Archive for the ‘john le carre’ Category


A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

3 February 2009

Yet another John Le Carré book, in my attempt to work through some of the novels that do not happen to feature George Smiley.

A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

An embassy, by its very nature, is a small outpost of one country on another country’s soil. The little community of diplomats and staff that inhabit the outpost are well prepared to close ranks at the first hint of outside trouble or threat, especially at embassies in a country with unsettled political situations — and in Cold War Europe, few countries matched this description better than the two countries of a divided Germany. With the old capital city of Berlin walled off behind the Iron Curtain, the fog-choked industrial town of Bonn became the de facto capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. Although it was jokingly called the Bundesdorf (‘Federal Village’) because of its sleepy, almost backwater milieu, Bonn soon became the home of the various embassies of West Germany’s friends and allies, a small town in which the diplomats could play their delicate and occasionally desperate games while keeping one eye to the east.

In this small town in Germany, the diplomats and support staff of the British embassy are playing a particularly desperate game at present. The Government at home is fighting to survive, and anti-British sentiment is on the rise in a popular protest movement that has the not-so-secret sympathies of the present West German leaders. The British have pinned all their hopes on successfully negotiating entry to the European Economic Community, and everyone is keen to ensure that nothing happens to sour the deal. So when a junior file clerk named Leo Harting and several exceedingly sensitive files go missing from the embassy on the same evening, the blunt but efficient Alan Turner is sent from London to track down both the files and the man. Turner rides roughshod over the embassy staff, digging into private lives and reopening buried conflicts amongst the diplomats and staff members, as he attempts to get to the bottom of Harting’s disappearance. At it happens, though, the real conflicts run much deeper than Turner could have ever suspected, and are inextricably tied to a gruesome history that both the British and the West Germans hope will never see the light of day.

A Small Town in Germany draws on John Le Carré’s own experiences working in the British embassy in Bonn, which may explain how he manages to capture the sheer claustrophobia that can sometimes accompany diplomatic life abroad. The plot, although more tortuous than some of his previous books, has many of the quintessential Le Carré features — not least of which are the female characters who seem to be incapable of maintaining a stream of consciousness without having it wind its way back to sex. (I discussed this particular problem with a few friends a short while ago; the consensus seemed to be that this sort of characterisation might have seemed rather novel or daring when Le Carré was first writing his books, but with the passage of time is has become dated to the point of reading more like cliche than originality.) All the same, many of the good characteristics of a Le Carré novel are still there, the descriptions that immerse you in the setting and the careful turns of phrase that can sketch lightly or cut deeply. As a classic Cold War espionage novel, A Small Town in Germany deftly illustrates its author’s skill in overlapping layer upon layer of personal and political motivations to keep the reader in the dark until the very end.


The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

12 October 2008

I read this shortly after I finished Call for the Dead, and it’s quite interesting to see how Le Carré’s writing style developed between his first book and this one. There are still one or two more of the ‘early’ Le Carré books that I’d like to read, including A Small Town in Germany and possibly A Murder of Quality — they’ll appear in this blog if I happen to get around to them.

The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

During World War II, the British intelligence services were organised into a number of different divisions responsible for different aspects of espionage and analysis. For reasons of security and inter-departmental propriety, the divisions responsible for political intelligence and military intelligence were kept separate, and known only by their generic codenames — the ‘Circus’ dealt with political affairs, the ‘Department’ dealt with military matters. Even though both agencies operated in Nazi-occupied areas, their remits were distinct and their staffs only collaborated when necessity demanded collaboration. After the war, however, the Circus and the Department found themselves competing in bureaucratic turf wars for government funding and support, and the better-organised Circus outflanked the Department and won the lion’s share of both. The Department was left to fend for itself, as its senior staff spent most of the time dreaming of their glory days and its new recruits muddled along as best they could. Yet when a Department courier is found dead on the side of the road near a small airport in Finland, and a less-than-reliable source passes on information about the possible movement of Soviet nuclear missiles to a site in East Germany near the border with the West, the old hands of the Department frantically work to recruit and retrain a formerly active agent to be infiltrated behind the Iron Curtain — a final push against an old enemy.

