Le Carré: The Spy Who Saw Into Our Eyes

James Grady remembers the master of human intrigue, foibles, ideals and cruelty


John Le Carré was the spy who came into our capital "L" Literature.

He started silent and deep. Wrote much of his first novel with pen and paper while on midnight watch for MI6 in Hamburg, Germany, back in 1960 when flesh and blood spies, not the covert clicks of distant hackers, told the Lords Of Power the way things were and manipulated changes.

Most fiction readers back then sought spies in the bullets-and-bosoms adventures of Bond, James Bond, created by a former British Naval intelligence officer, not in the musings of a frumpy, portly, overcoated, bespectacled forever gray spy named George Smiley, who first walked through a "genre" mystery novel, Call For The Dead

Its author was Brit-born David Cornwell, who survived a con-man father and absent mother while absorbing the family tradecraft of deceit before escaping to Oxford—where he was also a Joe on the nod for MI5, the domestic spy agency. But it was his later immersion in MI6, and its haunted Circus bureaucracy, that gave rise to some of his greatest literary exposés.

Unwittingly, the Circus had created a legend: John Le Carré. Back then, as John F. Kennedy danced his way to an assassin's bullets, "mystery books"—novels of cops, of crime, of noir, and yes, of spies—were considered lowbrow, mere "entertainments" as they were called by another former MI6 ghost named Graham Greene, who was twice shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature which, like Bob Dylan, he deserved to win.

There'd been great works of literature featuring spies before Le Carré slipped onto the scene, many of them by Brits. That scribbler Shakespeare “terminated with extreme prejudice” two spies in his play about a political power struggle in a haunted castle with a dude who talks to skulls.

And spies walked in novels by the mustachioed gay Somerset Maugham, who worked the shadows for the Secret Intelligence Service in 1914-1918, at a time "before we knew enough to number” world wars, to quote a spy movie filmed the year we learned about White House burglaries, black bag jobs and assassination plots against newspaper columnists. We “cousins,” as the Brits called us, had grown up to have our own scalphunters and lamplighters in black ops directed by a commander-in-chief savaging the Constitution. 

Le Carré's rise to prominence was swift. His third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, became his breakout hit amid conspiracy theories swirling around Kennedy’s murder in Dallas. In1965, that brooding tale of Cold War deceits became a cinematic masterpiece starring Richard Burton as fake defector Alec Leamas. Filmed in black and white, it reflected a world where shadows matter.

Critics sometimes call it a sequel to Le Carré's first two novels, in which the rumpled counterspy George Smiley steps into the role of the prime antagonist pitted against the Soviet mole in MI6, Bill Haydon (modeled on the real-life spy Kim Philby) and Moscow Centre's Karla , beginning with the wondrous novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. 

Hollywood brought George Smiley to life for millions of global citizens who skipped  the novels for Alec Guinness on the screens as a perfect embodiment of Smiley. (Gary Oldman later did a fine job of reprising that second-most famous filmed fictional spy.) 

But Le Carré didn't write sequels. All his novels were continuations of what he saw and learned about the world we live in, from his scrappy youth to his elegant gray eminence, from our Cold War days to the current era in which human spies now face competition from the likes of Russian cyber commandos who, on the day most American newspapers printed the sad news of Le Carré's death, were revealed to have hacked America's departments of Commerce, Treasury and, a few days later—and how Le Carré would have relished this—the Department of Homeland Security itself.

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When the Berlin Wall that Alec Leamas chose to die on fell in 1989, Le Carré's pen kept bleeding tales of our world. The covert struggles destroying humanity did not end for him when the Cold War crumbled.

The Human Factor

Le Carré’s subsequent stories personified idealism and survival in the conflict of Palestine and Israel. He shed light on the arms-dealing merchants of death and the criminal deeds of rapacious pharmaceutical companies. He wrote about money laundering in a world beset by poverty. He portrayed the fate of helpless ordinary beings in ‘minor' nations caught in coups orchestrated by major world powers. He wrote about human rights in our world full of wrongs.

And in all his fictions, Le Carré wrote about our human hearts, our insecurities, our vanities, stupidities and ignorance, the lies we tell each other and the lies we tell ourselves, the casual and the causal pain we inflict in the blink. He showed us our bumblings and stumblings, our tears and terrors and yes, our triumphs, too, though nothing came to any of his characters without cost.

By the time the Iran-Contra, arms-for-hostage scandal came to at least some level of light, Big Lit had realized Le Carré' had earned a seat at its table. Yet in many ways, he refused to dine. He refused literary honors. He lived in careful privacy.

One of the few times he emerged came at the twilight of the 20th Century, during a visit to Washington, D.C. to deliver a speech at the Folger Shakespeare Theater, two blocks from the white-icing dome of the U.S. Capital. That glorious spring night, Le Carré arrived like a white-haired knight—tall, charming, handsome. Amid his adoring fans hovered a 50ish, glittering, silver-gowned Sophia Loren-like Washington socialite with anytime eyes. Le Carré’s scans saw. His smile knew. 

The novelist commanded the Folger's stage that night, lecturing with an aplomb any Oxford don would envy, recounting realities of his world, offering insights and then picking up one of his books to read through a glorious passage underscoring his points.  

I had the thrill of  introducing Le Carré that night. His people had advised me not to call him a "spy novelist"—not at all a problem: I knew Le Carré had fought against such corralling for his entire career. Even after his death on December 12 at 89, the headline in the paper edition of The New York Times called him an "author of thrillers."

Yes, Le Carré's fictions are thrilling, and yes, they reveal mysteries and yes, they exist in our noir world where the lines between heroes and villains are blurred. But Le Carré  was far more than a genre fiction author, he was a geographer of the human soul.

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James Grady is the author of Six Days of the Condor, shortened to three days for the hit 1975 film. The book is still in print.