Why is John le Carre such a good spy / thriller writer?

I first came across John Le Carre’s novels 30 years ago. The first book of his I read was “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.” It dealt with a theme that recurs constantly through the remainder of le Carres’s books: betrayal, and the way intelligence services use and the dispose of people. The main character is sent on a mission where he risks his life going into East Germany during the cold war. He makes a shocking discovery at the end of the novel: a central belief he has held all the through the book, something he based his whole actions on, is in fact a lie. And the people who sent him into East Germany knew it, and used him to spread that lie, at the risk of his own life and that of his girlfriend. The book doesn’t have a happy ending.

In real life, le Carre (real name John Cornwall) was a spy.

He worked for the British Army’s Intelligence Corp in Germany in 1950, returned to England in 1952 where he spied on suspected communists for MI5 at Oxford, and he became a full time MI5 officer in 1958. In 1960, he transferred to MI6, and left the service in 1964 after ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” became a success. By this time, Cornwall’s cover as an MI6 agent had been blown by the real-life Kim Philby, a British agent secretly working for the Soviet Union.

What makes le Carre’s characters so interesting is that they often very flawed people. His own life experience gives him ample justification for books based on secrets, deceit and betrayal. Perhaps his best ever book was written in  1986. The cold war was still on. Le Carre writes  “A Perfect Spy”. It tells the story of a young man who has a conman for a father. The conman father is based on le Carre’s own father, who went bankrupt several times and ended up in jail for insurance fraud.

The main character (Magnus Pym) is a British intelligence officer who forms a relationship with a Czechoslovak intelligence officer in which they exchange documents so each can claim to have a valuable mole on the other side. The book contains a line that struck me as brilliant. When Magnus leaves home to hand over his first batch of documents, le Carre writes “…and Magnus stepped out into the night and became his father.”

And let’s be realistic: what do  intelligence agencies like MI6 and MI5 do? They get people from other countries to betray their countries. They burgle, they bug, and they spy on their own colleagues. Just read Spycatcher , the autobiography of MI5 officer peter Wright, who spied on his own boss in an attempt to discover if the boss was a soviet mole.

In the world of James Bond, good is good and evil is evil and James Bond never stabs anyone in the back. In le Carre’s world, intelligence agencies are prepared to cut people loose after they used them. The interests of your country matter more than the life of some informant.

In some ways, le Carre’s books remind me of the American film “Fair Game” (see here, and here ) about real life CIA agent Valerie Plame, who was exposed as a covert CIA agent by the White House when her ex-Diplomat husband criticised intelligence suggesting that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellow cake from Niger. Plame had scientists ready to defect from Iraq to the US, and they were left high and dry when Plame was exposed. (Gordon Libby got a jail sentence of two and a half years for exposing Plame, but George. W. Bush commuted his sentence.) Which just goes to show you what murky world intelligence can be. And le Carre takes through that murkiness in all its sordid detail. That’s one reason why his books are so compelling. There’s something fascinating about people who lie, burgle and bug for a living, and do it with the blessing of their country. Most of them believe that that they’re doing it for a “good” purpose, because “my country” is a good country. Don’t most of us think that? I’ll be sad when le Carre dies. I wonder who’ll take his place?

Any thoughts on why spy novels continue to be popular? Please, leave a comment!!!

Richard Snow

twitter: Richard_A_Snow


The Japanese tsunami – what is it with ghost stories?

The newspapers report this week that the Japanese city of Ishinomaki, which took the brunt of the tsunami in March last year is awash with ghost stories. This one city accounted for a fifth of all the tsunami deaths. One supermarket stands half rebuilt because workers on the project were getting sick and blaming it on ghosts. One taxi driver won’t pick up fares in certain parts of the city for fear the passenger might be a ghost. Anthropologist Takeo Funabiki says people find it hard to accept death, so ghost stories abound.

This makes me stop and ask: why do ghost sties persist in literature, and why do some people believe in ghosts. Famous writer C.S. Lewis (The Narnia Tales) was a Christian lay theologian who said he didn’t believe in ghosts, even though he’d seen one. He was in bed one night (reading, as best I can recall,) when a recently deceased friend appeared at the end of his bed. The ghost said, “It’s not so hard as you think, you know,” apparently referring to death, and then disappeared. (He tells the story in the book A Grief Observed, which is about the death of his wife.) The last ghost book I read was “A Manhattan Ghost Story” by T.M. Wright, about a photographer who turns up to his friends apartment to find his friend gone, and an attractive young woman living there. She turns out to be … you guessed it. And who can forget Haley Joel Osment’s famous line: “I see dead people… Walking around like regular people. They don’t know they’re dead.”

The Japan Today site below has a debate between people who believe in Ghosts and those who don’t with many of the pro camp claiming to have seen ghosts or experienced them. Me? I’m a sceptic. My attitude is “show me the evidence.” But anyone reading this: do any of you believe in ghosts? How do you account for the persistence of ghost stories across time and across so many cultures? Please: fell free to post a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.



Describing setting in novels.

I’ve been thinking lately about setting: that is, how we describe the place where the action in our novel is happening. Think of the things your character can observe about a place.


What color are the walls? What color is the furniture? Is it old or new, does to belong to  a certain period? Has the place been recently renovated? What are the floor coverings? Are they new, worn, threadbare, or old fashioned? Are there any bench tops? What surface do they have – Formica, wooden, aluminium, granite? Is the place clean, dusty, dirty, disorganized, or neat? What are the light fittings like? Remember, when describing something visual, it’s not just colors; it’s also shiny or dull, rough or smooth.

Are there any smells? Of food? Of cleaning products?

What does your character feel about this place? Does it bring back memories of some pleasant or unpleasant experience? Name three feelings that things in this place might evoke.


If you’re in a back yard or front yard, is it neat or unkempt, are the plants healthy or dehydrated, are there weeds? What season is it and is your description consistent with that? Does the ground slope, and what’s the texture underfoot as your character walks? Smooth, sloping, uneven, sand, concrete, gravel?

In public places, how many people are there? Are there shops you wouldn’t expect there? Have they changed since the last time your character was there? What can our character hear? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? What can they smell? Petrol fumes? Cooking from a food outlet?

What does your character fell about this place? Irritation about the noise or the smells? Do they feel safe here? Name three feelings that things in this place might evoke in your character.

If anyone has more things they include please leave a comment.

A great article on describing watery scenes by Sharla Rae is at http://writersinthestorm.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/place-descriptions-part-two-waterways/#comments

For those new to this Blog, my email is snowinmelbourne@hotmail.com and on twitter I’m @Richard_A_Snow.  Best wishes. Richard Snow