The Looking Glass War was John Le Carré’s fourth book, published two years after his best-selling The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it was nowhere near as successful as its predecessor. Le Carré himself, in the introduction to later editions, considered that much of the reason for the book’s poor reception had to do with the fact that it was very much the antithesis of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The Looking Glass War is the story of failure, failed men and failed plans, an intelligence service that cannot remember whether it is fighting the Russians or the Germans and can only scrouge up cast-off agents and hopelessly outdated equipment for a haphazard, suicidal mission. Le Carré, in retrospect, claimed that he had not gone far enough in his critical appraisal of British intelligence in the novel. In his eyes, a proper tale of the British intelligence community of the 1960s could not be written without reference to ‘its internecine feuds and betrayals, its class distinctions and its obsessive vision of the American oaf, trespassing on our precious colonial turf‘ — in short, an unrelentingly bleak vision of Britain after Suez, sleepwalking its way into an uncertain future.

Le Carré claimed that The Looking Glass War was his most realistic spy novel, at least in the sense that it was based on the intelligence community that he knew and in which he briefly served. He finds space to give George Smiley, his best-known character, a minor role as an unwilling liaison between the Circus and the Department, though Smiley plays only a small part in the larger plot. (There may be the faintest hint of foreshadowing of the events of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, although that book would not be written for another decade.) The story dwells on the main themes that crop up quite often in Le Carré’s books, including the nature of betrayal and the toll that espionage work takes on the private lives of those who are involved in intelligence circles. As a spy novel, it is indeed unrelentingly bleak, greyer and grittier than even Le Carré tends to be in his writing. Even so, it seems uncomfortably authentic in the morbidness of its plot and characters; it may be an exaggeration of reality, but there are enough echoes of truth in it to allow our imaginations to take care of the rest.


Call for the Dead by John Le Carré

9 September 2008

I went on a bit of an espionage kick a few weeks ago, ploughing through several spy novels that I’d been meaning to read for some time now. Now that I’ve finished the lot, it’s time to start posting the reviews.

Call for the Dead by John Le Carré

When an anonymous typewritten letter accuses Samuel Fennan, a civil servant in the Foreign Office, of being a Communist Party member during his time at Oxford, intelligence officer George Smiley is sent to interview Fennan and review his files for any trace of problems in his professional and personal history. Everything appears to be in order, the interview goes well, and Smiley assures Fennan that there is nothing to worry about. Not two days later, however, Fennan is found dead on the floor of his suburban Surrey home, shot through the head. The immediate impression is that Fennan has taken his own life, since the gun was found beneath his body and he had left behind a suicide note which claimed that he was convinced his career was ruined. Elsa, Fennan’s wife, coldly informs George Smiley that her husband had been in a state of near nervous collapse ever since the interview, and that she had found his body lying on the hall floor when she returned from an evening out. Smiley is prepared to accept this explanation and consider the sad matter closed, but when the Fennans’ telephone rings and he answers it, the telephone exchange operator cheerfully informs him that Fennan had requested a call for 8.30 AM that very day. This peculiar telephone call, and a handful of other inexplicable facts — an cup of cocoa left undrunk, a music case left behind in a local theatre — lead Smiley to investigate Fennan’s death more carefully. As he uncovers more inconsistencies, irregularities, and outright lies, Smiley begins to piece together a story that is as much a part of his own past as it is Fennan’s, and comes face to face with a group of individuals who are more than willing to kill again to protect the secrets they have worked so hard to acquire.

Call for the Dead was John Le Carré’s first foray into the spy fiction that would make his name as an author, and the first book to introduce the weary but determined George Smiley and the ‘Circus’, Le Carré’s name for the British intelligence service. In some ways, it is more of a noir-ish detective story than a spy novel, for the spying is often rather peripheral to the plot and at times it reads more like a classic British police procedural than an example of the espionage-based genre. The George Smiley of Call for the Dead is not quite the same George Smiley who stars in Le Carré’s well-known trilogy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People); this Smiley is very much a prototype, slightly less in control of his emotions and slightly more prone to morose musings over the state of his failed marriage to the beautiful but faithless Lady Ann Sercomb. Le Carré would even retcon Smiley’s past for the later books, changing the date of his initial employment with the Circus to prevent his hero from being too old for the action that those books required. As a first draft, though, it provides a thorough introduction to Smiley’s history, and allows Smiley to be a little more active than we see him in the later books — this Smiley is able to survive a beating and still feel confident in his ability to tackle a man who is armed and unquestionably dangerous.

