John le Carré mined moral ambiguity and Cold War paranoia to reinvent the modern espionage novel

John le Carré would not allow his books to be considered for literary prizes and found the idea of a knighthood “fatuous” (Photo: Time LIFE Pictures)

John le Carré was the poet laureate of the spy novel. This is an oft-repeated truism; it is also utterly insufficient to describe the author’s achievement. Le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell and who died on December 12 at the age of 89, not only reinvented the espionage novel, he created a canon of morally ambiguous, politically charged works that stand with the best of Dostoevsky.

Le Carré’s 1963 classic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is typically viewed as the quintessential Cold War novel, in addition to featuring a cameo appearance by the author’s most enduring character – the cynical and disillusioned British intelligence agent George Smiley. The character is the polar opposite of Ian Fleming’s dashing man of action, James Bond. By contrast, Smiley is frumpy, deliberate, cunning, and almost Calvinist in his rectitude. He is the moral centre of the agency in which he finds himself – a vipers’ nest of betrayal and corporatism le Carré dubbed “the Circus.”

If Bond is epitomized onscreen by Sean Connery, Smiley will forever be associated with Alec Guinness: supremely English, in a bowler hat, scarf, and overcoat, with large, thick-framed glasses that give him the air of a banker or accountant rather than an international spy. Though a younger generation of cinephiles will associate Smiley with Gary Oldman’s Oscar-nominated performance in the 2011 feature film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it was Guinness who created the iconic characterization in two BBC miniseries in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Besides the Smiley miniseries, le Carré’s work provided fodder for other film adaptations – some of them very strong (Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom; Fernando Meirelles’s scorching 2005 film of The Constant Gardener, and Anton Corbjin’s 2014 film A Most Wanted Man, which features one of the last performances from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman); others not so strong (John Boorman’s lamentable 2001 adaptation of The Tailor of Panama and Fred Schepisi’s 1990 misfire The Russia House, starring erstwhile James Bond actor Connery).

The films are at their best when they channel what was best in le Carré’s novels: the moral ambiguity and the reality that even the best intentions can become degraded as a result of misplaced ideological faith or institutional corruption. In a piece for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw writes about the influence of mid-20th century cinema on le Carré’s sensibility, especially films like Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which featured a screenplay by one of le Carré’s literary heroes, Graham Greene:

The dark shadows of that movie loomed over [le Carré’s] imagination, from a city (Vienna) divided up by the Second World War’s victorious and now mutually resentful allies. The paranoia, the sense of postwar peace perennially threatened and undermined by some new terrible incursion, the theme of personal betrayal, and the vivid nightmare of “going over to the other side” in a theological or geopolitical sense: it all informed his writing. Orson Welles’s breezy Harry Lime talking about the happy Swiss inventing nothing more interesting than the cuckoo clock was the tone of complaisant, emollient cynicism that le Carré was to encounter in the real-life British establishment, and which he satirized and anatomized in his own work.

Bradshaw also detects aspects of German expressionism in le Carré’s fiction, in its shadows and its penchant for dissecting the impulse toward sinfulness and venality.

Alec Guinness was the quintessential film version of George Smiley (Photo: BBC)

As a genre novelist, le Carré used his own background in British intelligence to create a fully formed, utterly believable milieu and created a lexicon – including terms such as “mole,” “honeytrap,” and “tradecraft” – that has been incorporated by professional agents and the general public. His knowledge of international espionage allowed him to mine Cold War paranoia and institutional bureaucracy for material, in the process creating a rogue’s gallery of memorable characters who appear robust and full-blooded, while also more often than not falling prey to the lures of betrayal, duplicity, and greed.

Though he occasionally did look elsewhere for antagonists – Big Pharma in The Constant Gardener; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in The Little Drummer Girl – le Carré’s most reliable bête noire was the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Though that came to a close with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Russia’s 21st-century re-emergence onto the global geopolitical stage provided le Carré with material for his last book, 2019’s Agent Running in the Field, which served also as an acidic critique of Donald Trump’s America and Brexit.

If le Carré’s righteous anger never deserted him in his lifetime as a novelist, neither did his psychological acuity, or his ability to create characters who resonated with readers on multiple levels. The 1996 novel A Perfect Spy, arguably the author’s magnum opus and certainly his most autobiographical work, is among the best books about the relationship between fathers and sons to appear in the 20th century. No less a literary luminary than Philip Roth considered it the “best English novel since the War.”

An obituary in The New York Times quotes novelist Ian McEwan as saying that le Carré “easily burst out of being a genre writer and will be remembered as perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the 20th century in Britain.” A case could be made. Of the twenty-five novels the author published in his career, the vast majority have at least something to recommend them, and no less than a half dozen – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; The Looking Glass War; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; Smiley’s People, and A Perfect Spy – can be considered modern classics.

Le Carré famously refused to allow his books to be considered for literary prizes – he felt that literature was not a competitive activity – and he declined a knighthood from the Queen. (“I find it absolutely fatuous,” he said of the notion.) What stands in place of literary prizes and other honours is the work itself: a corpus of fiction unrivalled in its time as volumes of transcendent genre fiction that also tell deeply psychological and immersive stories about life in the post-Second World War west, with all its muddiness, venality, and wanton absurdity.

Correction: This post has been updated. It erroneously stated that Burt Lancaster starred in the film version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Richard Burton played Lemas in that film.

John le Carré mined moral ambiguity and Cold War paranoia to reinvent the modern espionage novel