Our Game by John le Carré (1995)

‘I’d adore to live without him, Diana! I’d give my entire bloody fortune to be rid of Larry and his works for the rest of my  natural life. Unfortunately, we are inextricably involved with each other and I have to find him for my own salvation and probably for his.’ (p.185)

Tim Cranmer

A first-person narrative told by Tim ‘Timbo’ d’Abell Cranmer (p.54), educated at Winchester and Oxford, and recruited into British Intelligence, where he served for twenty years or so before being pensioned off aged 47. His uncle Bob left Tim a winery in Devon where he now makes a nice living, keeping up his collection of eighteenth century barometers and Chinese Chippendale footstools. He was married to Diana, who also worked for the Service, but she divorced him years ago. More recently into his life has moved a highly-strung young female composer, Emma, half his age, temperamental, sexually inventive.

Larry Pettifer

The novel is about a chap Tim was at Winchester with, a few years younger than him, one Larry Pettifer (‘Larry was a new boy the same term I became a prefect.’ p.97). Tim meets up with Larry again at Oxford, where legions of women swoon to his good looks (‘Blast the fellow, he landed an outright First against my rather shaky Second,’ I said with a sporting laugh. p.100), before bumping into him again in Venice, where he was cutting a swathe through the middle-aged women tourists he was guiding around the churches and galleries. Tim recruits Larry into the Secret Service and subsequently runs him as an agent or ‘joe’, angling for him to be ‘recruited’ by the Soviets, which he duly is, by Konstantin Checheyev based in the USSR’s London embassy. And so Larry embarks on some years working as a British double agent.

After the Berlin Wall comes down along with the USSR, Tim retires and helps Larry get a job at the nearby University of Bath, as a left-wing politics lecturer, tiresomely bleating on about the failings of the West and espousing various good causes. But Larry makes a pest of himself, inviting himself first to Sunday lunches at Tim’s, then for the whole Sunday, flirting with Emma, then seducing her with his radicalism, dangerously dropping hints about Tim’s former career, of which Emma knows nothing. One day she leaves. Maybe he seduced her, the beastly cad.

The missing £37 million

A few weeks later the police come to interview Tim and tell him Dr Pettifer has gone missing. Tim is then summoned up to London by his old colleagues in ‘the Office’, who interview him aggressively before revealing that young Larry was not just a double agent working ‘for’ the Russian head of station, Konstantin Checheyev. In the last few days it has emerged that he and Checheyev embezzled the Russians for some £37 million! Tim swears complete ignorance, in fact amazement, at this fact. He is told to keep his mouth shut and packed off back to Cornwall.

It is only at this late stage that the narrator reveals the rather startling fact that he actually tried to kill Larry a few weeks earlier, around the time he ‘disappeared’. Furious at Larry for seducing Emma, Tim lured him to a deep and legendary small lake – Priddy Pool – where he fell on him, battering him unconscious and dragging him by the feet over to the pool and throwing him in. But he was in such a state that he can’t clearly remember whether Larry was dead or not. Apparently not, as the evidence builds up that Larry not only survived, but persuaded Emma to run away and join him on his quixotic crusade.

The Ingush

‘Crusade’? Yes, because as the novel inches forward through a blizzard of memories and reminiscences, as Timbo mulls over scenes from his former life – his long working relationship with Larry, the birth, flowering and end of his affair with Emma – and then as he is interrogated again by the police, and again by Intelligence officers, it becomes clear that Larry didn’t just steal the missing money: he was in league with Checheyev to funnel it towards one of his ‘good causes’, the long-oppressed Ingush people of the south Caucasus, a people neighboured by the Chechens and Ossetians and oppressed for centuries by Tsarist and then communist and now neo-capitalist Russia.

Quest for Larry

To borrow Timbo’s own semi-religious Victorian terminology, he sets out on a ‘quest’ to track down Larry and Emma. Using a fake identity, passport, driving license and bundles of cash he’d kept hidden for just such a rainy day, he spends the second half of the novel driving around England, digging up material from former Intelligence colleagues, quizzing a Foreign Office chap whose wife he once had an affair with, and tracking Larry and Emma down to a shabby house (9A Cambridge Street) in Bristol which they obviously used as a base before abandoning it.

Here Tim discovers a trove of paperwork supposedly connected with a carpet import-export company, which he naturally concludes is a front for laundering money and transporting arms to the heroic Ingush freedom fighters. In the novel’s most gruesome sequence, Timbo motors to the house of the owner of the import-export company, who tells him her husband hasn’t been home for a week, but explains that he’s often away on business trips. Timbo drives up to the firm’s isolated house-cum-warehouse in the hills to discover it has been thoroughly ransacked, and then follows a trail of blood up to an outhouse further up the hill where he discovers the bodies of the owner and the two locals who cleaned for him, tortured and murdered.

Paris

Tim catches a ferry to France and drives to Paris to interview an aged lady who knew both Larry and Emma – the Contessa Ann-Marie von Diderich – and there, to the reader’s surprise, finds Emma living quite contentedly, still practising the piano, unrepentant about dumping Tim for Larry, convinced that the embezzlement and money laundering and gun running they helped orchestrate is righting one of the world’s injustices. After the hundreds of passages in which Tim has described his affair with Emma in purple prose, it’s surprising when he simply says goodbye and walks away.

Moscow

Tim flies to Moscow, following contacts and phone calls which lead him to Checheyev via other contacts from the Soviet years. Entering a night club where he’d been told to go, Timbo finds himself being bundled downstairs to confront the sinister owner. It is a terrifying milieu. (An unfortunate man has been tied to a chair and obviously tortured, and bleeds and moans in the corner of the office throughout the meeting). After a cursory questioning, Tim is taken away from the office, shoved downstairs into a makeshift cell and locked up for ten days. He can hear the sounds and smell the cooking of the Ingush families above him. Two young men with Kalashnikovs come and chat and smoke with him.

Eventually he is dragged out of the cell, given his coat and gloves back and dragged upstairs, outside and through deep snow to a van, then driven for miles beyond the ruined outskirts of Moscow to a shabby settlement where he meets Checheyev. Shabby, exhausted, Checheyev wants to know who Tim is working for and doesn’t believe his protestations that he is on a solo mission, simply to find his old friend.

The dénouement

Who cares.


Bombast

One dictionary definition of ‘bombast’ is ‘speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful’.

This novel overflows with bombast – with the confident public school assurance that Tim and his schoolchums and their tiny circle make up the whole world; that their public school nicknames and their public school mindset and their public school whimsy, the jocular exaggerations, the way simply all of their friends are legendary and well-known and famous and awfully bright (Emma is ‘warm hearted and brilliantly clever’ p.281), the in-jokes at their club and the banter between chaps who were in the Service together – that these are the centre of the world. As a small example, the narrator refers to

The famous Pettifer forelock, now shot with grey but still swinging across his brow in immature revolt. (p.66)

Is the Pettifer forelock famous? Have you heard of it? No. Has anyone heard of it? No. Then what does it mean to write that it is ‘famous’? It is a rhetorical strategy to incorporate the reader into this tiny, precious, self-reinforcing, self-important world. ‘In our world his forelock was famous. And what other world is there, old boy?’ Again:

We were seated around the famous Pringle boardroom table. (p.150)

Is the Pringle boardroom table famous? No. Have you heard of it? No. This is the kind of self-aggrandising rhetoric of white middle-aged chaps down the golf club or gentleman’s club or old boys club, swapping yarns about famous Johnno or old Jumbo or the legendary Biffo, remember old Biffo?

This kind of coercive, blustering, shallow myth-making about the chaps occurs on every page.

Calm down. That wasn’t Zeus talking, that was Jake Merriman, lightest of the Top Floor lightweights. Any lighter he’d blow off the roof, we used to say. (p.50)

A typical piece of bombast and un-humour in one sentence. a) Not exactly a gut-busting joke, is it, though it’s probably the best one in the book. And b) I never for a moment was at any risk of thinking his boss in the Service was Zeus. Zeus was the father of the Greek gods. Jake Merriman was his boss in the Intelligence Service. Not hard to tell the difference. The sentence tells me nothing about the plot or the world, nothing except for the narrator’s tendency to melodramatise his own banal and self-important observations.

