Review of Le Carre



I don’t think it’s overstated to say that when his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was published at the height of the Cold War in 1963 (the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis) John Le Carre revolutionised the spy fiction genre and set new templates for the espionage novel.

Up to then spy fiction had mainly come in two forms. There was the gentleman spy type exemplified by the writings of W, Somerset Maugham, John Buchan and Eric Ambler among others. In these novels the main characters were always honourable, understated but selfless and heroic at the same time. Above all, they were driven by a single-minded purpose imbued with patriotism where the enemy was clear and distinct.

The other main type was the superhero spy. Sophisticated, suave, excelling at everything from espionage to playing the casinos to bedding women. Ian Fleming’s James Bond, of course, epitomises this form. And superheroes demand supervillains and thus we have a landscape peppered with the likes of Ernst Blofeld, Goldfinger and Spectre.

Le Carre’s world is as far away from Bond as it’s possible to get and a considerable distance from the stiff upper lip and decent, civilised values portrayed by Maugham, Buchan et al. Nothing is black and white in this world, rather everything is murky and grey.

Alec Leamas is the burnt out, cynical, borderline alcoholic, fragile main character, the antithesis of Bond, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He is at the centre of a British Intelligence deception operation against the East German Stasi, which will involve duplicity and sacrifice, euphemistically referred to as collateral damage for all those involved, including Leamas.

What was truly ground-breaking then was that Le Carre depicts the architects of the operations, quintessentially English ‘decent’ characters such as Control and the legendary George Smiley to be as ruthless in their conduct and plotting as their communist adversaries. Whether that can be excused by the ends -protecting and safeguarding Western values of freedom and democracy – justifying the coldblooded means, Le Carre brilliantly leaves for the reader to answer themselves.

A legacy of Spies is the sequel to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Set five decades the litigious world of the present, the families of those who lost loved ones in the first novel are now seeking redress against the spymasters for their callous disregard and sacrifice of their family members. The subsequent claims could not only result in huge payments being made to the families, but generate unwanted publicity on some of the darker operations of the Cold War, as well as opening the floodgates to others.

Peter Guillam, one of the characters involved in the previous operation, is summoned out of retirement. Questioned by a new generation of British Intelligence officials eager to distance their organisation from the more shadowy events of the past, Guillam must chart a delicate course between protecting himself and telling his questioners what he thinks they want to hear and will let him away with.

To aid his memory, Guillam is sequestered in an old MI6 outstation and instructed by his overseers to immerse himself in the vast documentation relating to the operation which they’re brought together from various secret archives.

Under their watchful eye, Guillam immerses himself in all the preparation and planning of the activities, including a hair-raising exfiltration of a top Stasi female officer through the frozen German/Czech borderlands, that would lead up to Leamas’s fateful mission in Berlin.

Le Carre’s form has been variable in recent years. And, to be frank, Legacy of Spies is not in the same league as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or his classic Smiley trilogy (Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People) which, for me, are the finest works of espionage/spy fiction ever written.

Nevertheless, this is an enthralling read and Le Carre seamlessly weaves back and forth from the present where all history and the past are up for revision and debunking back to the tensions and apparent certainties of the Cold War. Le Carre is at his best when describing the palpable fear and paranoia Guillam and his companion experience as they attempt to extricate themselves from behind the Iron Curtain.

Guillam wasn’t one of the architects of the original operation, just a senior officer there to carry out orders. He intends to confront one of those architects, Smiley himself, with the questions that really define what Le Carre in his writings, asks of the West and its intelligence agencies.

Well now for the reckoning at last. Now for some straight answers to hard questions, like: did you, George (Smiley) consciously set out to suppress the humanity in me or was I just collateral damage too? Like: what about your humanity and did it always have to play second fiddle to some higher, more abstract cause that I can’t put on my finger on any more, if I ever could?

Or put another way: how much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom, would you say, before we cease to feel either human or free

Those are difficult questions and are probably of more relevance now in our confused polarised world