A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

Ten Things About John le Carré by Paul Burke

Article published on September 1, 2017.

A Legacy of Spies is out this month, Smiley returns and I can’t wait. Of course, le Carré did not invent the spy or even the fictional form. They appear in the Bible and by the early 20th Century le Queux and Childers were writing about the threat of German invasion and spies. Then after WWII came James Bond, entertaining but unreal – Ian Fleming indulging a fantasy.

1. Everything changed in 1963 with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Suddenly spies were grounded in the grimy reality of East-West politics. A novel of human frailty, duplicity, subservience to ideology and dissent. A grey world of treachery and trade off, of expediency and fear. Nothing was ever the same for the spy genre, espionage writing had grown up. The publisher Gollancz said of the novel, “….it seems to me of great social and political importance in the present situation”.

2. Le Carré’s great creation is George Smiley. He appears in the early novels and he is present at the denouement of The Spy Who…. urging Leamas to come in from the cold. He triumphs in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as the mole hunter and by The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People he is a literary Intelligence Service legend. And now Smiley and his disciple Peter Guillam are back.

3. In his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, Le Carré writes about the obstreperous novelists who are a thorn in the side of the Intelligence Services (I think he is one such). The press and the public in Britain were too respectful of the Security Services, their benevolence taken for granted. After le Carré we became a little more sceptical. In The Spy Who…. Control plans to discredit East German intelligence officer, Fiedler (clever and Jewish), before he exposes Mundt (former Nazi), a British spy. Leamas targets Mundt but his mission is designed to fail – Fiedler will die. Liz Gold, an innocent, knows the truth and is killed. Leamas no longer has the heart to return to the West, he is shot at the Berlin wall. There is no honour in the Circus plot.

4. What le Carré writes is genre fiction – or is it? The tropes are there; with-holding information, providing clues, secret codes and mysterious murders. However, like all good literary fiction le Carré deals with the human condition. HRF Keating says of The Honourable Schoolboy, “[le Carré]….has used a spy story to penetrate a whole world in the way of the great comprehensive novels of the nineteenth century”.

All manner of human complexity is explored. The novels can be seen as realism or allegory; the wall is the literal divide between East and West but also represents a physical barrier to understanding. Allan Hepburn notes that the Berlin of The Spy Who…. can be seen as a microcosm of the wider world. Le Carré’ novels are relevant, politically informed, meticulously researched – ‘zeitgeist’. The Russia House (1990) deals with the end of the arms race, The Night Manager (1993), arms dealing, Single and Single (1999), corporate corruption and The Constant Gardener 2001, pharmaceutical drug trials in Africa. I could go on. Hari Kunzru in The Guardian, of A Most Wanted Man, “….one of the most sophisticated fictional responses to the war on terror yet published, a humane novel which takes on the world’s latest binarism and exposes troubling shades of grey”. Philip Caputo in The Washington Post says of Mission Song, “To categorise le Carré as a ‘spy’ novelist is to do him a disservice; he uses the world of cloak-and-dagger much as Conrad used the sea – to explore the dark places in human nature”.

5. Dialogue is key in le Carré. Character speech is stylised yet it informs our perception of spies and bureaucrats. There are echoes of Pinter in the half finished thoughts and as much meaning in what is not said. Also consider these words which have become part of the language; mole, honey trap, Russia Station, Circus – their common usage is due to le Carré.

6. The interesting thing about le Carré spies is their individuality (and lack of belonging). They are bound by rules and allegiance but they act for love, morality or their own motives.

7. Le Carré novels are sophisticated games of cat and mouse. So is real spying – both sides need each other to be relevant. Spies aim to outmatch each other sometimes, not furthering national interest. In Smiley’s People the game is to get Karla, the great Russian intelligence officer – Smiley’s personal Cold War. How much of Cold War money and resources in real life went towards vanity projects? The game for its own sake.

8. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, (the hunt for a Kim Philbyesque mole), the plot is underpinned by background. This is a story of 70’s Britain – vacuity of morals at the end of empire, austerity and decline, national political and financial bankruptcy. There is always social and political context to le Carré work. An exploration of moral issues, of citizenship and of expediency. Most importantly there is impartiality. The novels are a cut above because le Carré does not take sides; he hates the wall, its theatre, its ideology but bad/good does not equate to East/West.

9. Already an influence on contemporaneous authors and society, le Carré will be read by historians seeking to understand the Cold War mindset. The novels are intelligent, thrilling, thought provoking. In A Most Wanted Man le Carré seeks to expose the falsities and stupidities of the war on terror. Agree or disagree he merits hearing and many admire his desire to question the establishment stance in his novels.

10. Le Carré has always been a bit restless, driven, haunted by his conman father, Ronnie, (see the father in A Perfect Spy, his most autobiographical novel). Let’s hope that A Legacy of Spies proves he never intends to, “….go gently into that good night”.


A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré, published on 7 September, 2017 by Viking, in hardback


An Evening with George Smiley featuring John le Carré celebrating the publication of A Legacy of Spies will be broadcast live to cinemas across the country on 7 September, 2017 from London’s Royal Festival Hall – find out more and book tickets here.


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