Although Call for the Dead is Le Carré’s first book, it may not be the best book to read as an introduction to the Le Carré world of espionage fiction. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the classic George Smiley book, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and A Perfect Spy are two of the most well-written of his classic works. Yet Call for the Dead has a short, tight plot that keeps the suspense quite high throughout, a fairly satisfying mystery to follow, and several interesting characters (including one of the few Le Carré female characters who actually seems capable of thinking about something other than sex). The rain-soaked, fog-shrouded London of the early 1960s makes a perfect setting for the story, lending the right atmosphere of gloom, foreboding, and slow but inevitable decay that so often provides the backdrop for the works of one of the foremost authors of espionage fiction.


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

30 December 2007

Last of the John le Carré novels on my list, and quite possibly the last book review posting of 2007. Many thanks for those of you who’ve followed along thus far — I hope to have more interesting books (and other postings) available in 2008!

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

The story opens on a bleak picture of the state of British intelligence in Germany in the early 1960s, a time of heightened intrigue and conflict between rival security services and the agents who operate in the crevices between East and West. Alec Leamas, former head of British intelligence operations in West Berlin, has seen his entire network of East German agents eliminated in a very short space of time by East Germany’s top spymaster, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Leamas is called home (seemingly in disgrace) to England, and given a new assignment to engineer the downfall of his East Berlin counterpart — the man who had essentially destroyed Leamas’s career. To do so, Leamas must give up his old life and go deep undercover, working his way down in life in a carefully crafted spiral of alcoholism and decline until he can offer himself as a plausible source of information for the East Germans. If he can plant false information that frames Mundt as a British double agent, Mundt will be executed, and Leamas will be allowed to end his working life in espionage and ‘come in from the cold’, or so he hopes. But matters are rarely so simple in the world of Cold War espionage, and Leamas will soon learn that the value of his own life is far more negotiable than he had ever imagined — particularly when the price is being set by his masters at home.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the third book that John le Carré wrote, and many fans of espionage fiction regard it as one of the all-time best espionage novels ever written. Le Carré’s depiction of a down-at-heel, unglamorous, and morally ambigious world of false double agents and planted information was rather revolutionary for its time, not least because it presented Western intelligence services as being no more noble or honourable than their communist counterparts. Some critics initially condemned the novel’s sense of defeatism and its cynical examination of Western values. Yet the very harshness of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold has only contributed to its lasting appeal, where other flashier depictions of high Cold War spy games seem childish or outdated or hopelessly naive from a twenty-first century perspective. The book is a truly fine example of its genre, setting a standard to which other espionage novellists have attempted to aspire ever since it first came out in 1963.


The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré

27 December 2007

Picking through the other John le Carré books I’ve read before, I came across this one — one I didn’t care as much for as some of the others I’ve read. I’ve one more John le Carré book in the queue, and that’ll go up over the weekend.

The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré

The title character of The Tailor of Panama is the clever and industrious Harry Pendel, the expatriate British proprietor of Pendel and Braithwaite Ltd (formerly of Savile Row, now of Panama). Pendel counts any number of rich and influential members of Central American society amongst his honoured clients, and his wife works in close contact with a number of the extremely influential individuals who are working to engineer the transition of the Canal from American to Panamanian hands in a few years’ time. But (because this is a le Carré novel) Pendel has any number of secrets he is willing to go to great lengths to conceal from his wife and his family — and the arrival of Andrew Osnard, a man with some unspecified connection to the British Embassy in Panama, threatens to ruin the comfortable life that Pendel has built as tailor to the well connected. So when Osnard asks Pendel to report the idle chatter and gossip he hears from his clientele, Pendel responds with an enthusiasm that is not merely borne of desperation. Indeed, as he begins to embrace his secret life as a collector of information, he becomes increasingly enthusiastic about his work, because sometimes it is easier to start a rumour than merely to report one.

I have never seen the film that was made of this book, but I was interested to see how John le Carré would craft a novel that wasn’t about ‘them wicked Russians’. And I have to say that I think I prefer the wicked Russians, when all is said and done. The substitute for the Soviet Union is a mish-mash of Highly Influential Shadowy Persons, arms dealers and media people and the like, who don’t seem to do much of anything except sit around, drink expensive wine, and conspire for the sake of conspiracy on a level that crosses the border of implausible about two-thirds of the way through the book. Everyone seems to be out to cheat or swindle or sleep with the spouse/girlfriend of everyone else, and the majority of women in the book seem to be nigh incapable of thinking about anything that isn’t in some way related to sex. (That last point is something of a trend that I’ve noticed in most of the le Carré books I’ve read.) Truthfully, that sort of intrigue just isn’t to my taste. The Tailor of Panama was published in 1996, so le Carré also paints a depressing portrait of a Conservative Government on its last legs and a British intelligence service that is so drunk on delusions of post-Cold War grandeur that it swallows Pendel’s fantastic tales whole and begs for more. If nothing else, the book shows that John le Carré is capable of writing espionage thrillers that exist outside the Cold War milieu…and yet making that transition requires an equivalent shift in mentality that isn’t always easy to achieve 100 percent of the time.


