In praise of John le Carré

Today, 25th April, sees the publication of John le Carré’s new espionage novel, A Delicate Truth, which has already garnered excellent reviews (see for example Mark Lawson in The Guardian). Set in 2008 and 2011, it explores shady Whitehall operations against the background of the Bush-Blair era and the ‘war on terror’, and is being viewed as a stunning return to form.


In the run-up to publication, le Carré has also been marking the 50th anniversary of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). In a piece for The Guardian on 13. April, he explores the personal and historical contexts in which this ground-breaking novel was written, and the frustration he experienced at being ‘branded as the spy turned writer’; the author of ‘anti-Bond’ novels that critics erroneously insisted on regarding as spying handbooks.

Given all the above, it seems like an apt moment to try to sum up what makes le Carré such a wonderful and important writer. Here is my personal appreciation, in random top 10 form:

One of the many covers for The Spy – showing the barbed wire that divided East and West in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

I love John le Carré’s works because…

1. …the author and his creation George Smiley are linguists.                                   Le Carré studied German literature for a year at the University of Bern, and graduated with first-class honours in modern languages from Oxford. Most of his spies are linguists, and the most famous of them all, George Smiley, studied Baroque German literature and was destined for academia until the British Secret Service came knocking (in the shape of the brilliantly named ‘Overseas Committee for Academic Research’). The profession of intelligence officer offers Smiley ‘what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions’ (Call for the Dead, Penguin 2010, p. 2). And languages still really matter. Smiley’s ability to speak fluent German plays a vital role in Smiley’s People when he gathers intelligence in Hamburg, the city where he spent part of his boyhood, as well as a number of years ‘in the lonely terror of the spy’ during the Second World War. Le Carré says of him that ‘Germany was his second nature, even his second soul […] He could put on her language like a uniform and speak with its boldness’ (Sceptre 2011, pp. 252-3). This author’s world, then, is overwhelmingly multilingual, multicultural and international. Monoglot Brits need not apply…

2. …they so effectively evoke Germany during the Cold War. The frequent use of a German setting was practically inevitable given le Carré’s education, his membership of the British Foreign Service in West Germany (as Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn and Political Consul in Hamburg, which provided cover for his MI6 activities), and the timing of his stay between 1959 and 1964 at the height of the Cold War. Berlin was the frontline of the ideological battle between the Eastern and Western blocs, and le Carré says in an afterword to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that ‘it was the Berlin Wall that got me going, of course’ (Penguin 2010, p. 255). Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, the year the Wall went up, and, along with a number of his other novels, is partially set in East/West Germany (see list below). The most memorable for me are The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Smiley’s People (1979), both of which feature dénouements involving Berlin border crossings and evoke the Cold War tensions of that time and place perfectly.

3. …as someone who teaches in this area, I appreciate le Carré’s sophisticated understanding of 20th-century German and European history. This is evident in his recent Guardian piece, where he references the complexities of Allied intelligence operations in Cold War West Berlin, including the pragmatic but unethical protection of former Nazis, because they were viewed as valuable in the fight against communism. The difficult legacy of National Socialism in post-war Germany is most closely examined in his 1968 novel A Small Town in Germany (and forms part of the corpus for my own research on crime that engages with the Nazi period).

4. …as someone who reads and researches lots of historical fiction, I admire le Carré’s ability to communicate complex histories to a mass readership in intelligent and entertaining espionage novels. This isn’t something that many authors can do well; le Carré is one of the best.

5. …their narratives reveal a deep engagement with moral questions. A fascination with the themes of loyalty and betrayal – in relation to both individuals and ideologies/states – is particularly visible in the Cold War ‘Karla Trilogy’ (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 1974; The Honourable Schoolboy 1977; Smiley’s People 1979), which in turn forms part of the eight-novel Smiley collection. What’s had the greatest impact on me as a reader, though, is the critique of how the intelligence services (on either side of the ideological divide) are willing to sacrifice the individual for the ‘greater good’, and the recognition of the immorality of this act. Le Carré’s third and fourth novels – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965) – are extremely powerful in this respect, as they recount the tragic tales of those who become pawns in larger political chess games. Incidentally, I’ll bet my maximum bet of 10p that the figure of Avery in the latter novel most accurately embodies the professional and moral disillusionment that led Carré to leave the Service. The central question for this author was and continues to be: ‘how far can we go in the rightful defence of our western values, without abandoning them on the way?’ (see Guardian piece).