I do my Head Prefect number, the way I used to speak to him at school when Larry was a parson’s son in revolt and I was King of Babylon. (p.51)

Was Tim ever the King of Babylon? No. Typical of the kind of schoolboy exaggeration, of giving each other over-the-top nicknames, of striking heroic poses and exaggerated attitudes, which sometimes lingers on into university and then most people grow out of. But not these characters. The entire toolkit of immature schoolboy affectation, facetiousness, silly nicknames and affected superiority appear to stay with them for life.

–When we were students doing student summer jobs, a friend of mine pointed out that whenever you started working somewhere and someone who’d been there for ages told you, ‘We’re all mad here!!’ you could guarantee it would be the most boring office in England. Self delusion.

Or remember the sign which you used to see on people’s desks saying – ‘You don’t have to be crazy to work here – but it helps!!!!!!!!’ – without fail indicating that this will be the dreariest, saddest, dullest place you have ever worked in.

The self-dramatisation of le Carré’s narrators reminds me of these old anecdotes and, like them, the more his characters protest their earth-shattering importance, the more trivial and silly they seem. The more they come over as boring middle-aged losers pathetically dramatising and legending each other.

He has been on one of his heroic voyages, and now he’s going to boast about it. (p.58)

Larry… in his role of Secret Protector of the Righteous once more, goes through his paces like an angel. (p.54)

But Larry is not a Secret Protector of the Righteous, is he? No such position in fact exists. Larry is a narcissistic and tiresome ex-intelligence agent. He is certainly not an ‘angel’. And who or what are ‘the Righteous’ in this sentence, anyway?

And what I see is Larry, seated before the gasfire, clutching his goblet of hot wine to his breast, a Byron of his own imagining… (p.242)

I have locked her in a hollow mountain in the Caucasus, he replied. I have seduced her in accordance with my blood-feud against the infidel Tim Cranmer. I have swept her away on the white stallion of my sophistry. (p.255)

Instead of thought – bombast. Instead of psychology – melodramatic and somehow childish exaggeration.

Gone the dreary stories of academic lowlife. Instead we have Larry redux, Larry the world-dreamer and Sunday sermoniser, one moment raging against the shameful Western inertia, the next painting treacly visions of altruistic wars conducted by a United Nations strike-force empowered to put on its Batman uniform and head off tyranny, pestilence and famine at a moment’s notice. (p.61)

Posh friends

Winchester and Oxford, the Intelligence Service and then inheriting money (lots of money) to set up as a gentleman wine grower in Devon, Tim’s circle of acquaintance is narrow, smug and crushingly posh, chaps to banter with and a seemingly endless sequence of chapesses to bonk.

  • Celia, one his local ‘conquests’, is (inevitably) the inheritor of a large estate near him in Devon and rides to hounds, of course.
  • Timbo chats at the train station to ‘a forlorn baronet known locally as Poor Percy’ (p.148).
  • The banker Jamie Pringle’s secretary went to Roedean, natch.
  • ‘Kids are doing splendidly, Tim, thank you. Marcus is captain o’ Fives, Penny’s coming out next spring.’ (p.153)
  • When in town he repairs to his Pall Mall club, home of many a retired admiral. (p.166)
  • ‘She lifted her elbow sideways, suggesting country girl and public school.’ (p.74) Is there, in this imaginative universe, any other kind of woman?
  • At ‘the Office’ ie headquarters of MI6, he is interviewed by a woman Marjorie. ‘I imagined uncles in the Cabinet and blue-rinsed aunts who were the backbone of the Tory right.’ (p.87)
  • When he visits Simon Dugdale, another posh mannered chap, this one in the Foreign Office, he gets a good groping and ear-chewing from the wife, Clare Dugdale (‘You’re still terribly yummy Tim. And Si says you’ve found an absolutely super, frightfully young girl.’ p.278) who – of course – he once had an affair with. Poor Timbo, he can’t help being such a terrific babe magnet. Mind you, Clare read Philosophy at Cambridge. A better class of posh totty.

‘I lunched at my club… Afterwards I bought a few shirts in Jermyn Street…’ (p.71) ‘I was wearing good brown country shoes by Ducker’s of Oxford, hand-made and rubber-soled.’ (p.314) Nothing but the best for this narrator.

Emma

Hundreds of pages are devoted to the special qualities of his lover, Emma Manzini, who comes over as anything but special, rather as a self-obsessed, self-righteous nincompoop, but who prompts in the narrator an endless stream of gushing schoolboy, sub-Keatsian rhapsody and narcissistic self-dramatisation. ‘Emma didn’t talk to me at breakfast – it is the end of the world. Emma made me a cup of tea – the heavens reveal their splendour.’ If over-ripe cheese could write, it would be like this:

It is my Dark Age. It is the rest of my life before Emma. (p.65)

My Emma. My false dawn. (p.165)

Is she wise? Is she plain dumb? Emma defies theses categories. Her beauty, like Larry’s, is its own morality. (p.173)

Emma as artist. Emma as mistress of the Freudian doodle. Emma as echo of Larry’s eternal outcry against a world he can neither join nor destroy. (p.238)

These colours, why had I never painted them? Emma, you were all these hopes. (p.307)

Whenever he starts singing Emma’s praises I am reminded of my parents’ Charles Aznavour and Sacha Distel records:

Sheeeeeeeeeeeeee may be the face I can’t forget
A trace of pleasure or regret [and so on…]

It goes without saying that Emma is gorgeous and, handily, half Tim’s age (every middle-aged man’s fantasy) and he is not shy of describing the sexual advantages of having such a young squeeze. She is not only beautiful, we are told, but very ‘flexible’. You lucky dog, Timbo! But do not jump to gross assumptions, impatient reader: Timbo is not any old middle-aged shagger, he is a shagger with soul, soul enough for endless maudlin soliloquies about his lady love, in good times and bad. Even when they are arguing, when a shadow falls between their spirits, why – even then she makes sweet midnight forays to his boudoir!

Sometimes in the depth of night she creeps into my room like a thief and makes love to me without saying a word. Then creeps away, leaving her tears on my pillow before the daylight finds her out. (p.68)

There are hundreds of passages of pompous lyricism like this, the book overflows with them, repeating over and over how in thrall he is to the wonderful, quixotic, paradoxical Emma. Timbo

lavished jewels and freedom on her, made her my clothes-horse and my love object, my woman to end all women, icon, goddess, daughter and, as Larry would say, slave. (p.164)

What a berk. None of this erases the scene where he describes their first meeting – in the waiting room of a physiotherapist because they both have back pain – where Tim begins to fancy her before making it his mission to stalk her (‘Meanwhile I stalk her…’ p.172). I think – I hope – that Timbo is meant to be a deeply unreliable narrator, that we are meant to find him a creepy, pervy, pompous, self-satisfied, lecherous middle-aged man, who creates a weird love nest for the troubled young woman, who – he persuades himself – ‘loves’ him in return (at his big house in Devon, she is given her own wing with a door separating his and her corridors). But if he is deluded about this, what else may he be getting wrong?

Sexual boasting

Interspersed among the scores of passages of overblown lyricism are moments of quietly smug sexual bragging which are cringe-inducing and embarrassing.

I saw her naked on her stomach with her chin in her hands, turning to look at me over her shoulder as she hears me enter. (p.221)

I remembered the kiss she had given me at the Connaught that had woken me from my hundred-year sleep, and how her instinctive ingenuity as a lover had taken me to regions I had not known existed. (p.338)

But it is not just Emma Tim brags about; he takes various opportunities to remind that he is a bit of a Casanova, counting a number of his poshest neighbours among his ‘conquests’.

Celia was one of my local conquests from the days before Emma… She lived in penury on a large estate near Sparkford and rode to hounds… (p.112)

She is neither of the age nor category from which my usual conquests are selected: the compliant female colleague or senior secretary; the sporting adulteress of the English country round. (p.171)

‘His usual conquests.’ When he goes to meet Simon Dugdale it is laugh-out-loud preposterous that Timbo turns out to have bedded his posh, glamorous wife Claire. Of course he has. And she still fancies him like mad!