A Perfect Spy by John le Carré

25 December 2007

Another John le Carré for today’s book review — I’ve one or two more to post, and I’ll have them both up before the end of the week.

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré

Le Carré’s books are as a rule very psychological in tone, exploring the nature of espionage from a deeply personal perspective. The questions he poses his stories are the sort that spies and spy-masters have asked themselves ever since espionage first proved its worth in warfare: what might make someone want to spy? What kinds of espionage would a potential spy be most proficient at? To what extent can a spy conceal his clandestine activities from unfriendly or even friendly eyes? And above all, under what circumstances might a spy be persuaded to spy for the other side? A Perfect Spy takes all of these questions and stuffs them into a storyline that blends history and autobiography in a delicate and complex mix.

The story revolves around Magnus Pym, a high-ranking member of the British diplomatic corps who also happens to be one of the intelligence service’s best field officers. By all appearances, he’s charismatic, well-liked, intelligent and dedicated, a model husband and father and diplomat and field agent. But Magnus has an incredibly convoluted past, full of closed doors and secret file cabinets into which he has compartmentalised his life. And this past has not only made him into a superlative agent for British intelligence, but it also has made him into an incredibly effective double agent for the Czech intelligence service. A Perfect Spy delves deep into that past and how it has played out into the present day…where Pym is on the run from both of his political masters, and preparing for the moment when one or the other of them catches up to him at last.

It’s another massive, brain-bending book from Le Carré, clocking in at nearly 700 pages in my paperback edition and yet uniformly gripping all the way through. So much of the book is told from a quasi-narrative viewpoint, where Pym ‘tells’ his son (or his wife, or his old boss) the details of his childhood and youth in order to explain why he is the man he has become — and while that narrative can be a little hard to follow at times it does help you feel as if you’re fallen right into Pym’s head and are accompanying him on his final journey. Again, as with most of Le Carré’s works, there’s something careful and precise about his writing that gives me the feeling of reading a book written in translation. I must say, though, that this book isn’t a high Cold War book like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, or even a book about the trials and tribuations of British intelligence as the Smiley trilogy was. It’s a story about a deeply confused man — or rather, a boy whose entire life has been one great big mixed-up complicated game of Let’s Pretend. So if the psychological side of espionage interests you, A Perfect Spy is exactly the sort of book that will let you pick apart an exemplary subject, one Magnus Pym, and come to know him as well as he knows himself. Which is to say, hardly at all.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People by John le Carré

23 December 2007

I was going to post these three books in separate reviews, but putting them all together feels like a neater package. I have several other John le Carré book reviews in the queue, so I’ll likely be posting them fairly soon.

On a side note — one thing I’ve always noticed when reading John le Carré’s books is that I often feel as if I happened to be reading a book in translation. There’s a certain carefulness to his word choice, a very deliberate precision that I don’t often detect in books that haven’t been translated from another language. I still don’t quite know what to make of that sensation, but it’s one of the reasons why I truly enjoy reading the le Carré canon.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief….’

Although the title of this book comes from the words of a children’s counting rhyme, John le Carré places these simple words at the heart of a darkly sinister tale of high Cold War espionage. The book opens in an already tense atmosphere, an unsettled time for those who work in and for British Intelligence. The high-profile failure (and subsequent exposure) of an important operation in Czechoslovakia has led to a massive shake-up in the service, and those who have managed to keep their jobs want nothing more than to put the failure behind them. But one of the most senior Intelligence officers, who had lost his place and was forced into ‘early retirement’, believes that there is something far more sinister behind the operation gone wrong. George Smiley, the officer in question, believes that there is a traitor concealed somewhere in the highest levels of the service — a Soviet mole who bears the ultimate responsibility for countless betrayed agents and blown operations. Since he has nothing left to lose, Smiley decides to use all of his old contacts and intelligence tricks to unearth the mole…and in the process, he must confront past mistakes and interrogate old rivals and friends, all the while aware that one of those friends might be the traitor he intends to destroy.