6. …their characters are fantastically drawn. Aside from the masterpiece of Smiley, the dumpy, middle-aged, unassuming, sharp-as-a-tack intelligence genius, who could forget Control, Connie Sachs, Toby Esterhase, Peter Guillam, Ricky Tarr, Jerry Westerby, Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux? All are so beautifully depicted that you feel they are living, breathing people.

Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

7. …you won’t find more perceptive writing anywhere. In German one would say that le Carré is ‘wach’: he is awake. He really SEES the world around him and has a deep understanding of how its political and power structures work, and how individuals get tangled up in them.

8. …they have given us wonderful TV and film adaptations, featuring great actors such as Alec Guinness and Richard Burton (whose diaries happen to rest at my own institution, Swansea University). See here for my film review of the 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Gary Oldman.

Alec Guinness as Smiley, retrieving a clue in Smiley’s People (1982)
The man sees everything….

9. …they are so often top-quality. One of my own later favourites is 2001’s The Constant Gardener – a brilliant exploration of pharmaceutical corruption for commercial gain in the developing world. And now, at the age of 81, it looks like he’s done it again with A Delicate Truth. Mark Lawson, in his review, writes that ‘le Carré has a strong claim to be the most influential living British writer’ and that he ‘is back at full power with a book that draws on a career’s worth of literary skill and international analysis’. ‘No other writer has charted – pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers – the public and secret histories of his times, from the second world war to the ‘war on terror’.

10. Last but not least, le Carré is a true friend of languages, and has been extremely generous in using his influence to promote language learning in the UK – for which I as a German studies lecturer am deeply grateful. He was deservedly awarded the Goethe Medal in 2011 for ‘outstanding service for the German language and international cultural dialogue’.

All of which leads me to say how much I’m looking forward to reading A Delicate Truth. Further information about the novel is available at le Carré’s website (including an audio excerpt and the first chapter). The novel begins with a quote from Oscar Wilde: ‘If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out’. Something every spook needs to remember…

Le Carré novels that reference the German-speaking world/history

Call for the Dead (Smiley’s German links; Nazi past; East Germany)

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Nazi past; divided Berlin; East Germany)

The Looking Glass War (East and West Germany)

A Small Town in Germany (Nazi past; Bonn, West Germany)

Smiley’s People (Hamburg, West Germany; Bern, Switzerland; divided Berlin)

The Perfect Spy (German at Oxford; Vienna and Berlin)

The Secret Pilgrim (diverse, including East Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Zurich)

Absolute Friends (West Germany, East Germany)

A Most Wanted Man (Hamburg, Germany)

Our Kind of Traitor (Switzerland).

43 thoughts on “In praise of John le Carré

  1. What a wonderful list Mrs P…I’m afraid my last encounter with him left me a little cold as I did not think OUR KIND OF TRAITOR displayed many of the traits you so eloquently describe here (though it did display his usual love for and elegant use of language). However someone with his history is allowed a stumble or two and I will also be checking out A DELICATE TRUTH.

    • Thanks, Bernadette. I have really high hopes, as all the reviews I’ve read have been extremely positive, and seem to regard the novel as a worthy addition to his best works. And yes, I think the odd stumble is allowed, because there are so many outstanding works in his oeuvre (and the power of these is magnified in cases where individual books link up with others to form larger trilogies and so on). Many of his works I return to time and time again, and the reading experience is just as rich as the first, second or third time round. He sets a very high bar for everyone else!

  2. Well done Mrs P, couldn’t agree more, have it on Pre Order from Amazon, Can’t wait for it to turn up! I would put Grahame Greene & William Boyd along side Le Carre as English writers I can back to time & again. I do enjoy Ambiguous characters & there novels are full of them, as are Conrads, Sjowall & Wahloo, & Leif Perssons.

    • Thanks, Brian. I absolutely agree with you about Greene (and Greene famously said of >The Spy Who Came in from the Cold< that it was the best spy novel he had read).

