John Le Carré: The Master who Unmasked the Intelligence World

When former spy, celebrated chronicler of covert culture and inveterate gentleman John Le Carré died on December 12, we knew just which Policy contributor should pay our respects. The intrepid Robin Sears — who has travelled the world as a political adviser, consultant, avid reader and writer — is, of course, a fan. Here’s his tribute.



Robin V. Sears

December 18, 2020

John Le Carré (David Cornwell) is on a very short list of novelists credited with changing the world they wrote about. Like George Orwell, John Steinbeck and Victor Hugo, Le Carré wrote with such power and authority about the world of espionage, and especially its failures and transgressions, he forced change on the intelligence community itself.

As a rare veteran of both MI5 and MI6, spying in Bonn and Hamburg under diplomatic cover for the UK government, he had the credentials to transform the world’s understanding of how modern intelligence agencies function. He added to their secret shorthand, and he caused a younger generation to begin the process of opening and professionalizing its agencies. He spawned two generations of authors who all paid their compliments to his pioneering role.

One can describe the world of spies and espionage fiction as the period before 1963, and the years that came after. When The Spy Who Came in From the Cold hit the streets, it exploded. Before Le Carré arrived, espionage was depicted as a sort of Boy’s Own Annual type of adventure story or, in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels that had begun to surface over the previous decade, as a glamorous round of sometimes lethal parties. Le Carré destroyed those mythical tales, revealed the cold amoral leadership that sat at the core of most agencies, and opened the eyes of the world to what life was really like at the centre of MI5, MI6, the CIA, and most of the other big players.

And he could write. Boy, could he write. To not have had the experience of looking at a bedside clock and being horrified that you had been riveted by the master storyteller for hours and it was now three a.m., is not to have lived. Choosing which treasure to rank number one or a good starting point for an uninitiated reader is like choosing a favourite child; not really possible.

Perhaps the best approach is to describe the distinct phases in the Le Carré oeuvre, and a great exemplar novel in each. Le Carré was a young intelligence officer in the early 60s, that is the bedrock of his vision and his lens on the secret world. His first two books were not hits, but then came The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  Still an unmatched masterpiece of the maudlin, amoral, painful lives of field operatives and their cynical, thoughtless controllers. It shocked the intelligence community in the English-speaking world. Richard Burton’s later depiction of the burnt-out Alec Leamas was a highlight of his career.

Then came the “Smiley trilogy” – a series of romans à clef, deep and painful examinations of the treachery that nearly killed MI5 and MI6. It marked the beginning of the next phase of Le Carré’s values and vision: traitorous spies and their deadly impact. Alec Guinness almost became George Smiley, so powerful was his rendition of the tragic traitor hunter in the unmatched BBC series. Le Carré, in a fabulous stand-up performance at the National Theatre (still find-able online) chuckled that he had somehow lost ownership of his most famous character to the actor.

For me, the most staggering accomplishment of the trilogy is the middle book, The Honourable Schoolboy, based in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, it marked the first time that Le Carré had done new field research. He travelled with journalists into war zones, met with soldiers and officials, and brought a verisimilitude to his tale, about which those he crafted into characters were universal in their praise. And it has a stunning surprise ending.

Le Carré was not only a master of form, character and plot, he had a jeweller’s eye for the gem, the scene that sparkles and makes you stop and re-read it and then feel alternately in awe if you are merely a doting fan, or despondent if you are an aspiring writer — you know you could never match his power.

After the Cold War ended, Le Carré became more critical of the “espiocrats” as he sneeringly dubbed the spy bureaucracy; vain, empire-building and amoral. He wrote several devastating attacks on them, perhaps most successfully in Our Game, about a cynical, bungled operation and the espiocrats’ determination to cover it up. Le Carré then turned his literary scalpel to corrupt banks, drug companies, and arms merchants. The Constant Gardener, is a breathtaking attack on pharmaceutical drug trials killing African recruits.

He briefly turned to his own life, as the son of a bankrupt scoundrel father who was constantly one step ahead of the law and his creditors, young David Cornwell had a rollercoaster childhood. He recounts in one of his interviews that his father, Ronnie, “conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird”, asked him to sign several boxes of his latest book, and send them to him in Singapore where he was in semi-hiding. Only to hear a few weeks later that he was flogging them at a huge mark-up. A Perfect Spy took courage to write as he exposed his own life more emotionally than ever before.

In the final phase of his 56-year career as an icon of his literary era, Le Carré wrote more nostalgically, sometimes returning to the Smiley stories, sometimes bringing back other characters from a generation earlier. His 2010 novel, Our Kind of Traitor is a return to form — a complex, slowly unfurled tale of treachery in present-day London. His penultimate book, 2017’s A Legacy of Spies, brought Smiley back by way of flashbacks, and his final novel, Agent Running in the Field, released in 2019, was a contemporary indictment of politics and Brexit.

Le Carré was not only a master of form, character and plot, he had a jeweller’s eye for the gem, the scene that sparkles and makes you stop and re-read it and then feel alternately in awe if you are merely a doting fan, or despondent if you are an aspiring writer — you know you could never match his power. Smiley’s lifelong enemy was Karla, who ran Moscow Centre, the headquarters of the KGB – a label Le Carré invented and one that was then picked up by intelligence agencies as a descriptor around the world.

Karla is captured and languishing in an Indian jail cell, and Smiley flies out to interrogate him. He tries to turn Karla as a double agent, but is met with a withering stare. After some sparring, Smiley stands and is about to leave, when Karla silently hands him an engraved lighter. Smiley had given it to his unfaithful wife, who had given it to one of her lovers, who was a senior officer in MI6 and one of Karla’s double agents – a traitor who had been unmasked earlier. The agent had given it to Karla, and Karla finally used it as a classic, covert prop to convey dominance in his many victories over George and his hapless intelligence agency.

In a collection of stories about himself that he published to mixed reviews, Le Carré cites the tale of The Pigeon’s Tunnel, a Monte Carlo blood sport where specially-bred pigeons are forced down a tunnel to emerge conveniently, predictably in the same spot for the waiting hunters’ shotguns. The metaphor is, of course, a final jab at the spy world whose agents are too often thrust down similarly fatal tunnels.

Le Carré’s legacy will endure, his vast output over half a century with only a rare volume that was less than masterful. His insight into the challenges of democracy and spying are as real and relevant today as in 1963. And when you have fallen in love with his characters and read and reread favorites, you find yourself thinking about a new person in your life, “God, isn’t he just a perfect Jim Prideau,” or “Smiley would never have been as gullible as that politician.”

So, counsel about where to start your Le Carré journey could only be this: at the beginning. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is as powerful an opening blast for the world’s literary spy as it was almost sixty years ago.

Contributing Writer Robin V. Sears is an accredited fan of John Le Carré and all his works, all along the way.