Arthur Conan Doyle versus John le Carré

As I read through the Sherlock Holmes stories, I was struck by the bluff, hearty, unshakeable confidence of Conan Doyle’s narratorial voice. And, particularly when I read the espionage stories (Bruce-Partington, His Last Bow), I thought of his descendant John le Carré, whose voice, tone and milieu couldn’t be more different – a world of jaded, disillusioned, cynical, overgrown public schoolboys – and I found myself comparing their oeuvres.

Arthur Conan Doyle John le Carré

  • Establishment
  • Public School
  • Professional (doctor)
  • Volunteer in Boer & Great War
  • Patriot

  • Establishment
  • Public school
  • Professional (diplomat)
  • Worked for military, Foreign Office, MI6
  • Sceptical patriot

  • Believer
  • Entirely endorsed the values of his time ie the supremacy of:
  • The British Empire, of British values, of Anglo-Saxon blood, of white men
  • Strong clear morality, decency
  • Patriarchy ie rule by men and chastity of women, recompensing the fairer sex with Chivalry

  • Disillusioned unbeliever
  • Bitterly questions Imperial values, seen as ambiguous, devalued, empty
  • Sad acceptance of the end of Empire. The Russia House is about the Americans taking over
  • Amoral or morally unsure
  • Sexually explicit, women as betrayers, completely post-patriarchy, -chivalry etc. Eg Anne the betrayer wife
Character of texts

  • Clear-cut problems solved neatly, restoring the status quo
  • Settings Romantic and cinematic
  • Characters unambiguously good or bad
  • Holmes imposes clarity and justice according to firm white man’s morality
Character of texts

  • Complex, sometimes insoluble problems eg Arab-Israeli conflict of Little Drummer Girl
  • Settings shabby, sordid rundown
  • Characters obscure, complex, conflicted
  • Lying and deceit and duplicity is the core subject of the spy books where no-one can be trusted epitomised by the Cambridge spy, Haydon

  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Professor Challenger
  • Conan Doyle’s heroes are the best in the world, always triumph, unshakably confident in their own abilities and purpose.

  • Alec Leamas
  • George Smiley
  • Le Carré’s anti-heroes are unglamorous, shabby, obscure men, cynical about their own cause, who often fail.
Foreign travel

  • has shown him that white men’s rule is best, ensuring the rule of law and morality in USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, India or South Africa
  • bolsters his values and his superb confidence
Foreign travel

  • has shown him the irrelevance of British Empire public school values in a complex Cold War world, packed with independence movements trying to get free of Imperialism or tyrannised by Soviets
  • has undermined his values leading to jaded cynicism, leading to the comprehensive betrayal of Magnus Pym

Le Carré’s novels embody the disillusionment of the British private school class, trained by institutions brought to perfection in the late-Victorian period to churn out unthinkingly loyal, white, patriarchal believers in cricket and fair play sent out to rule vast areas of Africa or India. The classics-and-rugger education continues to this day but in a post-Great War, post-Second War, post-Empire world, delivering these fresh-faced neophytes to a world much larger, more complex, and less manageable, less fitting into the pukka mental system, than conceivable by the Victorians. A world we no longer even pretend to control, where these Victorian values seem ludicrously out of date, redundant, irrelevant.

Hence the recurring milieu, the recurring setting of le Carré’s fiction is the club full of sozzled embittered middle-aged public school men, disillusioned public school types scattered around the higher echelons of the Army, the Foreign Office, MI6 or London’s clubland, huddling together for warmth and reassurance, to bolster their failing belief in themselves and their outworn values, kidding themselves that the British still run things or matter, that men are superior, that white men are most superior of all, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The Honourable Schoolboy in particular I found hard to read because of the way the white men got drunk and played schoolboy pranks in the Hong Kong press club, childishly reinforcing their own values and worldview, utterly regardless of the hundreds of millions of Asians living their lives just beyond the compound.

In contrast to all this, the main appeal of Conan Doyle as man and writer is his wonderful, unbreakable confidence – evinced in the hymn to bachelorhood which is the friendship of Holmes and Watson, but which extends to the settings of almost everything he wrote. Despite the killings and brutality in the stories and even in his histories of the Boer War and Congo, all Conan Doyle’s fictions bring you back to tea and crumpets by the fire, a white Anglo-Saxon mastery of the world which is demonstrated by the calm confidence of his prose style.

Le Carré, writing 50 years later (first novel 1961), is completely disillusioned, cynical and scathing about the very public school values he was raised in (but which he can’t escape). The pleasure to be had from his texts is the pleasure of soaking yourself in fictions which have very thoroughly worked out the implications of this hegemonic failure, this moral collapse.

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