman quality with which many identify: He remains le Carré’s most enduringly popular creation, the one character he constantly utilized in his definitive writings.

Smiley represents the triumph of substance over style, brain over brawn, and wit over even the most advanced technological gadgetry. He is very much a Cold Warrior, but like Sherlock Holmes, he transcends his historic period.

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The Cold War ended and le Carré retired Smiley, but the author has continued to write provocative books. More recently, he has shifted his focus away from intelligence services and assayed broader themes of secrecy, corruption, betrayal and inhumanity as an expanding global capitalism transforms the planet and a new ruthlessness challenges individual values. The ominous and amoral clandestine world of le Carré’s fiction now has infected all our lives. We all “live our cover” in presenting a social mask to the world.

For the uninitiated, there are two avenues for sampling le Carré’s work: by reading his books or by watching films made of those works. Either form tells intricate stories and explores a complex mental terrain, but while video seems more easily accessible, the medium is usually less supportive of the author’s creative message. Film’s essential dynamic is to simplify a story through its powerful bias toward linear action. Le Carré’s strength is to illuminate his characters’ cerebral landscapes; such interior settings translate poorly into moving pictures. His writing style is oblique and indirect: The stories’ trajectories juxtapose present and past, disconnect sequences, overlap accounts, and mingle simultaneous occurrences with intertwined narrative strands; often it is a character’s interrogations that help reveal events. A reader must reconcile what is learned auditing those inquisitions with the character’s subjective memories; comprehension evolves jaggedly. The subtle effect – like an actual intelligence analyst grappling to interpret welters of partial, contradictory and indistinct facts – is not one which appeals to everyone.

While such styling can perplex a reader, it all but defies emulation on film. Worse, unworthy cinematic interpretation of le Carré’s books has diminished the power of the original texts. Although far, far greater demands are placed upon a reader than a viewer, the intellectual and emotional rewards are also higher: Curiosity, attention, patience and reflection are rewarded, and gradually one comes to appreciate le Carré’s accomplishment. His best books lend themselves to re-reading because new facets emerge with every fresh passage through the texts, and the stories reverberate with heightened sensation, even when one “knows” in advance the ultimate outcome. They are less “page-turners” or even “thrillers” but rather dark meditations on the human condition. Each novel is sober and provocative: One is disquieted and provoked far more often than reassured.

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Le Carré’s 19 books can be divided into three general categories which correspond with the historical epochs of the past half-century. The first group includes all the early works in the traditional Cold War espionage vein. The middle group features transitional accounts that capture the uncertain tentativeness of the Glasnost and Perestroika eras (“The Russia House,” “Our Game” and “The Night Manager” fall into this category). More recently, the author has examined corporate embrace of espionage’s secrecy and ruthlessness in furtherance of economic globalization (see “Single and Single,” “The Constant Gardener” and “Absolute Friends”). Not every book is a classic, but a number are true masterpieces that will endure as works of literature, not simply spy stories.

For a novice curious to explore le Carré, one should first read “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold”; it’s relatively brief, readily comprehensible and lays out the author’s essential philosophy about espionage, its practitioners and its amorality. Follow that excursion with the trilogy of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People.” These are far more complex, ambitious and interwoven works which pit British master spy George Smiley against his sinister Soviet nemesis, a shadowy, menacing figure that haunts the works like a specter and is known only by his codename, “Karla.”

It would then be rewarding to read “A Perfect Spy.” The book not only captures the whole paranoid Cold War espionage ambiance, but, more importantly, it has been revealed as the most autobiographical of all le Carré’s novels: Its fatally flawed hero, British double agent Magnus Pym, is the son of a charming rogue, swindler and confidence man. The author’s own father is the model for this sad and petty charlatan. More bleakly, like Pym, his mother abandoned the family, went into hiding and had no contact with any of them for decades. Le Carré’s life as a gentleman scholar, artist and literary light has long concealed this tortured history. Two years ago, David Cornwell came out from behind the le Carré “legend” to confess this sordid patrimony and anguished heritage. The revelations (made in a journal article) shed new light on all the twisted father-son relationships which figure throughout le Carré’s books. The author also finally acknowledged in that piece what had been suspected for many years: He had in fact been a lower-echelon British intelligence operative.

In his spy novels, it is the British secret service and its agents that are Le Carré’s primary focus. The stunning exception, “The Little Drummer Girl,” features the Israeli intelligence service battling Palestinian terrorists. It is a chilling and disturbing work, particularly for its scrupulousness in showing both Israelis and Palestinians as equally ruthless, violent and determined adversaries. That balance angered partisans on both sides of the long, brutal conflict, but it is quintessentially le Carré – his finest works have embodied the grisly adage that spies become what they behold.

The one le Carré book that shuns any espionage context is “The Naive and Sentimental Lover.” It is the least liked of any of the author’s novels – by both fans and critics – and represents his only foray into strictly “literary” fiction. It fictionalizes events that marked the effect of financial success on the author’s personal life, romantic infatuation with a literary couple who were his friends, and the breakup of his first marriage. It is a well-crafted anomaly that never found an appreciative audience.

