Category Archives: Novel writing

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


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

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

Passing as another race – what I’m reading this week

Passing as another race: what I’m reading this week.

The book-reading group I belong to is going to be talking about Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” next month. This deals with a topic I’ve only seen mentioned in one other book: people of African American decent “passing” as white. I’ve been vaguely aware that this exists in America, but it’s never been something I’ve had any reason to think about or discuss with any of my American friends. So, first a summary and then a few questions.

Roth’s book revolves around Coleman Silk, a college professor who is incorrectly accused of racism because one day, as he’s marking the attendance roll, he refers to two students who have never shown up for class by saying “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” I’ve never heard the word used in this sense, but apparently “spooks” is one term for African Americans. I’ve always thought a spook was either a ghost or a spy. In fact the two students are black, and lodge a complaint against Silk, which ends with him leaving his college. In fact Silk is actually a green-eyed, white-skinned African American who enrolled in the Navy in WWII passing as white. When he left the navy he got a scholarship to university as a white. For 50 years he has pretended to be white, in fact, to be Jewish. It is not until after Silks death that the narrator of the book meets Silk’s sister, at his funeral, and she tells the narrator of Silk’s history. Silk has just been buried as a Jew. He has, intentionally, married a woman with crinkly hair in case any of his children were born with crinkly hair. Silk’s only communication with his family has only been telephone calls between him and the sister, since he could never allow the two worlds to meet.

When he decided, 50 years ago what he was going to do, he told his mother and she said she realised his (future) children would never know her as their grandmother.

The book is set in 1989, during the time of the Monika Lewinsky scandal, i.e., it’s fairly recent in historical terms.

In Australia, the opposite issue to “passing” has arisen recently in a court case involving journalist Andrew Bolt, who suggested in a newspaper article that some fair skinned people of mixed descent identify as aboriginal in order to get art prizes and jobs reserved for aboriginals. But these people acknowledge their Austrian or English ancestry is not a secret – they couldn’t really hide it even if they wanted to) so the issue is not quite the same as in Roth’s book. (There’s a Wikipedia article on Bolt with links to his articles.)

It set me wondering: do light skinned African Americans today feel a need / or see a benefit from “passing” as white? How often on forms do people have to state their race? (I can’t recall any internet forms asking me my race (even just for ‘statistical purposes). Is it regarded as treachery to one’s group? Anybody got any thoughts? Anybody want to enlighten me?

Should novels have a “Moral”?

I recently posted this a facebook page to do with fiction writing, in response to a thread, “Do you think a fictional story should teach (or attempt to teach) a moral lesson?”

Should novels ” teach a moral lesson?” Well it depends on what you want. If I want to learn something theological, I’ll buy a theology book. If I want to know why an author claims that evolutionary biology supports atheism, I’ll buy something by Richard Dawkins. If I want to earn about a certain political view, I’ll buy a book from someone in that political movement. If I read Aayan Hirsi Ali about her experiences growing up Muslim, I know what I’m in for: but she writes as a polemicist, not a novelist.

But if I buy a thriller – and pay money -and THEN discover that I’m getting someone’s political or theological view  I’m likely to get a little irritated and think that my $10 (or whatever) has obtained under false pretenses.

An example is Michael Chrichton’s State of Fear. I know it got to #1, and  I do like Michael Crichton – I have several books of his on my shelf. But in State of Fear, one of his characters gave long lectures about how climate change modeling doesn’t prove anything. Well of course it doesn’t. Modelling never does. A model consistes largely of beliefs put into eqautions and then distured in some way: If we assume, or believe, that the world includes like A, B and C which between them produce X, and we change C by this much, the result is  X changes this much. Of course the model doesnt proove that climate change is real: that’s not a model’s job. They illustrate.

Chrighton’s points would be appropriate (or not) in a scientific work if it had come from a reputable scientist. Crichton stuck in numerous footnotes and graphs to plug his views: I thought footnotes in a thriller??)  For me they became, a boring and tedious diversion from the plot . Chrichton is entitled to his view, and he’s entitled to give lectures and write a straightforward polemical book about this. And he IS entitled to write the novel he did if that’s what he wants. We all have our rights. But doing this  comes at a cost. The cost is detracting from the quality of the novel by making his characters clumsy mouthpieces for his own views.

If you want the novel to have a ‘moral’ it requires great subtlety. “The Other Boleyn Girl” might  be read as a story with a moral about getting too involved in high stakes conniving and double dealing when you can’t control the one thing your life will ultimately depend upon (the ability to produce a live baby boy.) But it doesn’t have a character who constantly preaches that Ann will end up dead. We can see the risks she’s running for ourselves. The readers have brains. (And some readers know their history.) If you want to have a moral in your story, a bit of subtlety and ambiguity go a long way: try My Sister’s Keeper by Jody Picoult.

But Michael Crighton obviously disagrees. and his not here to defend himself. He died just after the book was published. It’s a pity. I would have liked to read more of him – but without the footnotes and graphs.

The Novel I’m Having Trouble With

Later this month I’m off to the Southern California Writers Conference at San Diego to try to sell my first novel ( a spy thriller.) (Their website is

In the meantime I’m trying to write a second one about a woman on the first manned mission to mars who keeps getting messages on her computer from someone who is able to predict what will happen on the ship. The trouble is, the messages keep disappearing, leaving her with now proof that she ever got them. She doesn’t know whether to tell anyone about them, and the sender urges her not to. Unfortunately, she had two uncles with schizophrenia, and she begins to worry that these messages aren’t real. The novel will revolve around “what do you do on a ship in deep space if you begin to doubt your own sanity?” Who do you turn to for advice when the very people you depend on for cooperation – and who will depend on you – need to feel they can trust you to act rationally, given all the difficult things they’ll have to do  when they do get to Mars. (There’s going to be a twist at the end when we learn who the sender of the messages is.) But it’s turning out to be a lot harder than I expected. Writing the spy novel was a hard, slow process, despite several professional manuscript appraisals. It took 5 years before I put it away ad recently pulled it out again. This one is beginning to feel much harder.

Any readers who have suggestions: if you intentionally wanted to drive someone insane on a space ship, how would you it?