John le Carré’s world is really a classic image of the old-school spy novel: more tame than Ian Fleming, more down-to-earth than Tom Clancy, but gripping nonetheless. He deals in all in shades and variations of grey, from the grey skies of London to the grey buildings in Cambridge Circus (the home base of the British Intelligence network) to the grey areas of morality where his characters always seem to dwell. George Smiley, though fantastically clever, is a rather faded character — as if years and years of working on Her Majesty’s Secret Service had washed all the colour out of him. The story is crafted carefully enough to make the reader second-guess most every first impression of the characters as the tale spins itself out and the story become more intricate. The story has a resolution, not a happy ending, but then again a happy ending would likely feel somewhat out of place in le Carré’s world.

The Honourable Schoolboy

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley manages to discover the identity of the Soviet mole who had infiltrated the highest echelons of British intelligence — and also finds out that the man in question had been sleeping with his (Smiley’s, that is) wife. So The Honourable Schoolboy opens onto the essential wreckage of Smiley’s personal and professional life. But Smiley is determined to clear up the mess that has landed in his lap, and so he sets out on the track of his oldest enemy — Karla, his counterpart in Soviet intelligence. His weapon of choice in this round is the Honourable Jerry Westerby, a brilliant but erratic agent who is set on Karla’s trail through Hong Kong and Cambodia against the backdrop of the end of American involvement in Vietnam. By the end of the novel, it might seem as if Smiley and the reader are no closer to Karla than they were before, but the stage is set for the final showdown in the final book of the trilogy.

The Honourable Schoolboy is another of Le Carré’s terrifically convoluted tales of Cold War espionage. The action keeps flashing back and forth from Smiley, stuck in London and trying to hold the fort against the criticisms and attacks from Whitehall and the American ‘cousins’, to Westerby, running all over the Far East and delving deep into the urban jungle of colonial Hong Kong. And whereas Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy introduces the reader to George’s Smiley’s secret world, it’s in The Honourable Schoolboy where the deeper contradictions of that world begin to show. One of Smiley’s colleagues reflects on the strain of intelligence work and how it is clearly beginning to affect his superior’s view of the world:

…one of two things will happen to George. He’ll cease to care, or the paradox will kill him. If he ceases to care, he’ll be half the operator he is. If he doesn’t, that little chest will blow up from the struggle of trying to find the explanation for what we do.

And while in some respects it’s apparent that this book is the second of a planned trilogy, a bit of a stop-gap between Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, it is still a cracking good read in its own right.

Smiley’s People

Smiley’s People was initially published in 1980, and in some ways it definitely reads like a lament for the ‘good old days’ (such as they were) of the Cold War. George Smiley, the hero (or at least the protagonist) of the previous two books, is still bogged down in the bureaucratic war that the intelligence services are always fighting with Whitehall. Most of his old colleagues have faded away, and his purpose is becoming more and more difficult to justify to himself. And when one of his ‘people’, an elderly exile from a country now behind the Iron Curtain, is found murdered in a manner that unmistakeably points in the direction of Moscow Centre and Karla, Smiley must pick up the chase again and track his quarry to ground. In doing so, though, he cannot help but reflect the far simpler and more straightforward past — a past that, like Smiley and his people, is on the point of becoming irrelevant.

The final book of the Smiley trilogy is a good deal bleaker than the first two, which is saying quite a bit for Le Carré’s style of writing and the nature of the story itself. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that this really is the final chase — and Smiley himself is aware that if he succeeds in catching his nemesis, he will only do so by exhausting his own ability to function in the secret world to which he has devoted his life. In his old age, Smiley finds himself questioning the very methods he has to use to track Karla. If he uses Karla’s methods, the same methods he has simultaneously admired and deplored for so long, can he really savour the final victory if and when it comes?

In the conclusion to the Smiley trilogy, Le Carré proves once again that he is a master of classic espionage fiction. His world isn’t flashy and seductive or gung-ho and full of technology. It’s a world that is worn at the edges, tired but serviceable and yet certain to vanish the next time some high-flying civil servant takes it into his head to ‘re-evaluate’ or ‘prioritise’. Le Carré knew it well enough at one point, and in this particular book he gives it something approaching a Viking funeral — dignified, certainly, but not quite so pleasant to watch.