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If one lacks patience or inclination to read le Carré, many of the films made from his books are available on home video. The author confesses to profoundly mixed feelings (mostly dissatisfaction) about these visualized interpretations, but he has joined the enemy camp and participated in adapting several of his works to film.

“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” was filmed in the mid-1960s and stared Richard Burton as the burnt-out hero. Like classic film noir, its black-and-white format is especially suited to the subject, and while the narrative is faithful to the author’s story, the subtle nuances evoked by his prose are mostly absent from the movie. Le Carré thought Burton far too forceful and dynamic a presence to faithfully capture the title character’s profound world-weariness and despair. In memorable supporting roles, Oskar Werner and Claire Bloom give performances much closer to the author’s conceptions.

In the early 1980s, the BBC produced two wonderfully crafted miniseries that brought “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People” to the small screen. Le Carré participated in both productions (co-authoring the screenplay for “Smiley’s People”), and Sir Alec Guinness gave the definitive performance as George Smiley in each series. Both programs are nearly six hours long, and that extended format allows for fuller airing of many subplots and nuanced details that make the novels amongst the author’s finest achievements. Le Carré had originally intended to write more books about Smiley, but after seeing Guinness in the role, he abandoned that plan, claiming the actor had “hijacked” the character: He could no longer visualize him imaginatively other than as Guinness’ interpretation.

The BBC also produced “A Perfect Spy” as a six-hour TV miniseries (it too is available on video). The production is not only wonderfully made but quite faithful to the original novel.

The TV production of “A Murder of Quality” (le Carré’s second novel) cast the late Denholm Elliott as Smiley. It is a more conventional murder mystery in the Agatha Christie mode (in the story Smiley was on temporary retirement from the secret intelligence service), and despite Elliott’s serviceable performance, he couldn’t match Alec Guinness’s inspired interpretation.

“The Russia House” was made into a feature film with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer as the leads. Connery does an adequate turn as the sodden hero Barley Blair – recruited by the Brits to be a reluctant “agent” to a Soviet scientist during Glasnost – but the original book is not amongst the first rank of le Carré’s work, and the film is not especially memorable. Cold Warriors – the author included – were being supplanted as that conflict waned and they found themselves shorn of their life-long enemies and purpose.

Le Carré assisted in writing and producing “The Tailor of Panama,” and the work has a morbid satirical quality (Pierce Brosnan plays an unscrupulous British agent who has been banished to Panama for his sexual transgressions); the Panamanian scenes and characters are amusingly arch (although bordering on stereotyped caricatures), but the original work lacks the moral sharpness of the author’s best earlier writing. That murky source afflicts the equally muddled screen adaptation.

Currently “The Constant Gardener” is being readied for filming.

“The Little Drummer Girl” was also turned into a movie, but the result was disappointingly disastrous. The naïvely idealistic and malleable heroine of the novel (a decidedly British actress reminiscent of Vanessa Redgrave in her most stridently political incarnation) was played onscreen by a woefully miscast Diane Keaton. Even worse, the filmmakers re-crafted the story to sympathetically portray the Israeli side while demonizing the Palestinians, thus destroying the delicate moral balance le Carré captured in his book and making the film simply propagandistic and polemical. The movie was deservedly unpopular when released; it is available in VHS format.

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Audiences remain attracted to the excitement and glamour of spy stories partly because our ordinary lives appear mostly dull, frustrating, disappointing, imperfect, and we hunger for the vicarious thrill of overcoming life-menacing risks to defeat our country’s evil enemies.

Le Carré shows that malevolence is not exotic but near, close to home, rather than distant and extraordinary, as we’ve usually preferred to think. Since Sept. 11, 2001 – and now March 11 – that truth has become only too evident.

Spy novels feature quests of discovery and offer entertaining ways to abstractly view a dangerous world. But the world is dangerous and not merely a setting for make-believe accounts. The finest spy stories can help us discipline our imaginations to better assess some of those hazards, know our capabilities, render sensible judgments and, ultimately, marshal our wits and courage to face unknown perils. By carefully weighing potential horrors, we help open our way to counter and coexist with such lurking risks rather than retreating or cowering before them.

The Cold War has passed, and its specter of global nuclear conflagration has lessened, but we now face equally dangerous terror threats almost everywhere. The need for skilled espionage to counter that menace has only become more critical. Sophisticated technology alone will never supplant perceptive vigilance and informed knowledge as the spy trade’s most effective tools. And now it is not only spies, but all of us for our own safety, who must cultivate that same discipline. Regardless of the dazzlingly complex machinery available for intelligence gathering and analysis, it is still the human mind – whether plotting acts or seeking to uncover and thwart them – that remains espionage’s ultimate weapon.

To better comprehend action in that “arena,” readers will continue being drawn to John le Carré’s superbly crafted novels. His stories touch us more lastingly and meaningfully than mere factual reportage ever could. The history he depicted remains fascinating because collectively or individually, the past is never completely past; it continues to echo in the present. And we will continue to read these accounts, for words remain the most effective medium to access the mind of another.

For anyone interested in bringing le Carré’s stories to life for themselves, dozens of George Smiley’s London haunts actually exist and can be personally explored. Visit

Related link: John le Carré’s official site