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

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About Richard A Snow

I studied Economics at La Trobe University (getting a BEcHons and MEc). I was writing for newspapers, mostly on personal finance, from 1997 to 2006, part-time, while working as an Economist at Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance, and later as an Associate Lecturer at La Trobe university. I have a stock of older, published newspaper articles at http://richardsnownewspaperarticles.wordpress.com
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2 Responses to Why is John le Carre such a good spy / thriller writer?

  1. sarah says:

    I think spy novels are attractive because we like to think our governments have all these intelligent people running around keeping us safe! Of course, this is absolute bollocks. I also think (burn me if I’m wrong) that spy novels are particularly appealing to males, and the whole spy game thing is very popular with boy children. People love secrets.

    • Hi, Sarah, good to hear from you. I wonder what a poll would show as to the percentage of readers of spy novels by gender. I’ve never seen a poll done, but what would you guess? 80/20?

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