Not content with alerting us to his own sexual conquests, Tim also bathes in the reflected glory of his one-time protégé, the legendary Larry, who is also described as a great swiver of women.

Oxford fell in love with him. He was very good-looking. The girls rolled over for him in droves. (p.98)

He was ticking over at about three a week. Women and bottles. (p.134)

When did Larry ever have two of anything except women? (p.223)

Women came to him naturally, he just had to reach out for them and they hopped into his hand. (p.340)

Of course they do. Fat, repellently posh drunk Jamie Pringle, owner of a merchant bank, tells Timbo after a ‘good lunch’ (ie a room full of posh chaps getting pissed), about a girl he used to screw in Manchester. ‘Cindy. Worked in the silk trade. Silky Cindy.’ (p.157). Fnah fnah. A little later, and even more pissed, Jamie recalls legendary Larry turning up to suggest an improper financial deal, accompanied by an absolute stunner, black hair piled up on her head,

‘… waiting for you to let it down. Absolute fatal weakness of mine. Love a black bush.’ (p.159)

Who doesn’t love a black bush, eh? Obviously Pringle’s quote is not the narrator’s, his lechery is part of his character as a repellent fat banker. But it is cut from the same cloth as many of Timbo’s comments about Emma positioning herself for his rear entry on their ‘love nights’, about her wonderful ‘flexibility’, and the other moments when he can barely conceal his glee at bedding a woman half his age. Sweaty lecherous men.

Self dramatisation

Just as he devotes hundred of passages to establish Larry’s legendary qualities, and painting the full Victorian sentimentality of his relationship with Emma, the narrator is not backwards in dramatising his own role: in countless places he takes a leaf from Julius Caesar’s book and talks about himself in what we can maybe call the ‘public school third person’:

We were alone, Merriman and Cranmer, blood brothers as always. (p.107)

It is years since Cranmer has stepped outside the limits of his self-confinement, played the brave game, waited impatiently for evening, lain awake till dawn. (p.171)

Cranmer is free! Cranmer has paid his dues! (p.173)

I, Cranmer, evader, closet romantic, veteran of a raft of futile love affairs, had fallen cloak-over-dagger for the oldest trick in the book! (p.164)

We are arguing, Cranmer versus the rest of England… This time it is Cranmer’s temper that snapped, not Larry’s. (p.258)

But Cranmer had filed. Cranmer had filed and forgotten. Cranmer in his criminally negligent myopia had consigned the cause of the Ingush people to the dustbin of history. (p.267)

I was part of them, propelled by my past as they were, ignorant of my future. I was a fugitive, homeless and stateless, a small nation of one. (p.346)

Timbo is, as the old phrase has it, a legend in his own lunchtime. A man convinced of his own vast self-importance, a man who takes 420 pages to tell us this fairly simple story, because it is so larded and padded out with prolonged sequences about jolly old Larry and ever-flexible Emma and, at its centre, Cranmer the hero, Cranmer the fool, Cranmer the innocent, Cranmer the cynic, Cranmer the whatever adjectival phrase you have to hand.

But that is all I say, because that is how Cranmer’s part is written for him. (p.255)

Humourlessness

The narcissistically self-obsessed have no sense of humour because they have a very poor sense of other people.

‘Expect you’re looking forward to your Senior Citizen’s any day now.’
‘Thank you, Tom, I have a few years to wait and I’m glad to do it.’
Laughter in which I share… (p.147)

‘He’d had an accident. Fallen downstairs, he said…
‘There’s no accidents round here, darling. Everything’s deliberate.’ She giggled at her own wit. (p.217)

‘I inherited a bit of a problem, quite honestly. My Uncle Bob, who founded the business for love, put a lot of trust in his Maker and rather less in science.’
Clare gave a hoot of laughter. (p.280)

Old school tie

It is a truism that public schoolboys never seem to outgrow their schooldays, the clothes it taught them to wear, the jolly japes and smug banter it taught them to consider funny, the network of other public schoolboys which comprises the only world that matters. Everything, ultimately, ends up being compared back to those jolly halcyon (or beastly) days.

‘When Larry was with CC he was on holiday. When he was with me, he was at school.’ (p.86)

‘The school [Winchester] was still in the Dark Ages. Fagging, flogging, bullying galore, the whole Arnoldian package.’ (p.97)

Crossing the footbridge at Castle Cary station, I was confused by the clatter of young shoes in the Victorian ironwork and fancied I smelt steam and burning coals. I was a boy again, lugging my school suitcase down the stone steps for another solitary holiday with Uncle Bob. (p.112)

Crammed against the stone wall stood the old school trunk I used as a filing box for my CC archive. (p.260)

‘And they hated the Ossetians,’ Larry says keenly, like a schoolboy wanting to be top. (p.263)

I remembered that this was how we had always eaten, when we ate our frightful meals together: potatoes boiled to a sludge and school cabbage floating in a green lake. (p.279)

From nowhere an old man appeared at my car window, and his gnarled face reminded me of the groundsman at my first boarding school. (p.307)

I had been slapped at school too often. (p.360)

[Timbo asks legendary Larry what it was like being imprisoned and interrogated in Havana?] ‘After Winchester? A piece of cake. I’ll settle for a Cuban prison over House Library any day.’ (p.365)

In fact, the title of the book is taken from the phrase masters and pupils use to refer to the special (obviously) brand of football they play at Winchester public school – ‘our game’, taken from a one-page paean to the old place. Which obviously has the not-so-subtle double meaning that extends it to refer to espionage as ‘our game’ – the British Intelligence’s ‘game’ of deceiving and cheating – and then also on to the ‘game’ which Larry, Timbo and flexible Emma are ‘playing’ throughout the book.

Religious rhetoric

Another way the sensibility and language of the novel are permanently inflated is via the liberal use of religious quotes and references. This throwaway hijacking of religious rhetoric denotes not an ounce of genuine religious feeling; it is just one more way of bigging up, exaggerating, and dramatising his ego:

I was standing arms outstretched in crucifixion… (p.250)

[Tim describes agreeing to work as an agent as] ‘taking the veil‘. (p.101)

I choose the Grill Room at the Connaught, my shrine for great occasions. (p.175)

Now it was Cranmer, her saviour, who scrambled after her, calling stop! and wait! and come back! (p.239)

I smelt roast beef and wood smoke. I was blessed. (p.300) [This phrase is describing coming across a country pub which does decent food. Not relieved or happy. Blessed.]

I was being conveyed, never mind whether the Forest, or the whole valley of the shadow, was watching me pass by. (p.301)

The hill’s gorse summit rose behind her like the green hill in a hymn.

The tracks mounted a concrete path and thereafter held their peace. (p.312)

Dee’s a saint, she is saying from the window of my bedroom. (p.328)

She was wearing a crushed linen smock and it had the appearance of a habit: of a deliberate renunciation of the flesh. (p.336)

Only by going after Larry could I fill the pit that for so long had done duty for my soul. (p.343)

There is no God, soul or system of salvation, there is no religious belief in the book, these are just more quotes and tags and references picked up at school and university which lend the ambling plot and the hyperbolic thoughts of the pompous protagonist a spurious profundity.

Insight free

As Professor John Sutherland pointed out in his London Review of Books review of The Secret Pilgrim, le Carré frequently tells us his characters are full of wit and wisdom and insight… and then we actually hear them speak and they sound like public school buffoons. They are revealed as bores. The acuteness of le Carré’s descriptions – which are often marvellous – absolutely doesn’t carry over into his dialogue, which is weak to put it mildly.

For example, legendary Larry is supposed to be a lecturer at quite a good university (Bath). In one scene, he arrives at Tim’s place in a bad mood after a seminar with some other academics:

A coven of middle-aged Russian analysts – the term Moscow-watcher is already out of date – has left him at odds with the approaching daylight. He is talking about the world: our part of it.

So you might expect this politics lecturer to deliver some sensible insight into global politics circa 1994, about the shifting power relations between the United States and Russia and the dire consequences of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. For example, how Bill Clinton’s wish to intervene in Kosovo was stone-walled by an EU dominated by a pacifist Germany. But what this politics lecturer – who’s had the additional advantage of having played a minor role in Cold War espionage – actually says is:

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (p.138)

Is that it? God. What an imbecile.