      What you say about being able to return to these authors repeatedly is so true. There is a richness to their fictional worlds that keeps rewarding readers with new insights. And that's a really good point too about the ambiguity of characters: George Smiley must in many ways be the most ambiguous of them all.

      I will have to read more Boyd!

  3. HI Mrs P, I really enjoyed this personal appreciation. To my eternal shame I have never read any le Carre, I must put this right. I loved the film with Gary Oldman, thought it was brilliantly done and his portrayal of Smiley was so understated, so good. I have also never read any Eric Ambler – have you? I saw a review of The LIght of Day on Petrona Remembered and now want to read it. How to find enough time to read all the books one wants – giving up sleep would help but I just can’t do it! By the way, in my blog, among a lot of my normal nonsense about my pants falling down etc I did an mini review of HHhH – you might like to have a quick look, don’t worry, just close your eyes when pants are mentioned.

    • I’m jealous of you, Blighty, because you have it all before you. What a treat.

      I thought the film of Tinker Tailor was great too, and I guess that would be a good place for you to start with le Carre’s novels. It’s one of my all time favourites (and ranks pretty highly on most people’s le Carre lists). There’s a nice top 10 list of le Carre novels in the Daily Telegraph which might be useful. I wouldn’t quibble much with the order they give:

      Eric Ambler remains a gap for me (in general my espionage reading is not as wide as I would like it to be). Heavens, yes, where to find the time. I dream of a temporal statis chamber that we readers can clamber into without worrying about time pressures: the clock when you come out is exactly the same as when you went in…

      Will pop over to your blog shortly to see your verdict on HHhH – looking forward to that 🙂

      • “Temporal statis chamber” – ooh Mrs P, you master wordsmith you, impressed, and will try to pass this off as my own expression really soon (cue puzzled looks from my nearest and dearest, who no doubt will think mummy has been at the sherry again). Really it’s all wasted on the great unwashed.

  4. Mrs. P – You’ve expressed so very well what the appeal is of le Carré’s work. His use of language, both in the dialogue and the narrative, his willingness to explore moral questions and his evocation of time and place are superb. He takes the time to create complex, interesting characters and has the gift of building suspense throughout his stories without relying on all the ‘action tropes’ that too many thriller authors use. This is a superb post.

    • Thank you, Margot – you describe his strengths very well here yourself. I’m not generally one for thrillers – crime is much more my thing – but le Carre is the big exception, for all the reasons you outline. Do you have a particular favourite?

      • Since you ask, Mrs. P., I am torn between Tinker Tailor… and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In different ways each shows his strengths as a writer I think.

      • In my opinion, Tinker Tailor is strong on letting us see Smiley’s character as well as his cerebral approach to his job. And in this I think the author is much to be credited. Far too many spy thrillers are more ‘action-oriented’ and don’t focus enough on the thinking that goes on behind the job. Oh, and I like the irony too that we see in that novel.
        As to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I think it’s quite strong on atmosphere and on the, well, noir outlook that many people in the espionage business have had. I like the characters here too.
        Both of them are rich in my opinion with le Carré’s characteristic strong writing style and solid character development.
        OK, enough nattering… 😉

    • Thanks for your comment, tabliope, and for following the blog. Yes, quite a few le Carre novels fall into that category of books to be reread every couple of years. For me it’s The Spy and Tinker Tailor. I never get tired of them.

  5. My favourite le Carre is The Constant Gardener, its themes close to my heart. A wonderful book *and* a stunning film — rarely do film adaptations get it that right.

    • Thanks, Angela. It’s one of my favourites too, and I think really shows off his knowledge and versatility (it isn’t all Cold War / espionage).

      I wonder if le Carre has simply been lucky in the quality of his adaptations, or whether the quality of the original text helps with the transition from text to screen (attracts top directors and actors etc)?

  6. I so love TTSS, I could read it over and over again. I’m looking forward to the latest book, my only complaint being that it’s been relentlessly trailed…..

    • Likewise, Sarah. I’ve been wondering over the past couple of days what it must be like being a premier league author like le Carre – so much attention and publicity – it really is extraordinary.

  7. This is a lovely post. Really gets me motivated to reread the George Smiley novels, which I have been planning to do for a long time. I am glad to hear that you liked The Constant Gardener. I have that one to read and have put it off because it is so long. But if it is a good read, that is fine.