On another occasion Tim remembers a conversation when Larry made tentative enquiries about contacts in banking; looking back, Tim realises this may have been the start of the embezzlement project he carried out with Checheyev. You might reasonably have expected the conversation between these two professional intelligence officers to convey some detail about the SIS’s banking operations, maybe not the pages of detailed organisation structure and process you’d get from Frederick Forsyth, but the kind of grown-up and interesting insight you might get from, say, Len Deighton or Robert Harris. But this is what follows:

‘Well, there’s always the great and good Jamie Pringle,’ I suggest cautiously… Pringle was our contemporary at Oxford, a rugger-playing scion of Larry’s Unbearable Classes.
‘Jamie’s an oaf,’ Larry declares, swilling his English Breakfast Tea…
‘Pringle’s an arsehole… Was. Is now. And ever shall be. Amen.’ (p.141)

This makes Larry look and sound like an idiot, with the intelligence of a surly 14-year-old. It is impossible to take him or the other characters seriously. (By the way, note the way Larry uses a quote from the Bible to give a patina of respectability to what is in fact the crudest language and the dumbest attitude – dressing up idiocy in fancy quotes and Latin tags.)

Many exchanges and much of the dialogue in these later le Carré novels are quite meaningless. They contain no factual information at all, even about the characters themselves, but reek with this smug ‘one of us’ attitude, a permanent tone of airily superior facetiousness which gets very, very wearing.

Ideas-free

Above all, this over-the-top and facetious style is a poor substitute for thought. The three Robert Harris thrillers I’ve just read may be melodramatic, but they are instinct with political intelligence at all levels of detail, and are genuinely thought-provoking. When characters talk, they offer genuine insights into their own and other characters’ motivation, showing that Harris has thoroughly thought through his characters. The dialogue crisply reveals intentions and schemes which the intelligent reader can interpret and map out, like a chess diagram, and map the changing plans and schemes, as the plot unfolds.

By contrast, the dialogue in le Carré most often consists of character assassination dressed up in buffoonish schoolboy abuse. Thus we are given a thumbnail profile of Eduard Shevardnadze, a key historical figure who was Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, until the collapse of the USSR when he became president of an independent Georgia. A fascinating man who played a pivotal role in the international diplomacy and Russian power politics of the period.

Question from Thatcherchild Talbot, who has decided to grow a beard: Please Larry, why did the West fall for Schevardnadze?
Answer, dear Talbot, because Shevers has a sad, bungey face and looks like everybody’s Daddy, when actually he’s a KGB dinosaur with a background of deals with the CIA and a disgraceful record of repressing dissidents. (p.250)

Thump. How lowering. How dumb. How stupid. And this is legendary Larry writing, the man the novel tries to persuade us is the intellectual star of his generation at Oxford, a first class mind and unstoppable babe magnet. But he sounds like a moron.

Hundreds of pages go by, crammed with upper class attitude, Latin tags, Bible quotes and embarrassingly unfunny jokes, all blissfully untroubled by anything you could call an idea or a thought. What ideas there are in the books are trite: the end of the Cold War didn’t mean the end of power politics; the world is still a violent and nasty place; the Russians have behave appallingly to the Ingush, and are continuing to repress ethnic minorities both within and without their borders.

420 pages of public school bombast is a lot to read for such a thin return.

Anne Frank

Do you know the apocryphal story about the terrible off-Broadway production of a play about Anne Frank? Having sat through two hours of awful script and dreadful acting, when the Gestapo finally knock on the front door, a member of the audience shouted out, ‘She’s in the attic!’

I felt the same way about this novel. By page 100 I was heartily sick of Timbo and Larry and Emma and their self-dramatising self-importance. In the final hundred pages, as Timbo leaves England and sets off on his ‘quest’, I think we are meant to feel along with the narrator a tense and urgent need to find Larry before harm comes to him, to rescue him from his own quixotic imaginings, to redeem this Byron of the Caucasus, to … and so on.

But I had my fingers crossed that both Larry and Emma would be found shot dead and, ideally, that the narrator himself would meet his come-uppance for his unbelievable pomposity and self-importance, and in the end I was so repelled by the characters I couldn’t finish the book.

Unreliable narrator – or pompous twit?

Ceaselessly bombarded with the drunken banter of Tim’s impossibly posh pals, with his own immature public school bombast, with his self-congratulatory sexual bragging, and with the posturing stupidity of the two other characters of this appalling ‘game’, it is difficult to know how much of this is meant to be serious and how much satirical.

Is the character of Timbo meant to be a devastating satire on his type of self-important snob? Is Timbo meant to be a contender for Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit of the Year? Is the whole thing meant to be a satirical portrait of the kind of self-satisfied, rich, posh shagger that used to run British Intelligence? Is it an extended joke?

Or does le Carré mean it literally? Are we genuinely meant to sympathise with the absurd Timbo, with his lecherous infatuation with a woman half his age, are we meant to take the idiot Larry seriously as some kind of intellectual, are we meant to regard this small circle of ‘people like us’ as epitomising the best of ‘England’?


Credit

Our Game by John le Carré was published in 1995 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1996 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper, after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside he disobeys orders by falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Retired SIS agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at public school and Oxford – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia. And has seduced his girlfriend. Tim sets off on a quest to uncover the true story and try to rescue his ‘friend’.
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Night Manager by John le Carré (1993)

Jonathan Pine, orphaned only son of a cancer-ridden German beauty and a British sergeant of infantry killed in one of his country’s many post-colonial wars, graduate of a rainy archipelago of orphanages, foster homes, half-mothers, cadet units and training camps, sometimes army wolfchild with a special unit in even rainier Northern Ireland, caterer, chef, itinerant hotelier, perpetual escapee from emotional entanglements, volunteer, collector of other people’s languages, self-exiled creature of the night and sailor without a destination. (p.57)

Jonathan Pine

Jonathan Pine is a haunted man. He was in the British Army in Northern Ireland, where he killed two IRA men in an ambush. He still has nightmares about their heads blowing off (pp.129-30) and flashbacks recur scores of times throughout the text to emphasise just how haunted he is. He quit the forces and hid away as the manager of a luxury hotel in Cairo. Here – in a very flimsy scene – Sophie, the beautiful Arab moll of a powerful Cairo criminal, Freddie Hamid, asks him to keep some incriminating documents in the safe overnight: Hamid is doing a big arms deal with some Brit called Roper, Richard Onslow Roper.

Intrigued, Pine reads the documents, photocopies them and – despite her warnings that Hamid is jealous/watching her/has contacts in British Intelligence – Pine gives a copy to a man he knows is British Intelligence in Cairo, Mark Ogilvey. Although Pine then spirits Sophie away to Luxor, where they fall passionately in love, have lots of warm weather sex etc, he returns to the apartment one day to find her brutally murdered and disfigured. Hamid caught up with her and punished her for her betrayal. A guilty, haunted man he flees to another hotel, Meister’s, far away in the Austrian Alps, where he now suffers from flashbacks of killing the IRA men and memories of murdered Sophie.

In other words, he is the stereotypical thriller protagonist – the psychologically wounded, self-pitying, hard drinking, no-nonsense, loner hero of a thousand spy novels.

Then, one day, into the Austrian hotel arrives the very Richard Onslow Roper he’d heard so much about, and his creepy entourage of accountants, fixers, bodyguards and the (inevitable) over-glamorous dolly bird, Jemima (aka ‘Jed’), who flirts dangerously with Pine. Worried they might know or discover his association with the murdered Sophie, that they might realise he knows about Roper’s activities, Pine makes his way to the British Embassy in Zurich and, after passing a message to the consul, finds himself being handed on to an Intelligence officer named Leonard Burr.

Here begins the plot proper, for Burr wants to recruit Pine and infiltrate him into Roper’s inner circle in order to nail the man who, we now have it confirmed, is a major league international arms dealer.

Exaggeration and self importance

And it’s about here that le Carré’s particularly inflated style, his mannered worldview and approach really kick in because as we find out more about them, Burr and his small team – mandarin Rex Goodhew and pipe-smoking Bob Rooke – are treated as legends in their own lunchtimes. Rex was once called ‘Whitehall’s Talleyrand without the limp’ (p.82), Bob Rooke ‘was Burr’s restraining hand, a retired soldier with grizzled hair and a rugged, weather-beaten jaw’ (p.82), ministers are always ironically referred to as ‘our masters’. The Pine Case soon becomes a ‘legendary’ business, for Roper isn’t just a criminal under investigation, he is Burr’s ‘personal Antichrist’. After all ‘there were few insiders who did not remember Burr’s vendettas’ against various crooks — in fact, Burr himself is so legendary that there are people in the Department who the narrator calls ‘Burr-watchers’ (p.86), who study and ponder his every move.

But it is not just Burr who is a legend: When the American team arrives to co-ordinate the investigation into Roper, the first to land is ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’ (p.93). Strelski’s assistant is Pat Flynn from US Customs and ‘legend attached to Flynn’ (p.94). Of course it does.

Even old Pearl, the lady who trundles a trolley with files about ‘the Antichrist’ along the dirty corridors, well, it turns out that ‘they’ – ie Burr’s legions of adoring fans – even give her wonky squeaking trolley a legendary name – ‘They called it Roper’s tumbril.’ (p.87)

Nothing goes unlegended or just simply, factually reported. When Burr gives Pine a radio to keep in touch, it isn’t referred to as a radio. It is ‘the magic box’ (p.396). Everything seems overblown, turned up too loud, exaggerated – the sense of careful detail slowly accumulated which gave the classic Smiley novels of the 1970s their plausibility, has somehow been lost.

Thus the Americans are never the Americans, nor the CIA the CIA: they are ‘our gallant American cousins’ (p.91). The illegal arms traffickers are ‘Burr’s declared foe’. The people who know about Burr’s plan are not just in the know, they are in ‘the charmed circle’. Strelski’s source isn’t just a source, he is ‘his most sacred and delicate source, and this was holy ground.’ (p.95) The civil servants at MI6 aren’t the civil servants at MI6, they are ‘the wayward barons at the River House.’ (p.101) Saddam Hussein isn’t Saddam Hussein, he’s ‘the Thief of Baghdad.’ (p.106) Sophie isn’t the girl he loved who was murdered, she is ‘his accusing angel’ (p.161). The arms dealer Roper is ‘the Roper’, if not (frequently) ‘the worst man in the world’.

When Pine stays in Madame Latulipe’s guest house in a remote Canadian town, she is of course the famous Madame Latulipe, who knows everything that goes on in the small town and who everyone knows and loves. When Pine is working as a cook in a restaurant in the Bahamas, the owner is, naturally, a legend on the island who every night performs for the rich tourists in ‘his famous black basket and riding crop.’ (p.275) Later, on Roper’s private Caribbean island, there are stories about Woody, old Woody, you remember old Woody, ‘Everybody knew who Woody was.’ (p.388). When Pine asks Corky where Roper met Jed, Corky replies: ‘Legend has it, at a French horse sale.’ (p.391) Because all these larger-than-life characters can’t move without myths and legends attaching to them.

Thus Pine, once ensconced in Roper’s circle, is less and less referred to by name, and more and more referred to as ‘the close observer’. Now it becomes clear what the whole Army and Ulster back story was for – all the flashbacks to Ulster showing us Pine lying ‘doggo’ in ditches and hides for days on end waiting for the bad guys to appear. It is to create and justify the attitude of the detached observer which is what le Carré really wants to convey: the book is less about the ‘plot’ than exploring the psychology of being ‘the close observer’ of the shenanigans of a disreputable crew, about being an ‘outsider’, a detached, trained, tough observer. And haunted.

Even when Pine is hiding out in a tiny Cornish coastal village, le Carré immediately makes it a club or school where, once again, everyone knows everyone and has jolly nicknames for each other, old William down the pub, he’s always got a tale or two worth the telling, there’s hunting and shooting and fishing, the woman he stays with is legendary, as is her randy daughter. When Jed reminisces about her youth back in Shropshire, going to horsey events, gymkhanas and such, she tells the story of a certain local named Archie because, inevitably, ‘Everyone loved Archie.’ (p.446). When Corky takes Pine on a bar crawl in Nassau, ‘Everyone seemed to know Corkoran’ (p.455). There are no anonymous characters. Everyone is famous and well-known and a legend and tells cracking jokes and the whole room explodes in jolly laughter.

The actual Britain, the country of big anonymous cities, crappy council estates, windswept shopping centres, of the millions of people who commute to jobs in factories, offices, hospitals, supermarkets, of huge alienated environments, of loneliness, is nowhere in these novels. Instead le Carré’s novels recreate again and again small, self-contained and self-important communities, awash with dashing characters who all bathe in each other’s admiration and play out their romantic and improbable plots in isolation from the rest of the world.

Public school mindset

A lot of the exaggeration is schoolboy – specifically English public schoolboy – slang, and the entire book is dogged by this tone of exaggerating, mocking, superior banter. When there’s a long pause in a phone conversation, Rex doesn’t say, ‘Leonard, are you still there?’ he says, ‘Leonard, art though sleeping there below?’ quoting the poem Drake’s Drum (1897) by the late-Victorian poet, Sir Henry Newbolt, author of the quintessential public school and Empire poem, Vitaï Lampada, with its refrain, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game.’ They’re all chaps together and they all get the same spiffing jokes and references.

In my review of Le Carré’s previous novel, The Secret Pilgrim, I pointed out how the self-congratulatory, self-mythologising tone of Ned the narrator, an about-to-retire Intelligence officer, sounded just like Mr Chips, like a senior master at a jolly public school reminiscing about some of the rags and japes he got up to as a young master, albeit tempered by more mature respect for the old school and its legendary senior masters: ‘It may have its faults, but St Bede’s is not such a terrible place, you know, I think you’re going to like it here, young Chalmondeley.’

As rugged old Bob Rooke takes the pipe from his mouth to respond to another jesting sally from the legendary Leonard Burr, the scene is straight out of the Common Room of a provincial public school, circa 1950. You expect Ian Carmichael to come running through the door, asking if any of his fellow masters can help out at this afternoon’s upper-fifth rugger match.

Thus Burr and the chaps in his close circle have the habit of referring to the bad guys not by their names but as ‘brother this’ and ‘brother that’ and the police aren’t the police, but the ‘heavy-footed brethren’. And Corky turns out to have the same habit, referring to ‘Brother Harlow’ (p.358) and ‘Brother Meister’ (p.361). When Pine thinks back to the period before the mission began he doesn’t call it the period before the mission began, he calls it ‘the days of his youth.’ (p.452). When Rex Goodhew considers his career in Whitehall it isn’t described as his career in Whitehall, it is his ‘quarter-century before the Whitehall mast.’ (p.465) The Foreign Office Registrar doesn’t have an office – he has a lair. Like a dragon in a fairy tale.

Public school slang. Self-mocking grandiosity, Latin tags and scraps of Victorian poetry – the book and its characters are saturated in it.

I was especially staggered on page 98 when Rex Goodhew ( ‘Whitehall’s Talleyrand without the limp’) is at his Whitehall club, taking a bit of chafing from the other chaps, senior civil servants, Tory MPs, you know the sort — until one of them particularly needles him and Rex replies: ‘Sheer balderdash!’— Sheer balderdash? Maybe these characters aren’t from the 1950s, they’re from the 1920s. Or the 1880s.

Public school characters

Pine is meant not to have come from a traditional professional upper-middle-class background. It is carefully explained that his father was a sergeant in the Army, who died a hero in some hush-hush operation and who Pine has always tried to live up to – and his mother died of cancer, after which he was brought up by various aunts. But when he is recuperating from a beating, he remembers the chaps ragging him at his boarding school and various beastly tricks they played on him. Jed’s voice as he lies in bed sounds like the matron. Matron? When he visits his ex-wife he remembers she’s now married to a chap who’s something in the local hunt. The local hunt? His unpublic school persona keeps slipping, to reveal the basically privileged, elite worldview of the narrator.