    • Thanks, TracyK. It’s a while since I read The Constant Gardener, but I remember thinking how powerful a read it was. It stayed with me a long time (and is one I mean to reread). Enjoy your Smiley project…

  8. Yes I agree ‘A Perfect Spy’ is his best book, also a superb adaption By BBC, same production team as the earlier ones. In fact so good I’m going to start watching it again to night, have to watch something on a Saturday night, now that BBC4 is showing that Dahl tosh for the next few weeks, what a waste. Other spy books worth reading, Somerset Maughams ‘Ashenden’ short stories, very enjoyable, out In a nice new edition. Also John Banville’s ‘The Untouchable ‘ an excellent book, based on Anthony Blunt. Speaking of Banville, just received the June programme from the BFI, & on the 20th at the NFT There’s a TV Preview of ‘Quirke’ based on his series of books set in 1950’s Dublin, not read them but think I’ll give them a try. Series has been produced by the BBC with Gabriel Byrne as Quirke.

    • I haven’t seen the TV adaptation of A Perfect Spy yet. Another one to line up for some summer viewing. Not convinced by the Dahl then? I didn’t greatly enjoy the serial killer theme of the last two episodes, but I do like the charactersation of the team.

      Thanks as ever for the recommendations! You’re a wonderfully informed culture vulture 🙂

  9. I must remedy my crime fiction gap and read a book or two by John Le Carre. He was a favorite author of my mystery reading father, whom I remember holding a copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold more than 35 years ago.
    I saw the movie of The Constant Gardener, which I thought was brilliant, with an excellent cast.
    Perhaps I will read A Delicate Truth.
    With so many excellent book recommendations lately from this and other eminent blogs, what is a reader to do? Can we petition for 36 hour days, one or two reading days a week, or to clone ourselves?

    • I remember my dad watching the TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor with Alec Guinness. He was completely hooked! Yes, agree with you about the film of The Constant Gardener (though it makes me weep buckets).

      The lack of time is such a problem – I really sympathise. I’m having a bit of a crisis with my TBR pile at the moment – SO much good stuff to read. I’m looking forward to some time over the summer to properly regroup. I think the idea of a ‘reading day’ is very beguiling.

  10. Well, we could growl at anyone to bothered us while we’re reading on Sunday! Could put out a sign on our door, saying “Reading Day, Do not Disturb.” Now for those with families, that’s hard. Children need help constantly, need meals, clothes and fun, too. But maybe they could be reading as adults are reading; all could have a reading day or afternoon. Or trips to buy new books, then everyone sits down with a feast and reads for hours. I’m for it.

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  12. Finished A Delicate Truth, excellent, thought the ending was very good indeed. He doesn’t do happy endings! It was interesting to watch ‘ A Perfect Spy’ at the same time, to compare the two eras, the Cold War seems somewhat innocent to the present time. To me the distinction then between good & bad is blurred. Was interested to know this was his 23 rd book, thought I’d read 21 of them, Naive & Sentimental Lover being the one I hadn’t read, or so I thought. Mission Song seems I’ve not read that one, don’t know how I missed it! Still another Le Carre to read, great!

    At the moment I’ve just started ‘Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s ‘ The secret History of Costaguana. The fact that its about Joseph Conrad & his writing of Nostromo attracted me, also his first book ‘The Informers’ sounds intriguing. Anyway have the new Bernie Gunther on order at Bromley House, very good review in last Mondays Indiie, raised the point is there a new genre, ‘Good detectives working under a a bad regime’, we touched on this before. Also put in a request for HHhH, really intrigued by this book.

    • Wow, Brian – that was quick! I’m glad you enjoyed A Delicate Truth – it may be a little while before I get round to reading it, so it’s good to hear some positive reader reviews coming in. I still have some on the le Carre list to go as well – next up for me is Absolute Friends.

      It’s interesting how newspaper reviews are picking up on the ‘good detectives working under a bad regime’ trend, although it’s not quite so new, I think. As I might have mentioned before, I have an academic journal article forthcoming on this topic, and my findings are that the trend started in the early 1990s (at least in relation to the ‘Nazi detective’). I’ll do a post on this in more detail once my article is out 🙂

      I hope you enjoy the Vasquez and HHhH…

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