And the circle of bad guys he is sent to infiltrate is overwhelmingly, stiflingly posh. Roper (not a cynical arms dealer, remember, but ‘the worst man in the world’) affects an upper-class drawl. And so does his sidekick, Major Corkoran (‘I’m rooting for you. So’s the Chief. This isn’t England. Men of the world, all that.’). And Roper’s moll, Jed, is described as ‘an upper-class waif’ (p.164) who ran away from her posh boarding school, got in with a crowd of Hooray Henries in London, before being picked up by ‘the Roper’. And one of the Roper’s key associates is fellow posh British arms dealer, Lord ‘Sandy’ Langbourne and his phenomenally posh wife, Caroline. At one remove is Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw, Roper’s man on the ground in the UK (and who we were introduced to in the very last pages of The Secret Pilgrim) posh, very. All these frightfully upper-class chaps means that the majority of the conversations are in the slurred, dismissive, entitled, exaggerating tones of the very posh English upper classes. Slightly different characters, slightly different takes on it, but all within a very narrow range.

Reading this novel is a bit like being stuck in a garden party thrown by a millionaire at his Berkshire mansion during Royal Ascot: occasionally you hear the rough voices of the servants or some state school oik, but overwhelmingly the sound is of the guffawing and braying of the ruling classes behaving disgracefully. 700 pages is a long time to have to spend in their company.

Jemima, also known as Jed

‘Gosh, Arno! But, darling, you’ve lost pounds! Georgina, darling, how are you? Super! Gosh Hullo!‘ (p.404)

Daniel, Roper’s 8-year-old son, known as Dans

‘Why’s Roper in a bait with Jed?’ (p.413)

‘Corky’ Corkoran

‘Message from the Chief for you, Mr Pine. H-hour is upon us. Prepare to kiss Crystal and everybody else goodbye. Firing squad assembles at dawn.’ (p.453)

‘Sandy’ Bradshaw

‘Fuck should I take orders from you, Christ’s sake?… No executive powers, lot of wankers on the touchline.’ (p.634

‘the’ Roper

‘Whole things a stag hunt… You trek, you wear yourself out. Things pull you down, trip you up, you press on. And one day you get a glimpse of what you’re after, and if you’re bloody lucky you get a shot at it. The right place. The right woman. The right company. Other chaps lie, dither, cheat, fiddle their expenses, crawl around. We do – and to hell with it! Goodnight gang. Thanks, cook. Where’s the cook? Gone to bed. Wise chap.’ (p.562)

Was this really the face, the voice, of international arms dealing in the 1990s?

Humourless

Le Carré often has his common rooms laughing at jokes which aren’t really funny at all. Burr asks Joe Strelski to stop going for daily jogs because just thinking about it is giving his team heart attacks. ‘Everyone laughed.’ (p.94). Is it that funny? The only woman in the team running Pine is an American called Katherine Dulling but in this little self-congratulatory world she is nicknamed ‘Darling Katie’. At the one big meeting with the ‘gallant American cousins’ she accuses an attending senator of calling her a femagogue and claims she is as harmless as a mouse. ‘Jolly laughter fills the room’ (p.180). Really? That funny? (Jelly’s off p.486) In the guerrilla camp in the jungle Roper is the centre of attention and holds court at the evening, telling humourless jokes which have everyone roaring. ‘Remember Mickey?’ he asks Langbourne.

‘Oh too bloody well,’ Langbourne drawls, and once more earns the merriment of the house: these English lords, you’ve got to hand it to them! (p.560)

Funny? Nope. Like the legends and nicknames and tags, it is all exaggeration. Le Carré asserts that his characters are funny; but they never are. There’s a lot of chafing and ragging and people telling duff jokes ‘to the helpless mirth of all’ (p.560) but in fact, nobody says or does anything remotely funny in the whole 700 pages. It is a remarkably humourless book.

Pompous

In a similar gap between promise and delivery, le Carré has a regular manoeuvre of describing someone’s pronouncements (particularly Smiley’s) as profound, insightful, the fruit of years of legendary experience – but when they’re actually quoted so that we can read them for ourselves, these pithy sayings all too often turn out to be disappointments: ‘The Russians are only human, you know.’ John Sutherland, in his London Review of Books review of The Secret Pilgrim, declares that Smiley’s lectures to the young students reveal him, alas, to be a bore – ‘Like other old-boys, his speech-day truths sound pompous and self-important’. The same is true of too many of the characters in this book, as well as the smug and sentimental narrator.

Self pity

Pine’s self-pitying self-image seems scandalously overblown: repeatedly we overhear him thinking, God, I am such a tough guy, I am a loner, every woman I touch is doomed.

‘Stay away from me. I betray. I kill. Go home.’ (p.165)

‘That’s what I do for a living, he thought: I obliterate faces.’ (p.253)

And in the last few pages, despite having been beaten to a pulp, he is still self dramatising:

I kill, I do wrong, there is good and bad and I am bad! (p.706)

Must be hard being such a tough guy. And yet so sensitive. So stricken with sensitive guilt.

Catholic

But just in case the Pine character didn’t seem sufficiently self-important and doomed and tough and haunted, the narrator and character add in a dollop of Catholic guilt and Christian imagery. The night before he and Burr’s team are going to stage manage the ‘death’ of his business partner and his own flight from the little Cornish village (all part of giving Pine a convincing criminal back story for when he infiltrates Roper’s setup and they check his background), Jonathan knows that ‘the ordeal that awaited him was a mere foretaste of a lifetime of penance.’ (p.167) When he goes to see his ex-wife one last time because he knows he’s going to end up either dead or with a new identity, it is a journey ‘in search of atonement’ (p.174). He practices what he’s going to say to her until it becomes ‘a heroic song in his mind’ (p.174). Earlier in this review I quoted references to the Antichrist, to holy ground, to Sophie the accusing angel. When Pine meets  his ex briefly and they discuss her attempts to become an artist, he doesn’t make a reasonable assessment of her skills, her strengths and weaknesses, whether she had any shows or sold anything, nothing factual and, potentially, interesting – no, everything is cast in a tone of Victorian melodrama as he remembers how:

they had both worshipped her great talent, how he had abased himself in order to elevate it, cooked and carried and swept for her, believing she would paint better for his self-denial. (p.175)

At a late stage Burr discovers Joyston has been ripping off Roper, as he goes round Europe buying up illegal arms, but Burr doesn’t set about tabulating the embezzlements, he sets about ‘the length record of Joyston Bradshaw’s sins.’ (p.615) Similarly, when Jed confronts Roper with the truth of his activities as an arms smuggler, she ‘taxes him with his sins’ (p.489). When Roper takes Pine to see the actual shipment of arms in their vast containers in the port, he stands in the darkness of one of the containers surrounded by ultra modern weaponry and

He was in the presence of his own accomplishment. He was in a state of grace. (p.521)

And the last word of the whole novel is souls.

But I don’t think there’s any theology in these statements. There isn’t the slightest sense of religion or the numinous. It’s just another rhetoric, another set of tags and quotes and exaggerations, like the bits of Bible and bobs of Victorian poetry, which can be used to over-egg the situation, a self-mocking inflation of language.


Like the jokes which aren’t funny and the wisdom of Smiley which is banal and the protagonist who thinks he’s a medieval crusader but is in fact just an ex-soldier going undercover – in a similar way the narrator talks up the plots themselves in these later novels, plots which take hundreds of pages to describe and yet which, on closer examination, don’t really live up to their own billing.

The plot

Jonathan Pine is an ex-British soldier. He is recruited by a section of British Intelligence led by legendary Leonard Burr to infiltrate the social circle of British arms dealer, the Roper. They name it Operation Limpet. To build up a back story as a bit of a crook he is sent to live for a while in a small Cornish community where he makes just enough impression – especially on the good looking and willing local totty, Marilyn – before disappearing after having, apparently, murdered his partner (an actor put up to the job, just as the local police are recruited to make the whole elaborate scam look real). Then he is sent to a small town in Canada where he makes just enough impression before being chased out of town by the hotel owner where he’d been working, for seducing his beautiful and very willing daughter, Yvonne.

Then – still part of the elaborate scheme – he gets a job at a restaurant by the beach in some island in the Bahamas where Roper’s cruiser often puts in for meals. Here Burr’s team pull off an elaborate scam: on the night the Roper and his entourage dine there, the team arrange for two CIA-arranged goons to stage a phony hold-up of all the guests; the goons not only relieve the guests of all their jewellery and money but begin to make off with the Roper’s 8-year-old son, Daniel as hostage. This is Pine’s cue to intervene and heroically save Daniel. Unfortunately, the red mist descends – suddenly his mind is full of flashbacks of those IRA men through the night scope of his rifle, and the look of Sophie’s badly beaten face – and he overdoes it, breaking one of the ‘friendly’ goons’ arms, whereupon the other goon goes nuts, hammers him in the face with his gun, knocks him to the ground and kicks him in the head and balls, before they both run off.

As he lies bleeding he hears Roper and his entourage come running up and Roper ordering his sidekick, Corkoran, to ring up his private helicopter to take the man who saved his son’s life to a private hospital where his private surgeon will fix him. Thus, at around page 320, Pine has finally arrived in the Roper’s world, and his mission can begin.

Plot part two

Pine recuperates on Roper’s island in the Caribbean, observing the luxury lifestyle of posh Roper – the Roper – glamorous girlfriend Jemima ‘Jed’ Marshall, camp ex-military fixer Major ‘Corky’ Corkoran, Roper’s son by his first marriage Daniel ‘Dans’, several security guards (even the security guards have schoolboy nicknames, ‘Frisky’ and ‘Tabby’), Lord ‘Sandy’ Langbourne and an ever-changing population of the international elite, the elite of arms smuggling, that is.

His controller, Burr, told Pine on no account to break into Roper’s inner sanctum nor to have an affair with his dolly bird, Jed, but Pine, inevitably, does both. For just at this moment Jemima has suddenly realised what a crook Roper is and what a fool she’s been! And immediately responds by sneaking out of the big mansion and down to Pine’s quarters for soulful conversations and snogs. Obviously Pine has never seen a James Bond movie or he’d know that plooking the billionaire bad guy’s dishy girlfriend is always a bad idea. And he is a 1,000% aware that’s he’s repeating the pattern of Sophie – screws billionaire crook Hamid’s dolly bird; she is beaten to death: screws billionaire Roper’s dolly bird.. what do you expect?

A Darker plot

Meanwhile, a major new thread and theme emerge. The team back in London running Pine become aware that another Intelligence section, the Procurement Studies Group, run by a man named (rather ludicrously) Geoffrey Darker, has embargoed many of the files and much of the information about Roper, under the codename of an operation ‘Frigate’. It turns out, without much probing, that leading people in British Intelligence and US Intelligence are directly involved in Roper’s latest, biggest deal – the selling of a huge shipment of European, American and British arms to Colombian drug cartels in exchange for vast amounts (‘tens of tons’ p.481) of cocaine, which will be shipped back to Europe.

It’s odd this storyline, because there’s no suspense in it. After a routine meeting with ‘the Cousins’, one of them takes Goodhew for a walk down to the Embankment and there tells Goodhew to back off Roper or they’ll kill him. No suspense whatsoever. A different novel might have focused on the slow revelation of this dark secret, with an investigator peeling away layers over hundreds of pages. Here it is tossed away in a few paragraphs.

After casually blowing the secret at the centre of the story, Le Carré goes on to mention that various senior bankers and other Establishment figures are piling in to invest in the deal — the widespread corruption of the Establishment is not any kind of revelation, but a given. On page 478 the upright civil servant Rex Goodhew learns that his contact inside the Procurement Studies Group, a lily-livered, alcoholic, civil servant lawyer named Palfrey has made a gross error. Palfrey has revealed to Darker the secret that one of Roper’s associates – a Latino named Apostoll – is working for the CIA, is in fact the key source and lynchpin of the US project to penetrate Roper’s operations. And Palfrey further revealed to Darker that Apostoll was briefed specifically to blacken Corky’s name, to discredit Corky so that the infiltrated Pine will be installed in his place, thus giving Pine access to full details of Roper’s operations. In the last 100 pages Burr’s efforts to nail Darker and expose Operation Frigate become a lot more prominent in the story.

This ought to be exciting, there ought to be something at stake: but the novel fails to generate any real tension: it is much more interested in the psyche of Pine, the orphaned child and lonely watcher, the detached observer, his tortured soul and his doomed love affairs, and the garden party atmosphere of Roper’s private island, than in conventional mystery, suspense and so on.

On around page 520 Burr, who has flown to Miami to be closer to the operation he’s running, realises it is going badly wrong. First of all he is called in by ‘the Cousins’ to a crime scene packed with ambulances and cops to find that Apostoll has – almost certainly as a result of Palfrey’s blabbing – been blown, and promptly tortured to death (along with the unlucky girlfriend they found him with). Confirmation that the supposed Brit intelligence officer Darker is passing secrets straight on to Roper’s gang. And which ends the close working relationship Burr had forged with ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’.

But worse, the rattled civil servant Goodhew reveals to Burr that he tried to stir his minister to action by showing him a detailed list of all the investors in Roper’s big deal (p.528). He innocently assures Burr that he changed the page layout and implied it came from a different source, but Burr is horrified nonetheless. There was only one source list and Pine photographed it when he broke into Roper’s office and Roper’s gang will realise that immediately. Should Burr signal Pine to pull out immediately? Yes. But he doesn’t.

So the last 150 pages or so are spent wondering whether the bad guys will realise Pine is a spy sent to gather incriminating evidence and foil the scheme and, if so, whether he’ll be beaten and tortured like James Bond always is, and whether the Baddy’s moll he’s seduced, Jed, will also be roughed up, maybe staked out for the crabs to eat as in Dr No.

Deal in the jungle

Blissfully ignorant of these murky doings back in Whitehall, back in the Tropics Pine is taken by Roper, Langbourne and various fixers to locations deep in the Panama jungle. There is a guerrilla training camp run by Latinos but staffed by mercenaries from round the world – renegade Russian special forces, pissed-off Israelis, bored Europeans. Here, in a vastly improbable but typical scene, Roper holds court at the evening meal, he and Langbourne reminiscing about arms dealers they have known in their languid London clubland voices and – this is the improbable part – holding the whole room of dirty killers from the world’s warzones, holding them enthralled, ‘delighting their admirers’ and making priceless quips ‘to the helpless mirth of all’ (p.560). Even though most of them can’t speak English? Yes, because wherever le Carré’s characters go they quickly install the atmosphere of a self-congratulatory and superior staff room.

The purpose of the visit is to fly on the next day to a good imitation mockup of an airbase complete with tanks, cars and a tame plane which flies overhead, all of which are shot up and exploded by the mercenaries demonstrating the effectiveness of the weapons Roper is selling, to an invited audience of potential buyers. After the war games Roper moves among the rich guests, pressing the flesh with Pine in attendance as his new fixer. But at the end of the day everything changes. Roper receives a telegram from Bradshaw back in England, confirming the information Goodhew and Palfrey had leaked ie that Corky was framed by (the now dead) Apostoll and Pine is a spy. Pine is bundled into a car by Roper’s heavies and they all drive to the Canal Zone.

Having had the scene where the buyers view the arms, now there is a scene in a vast warehouse where Roper and  his people test the cocaine packed into innocent-looking crates labelled with coffee ads. It is the scene from a hundred drug dealer movies where the drug tester is wheeled in for one appearance, slashes packs of white powder taken from a random selection of crates, tastes it, subjects it to a few tests with his arcane equipment, and nods at the Head Baddy, getting to deliver his one, clichéd line: ‘A1 stuff’, or ‘Weapons grade’, or ‘100% pure’. Whereupon the Head Baddy nods wisely, the expert takes his wad and disappears, the two sides exchange suitcase stuffed with dollars or, in this case, sign the elaborate bills of lading and bankers drafts.

After which Pine is hustled away. He has a last few moments in a disgusting toilet where he scribbles a message, hides it in an envelope slipped into a pocket, planning to stash it with address and money to be found by whichever taxi driver drives them away from the warehouse. He knows now that Roper knows about him, and that he is going to die.

More Darker

That’s on page 587. For the next 80 pages we hear nothing more of Pine. The point of view cuts to London, to Whitehall and to Leonard Burr worrying about his agent and his operation. Over the next few days they learn that ships are leaving the docks Pine indicated and passing through the Panama Canal, ships Burr is convinced are carrying weapons to the Colombian drug cartels and cocaine to Europe. But he meets dead ends as he tries to find out more: even old colleagues say they can’t help out, as the entire operation Limpet has been sequestered by the Joint Steering Committee, under a new operational codename, Frigate.

This conflict escalates to a formal meeting of the Joint Steering Committee, attended by the Minister, at which Goodhew, defending the independence of the Enforcement side of the Department, and Burr’s Operation Limpet in particular, takes on Darker, head of Pure Intelligence, and comes as close as he can to accusing Darker of squashing the investigation.

This long scene is a set-piece depiction of a high-level Whitehall meeting where opposing views clash before an innocent Minister while we, the reader, know Darker’s agency to be actively involved in a massive crime. And Darker and his sidekick win the contest by successfully blackening Pine’s name, by reinterpreting his record as that of a psychopath fantasist who murdered two Irishmen, beat his Egyptian girlfriend to death, was seriously involved in drug running and has been trying to hawk intelligence agencies rubbish information for years. And this, they say, is the source, the evidence, the basis for arresting foreign-owned ships in international waters? Goodhew is ridiculed and in fact stalks out of the meeting. The minister is persuaded. Darker has won.

Paralleling this scene, across the pond in Florida ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’ is called in by his boss who has received much the same briefing from CIA Langley ie rubbishing Pine as a source, a scene which leaves Strelski incandescent with rage. Strelski and Burr are the good guys. They are up against profoundly corrupt organisations.

Burr’s sting

Which is why Burr, hearing about Goodhew’s defeat at the Joint Steering Committee meeting, takes matters into his own hands. He arrests the alcoholic lawyer Palfrey, and beats him up in an MoD cell until palfrey agrees tearfully to sign three phone intercepts, each to one of Darker’s offices. Then Burr drives out to Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw’s run-down country pile where he confronts him with the complete lie that Darker and his sidekicks have been arrested for treason and corruption: he makes Bradshaw phone Darker’s numbers, calls which are intercepted by Burr’s assistant, Rooke who, at the first address, impersonates the police and confirms Darker is under arrest; a further call to Palfrey himself has the wretched man quailing and reciting his lines that Darker’s under arrest, the game is up.

Burr goes on to tell Bradshaw the Americans are closing in on Roper, he expects Bradshaw himself might get off with ten years. What does he want? He wants Bradshaw to phone Roper’s yacht, the Iron Pasha and tell Roper that he will drop all charges if Roper releases Pine and the girl.

Pine in prison

On page 672, we rejoin Pine aboard Dicky Roper’s luxuriously appointed yacht, as it sets out for a cruise round the Bahamas, accompanied by various celebrity and high life guests, while Pine languishes in a secure room in the bowels of the ship being beaten to a pulp by Corky and his assistants. There are some intense pages describing Jed’s fear and guilt as she continues to perform the role of Roper’s hostess to the rich guests, and even lets him screw her every day. But all the time she is trying to find out where they’re keeping Pine and how to free him. Then there are several pages describing Pine’s state of mind, kept chained in the dungeon cabin, regularly beaten, punched, kicked, chained in agonising positions. Things look bleak for our heroes.

And then Roper is woken by the phone call from Bradshaw we saw him making under duress from Burr 30 pages earlier, the call claiming Darker has been arrested and the Yanks are onto Roper, but Burr will call all the arresting agencies off if he just releases Pine ‘and the girl’. So Jed finds herself told to dress in practical clothes and Roper orders the goons to unchain Pine, dress him in something clean; in a delirious semi-collapsed state the pair are loaded into the yacht’s dinghy and ferried over to the nearest island, presumably to contact the authorities.

Happy ending

The last chapter cuts away to a completely different scene, to the yokel-ish inhabitants of the little Cornish village where Pine had hidden out during the creation of his backstory. We don’t see or hear him or Jed, we just hear the matriarch of the village explaining to the denser inhabitants that, although it looks a bit like him, this is definitely NOT the Jack Linden who left under such suspicious circumstances all that time ago, that was explained to her very clearly by the senior policeman from Yorkshire who had a word (obviously Burr, the man whose sting appears to have freed Pine and saved his life).

The unnamed couple now living in the old cottage are going to breed horses and paint and lead a quiet uneventful life. She concludes her lecture to the yokels: ‘So I’ll trouble you never to talk out of turn again, because if you do, you’ll hurt two precious souls.’ (p.714)

What happened to Roper? What happened to the shipments of arms and drugs? What happened to Burr for breaking rules around phone tapping? What happened to Darker (did he just win?)? We are not told. All that matters is the happy couple are returned to Eden.

This is such a sentimental, consequence-free and improbably happy ending, that it brought a tear to my eye. Though whether at the Disney ending or simply from having made it through these 714 long pages, I’m not sure.


Le Carré and sex

Le Carré’s initial branding and positioning was as a gritty, realistic, street-level antidote to glamorous James Bond heroics, typified by the classic The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963) and easily contrastable with Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, published the same year. But thirty years later, le Carré is writing about a flashy international arms dealer, glamorous dolly bird on his arm, and the lone spy sent to bring him down – exactly as in a James Bond movie.

And the soulful-but-tough hero has a James Bond-like way with women as well: Pine’s ex-wife is gorgeous; he has an affair at the drop of a hat with the spirited Arab woman, Sophie; in Cornwall his strong silent good looks attract gorgeous young Marilyn; in Canada his strong, silent good looks lead to him having an affair with gorgeous young Yvonne. And once in the Roper’s circle he is immediately drawn to the flirtatious and stunningly attractive Jed, who he ends up having an affair with. Everywhere he goes women throw themselves at him.

This is pure Bond, isn’t it? Middle-aged male fantasy. And yet, the book is quick to point out, he is no normal shagger. Dear me, no. He is a soulful, sensitive shagger. A haunted shagger. A shagger with a dream of higher things.

He remembered his early women, no different from his later ones, each a bigger disillusionment than the last as he struggled to elevate them to the divine status of the woman he had never had. (p.163)

‘Divine status’? Pine is a sentimental, self-important James Bond.

But in fact everybody’s at it in this book. On the plane from his island to the mainland, we watch Roper flirt archly with the stewardess, praising her service and patting her bum. Later, at the hotel, Pine overhears Roper screwing her. Posh sidekick Langbourne is making his wife miserable by openly having an affair with the nanny; he comes down to Roper’s shack and asks to borrow his bed for some shagging. Corkoran generously informs Pine, when he first arrives on the island, that he is free to screw any of the women servants, just ‘no touchee Jed’. Corky is himself gay and free with his references to screwing and shagging and ‘having’ various partners.

Towards the end, even after they’ve had a fierce argument in which Roper doesn’t deny he’s keeping Pine prisoner and having him tortured, Jed still has sex with him. Really? And her memories are all sexual: she remembers being deflowered by a village tough, she remembers being raped by two brutes in Hammersmith, she remembers the orgies among the Hooray Henries. When he needs an example of Jed’s intuition about the atmosphere on board the ship, he cites the pretty Filipino maid and the eerie way Jed knows whether she’s been screwing the captain or the bosun or even ‘Sandy’ Langbourne. In fact, whenever a woman is mentioned in the text there is the strong possibility that it is her sexuality which will be described, humorously referred to, exploited.

If you add in Pine’s obsessive flashbacks/memories of lying next to a naked Sophie in the apartment in Luxor or, later on, his memories of Jed’s soft hands on his face (‘He remembered a morning when Jed wore a yellow blouse, and touched him with her eyes.’ p.554), the text is marinated in a particular kind of male fantasy eroticism.

Eventually, it’s hard to tell which is more tiresome, the soft porn atmosphere or the upper class banter. Both completely swamp the plot. This is le Carré for devoted fans only.


Credit

The Night Manager by John le Carré, published 1993 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1994 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper, after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside he disobeys orders by falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré (1990)

I had begun my quest idly – you may say frivolously – much as one might pick up an old copy of the Tatler in one’s club. (p.262)

The last of le Carré’s novels to feature tubby, unprepossessing, owlish cuckold George Smiley. It is a series of tales told in the first person by old British Intelligence man Ned (we never get his last name). He was in charge of the ‘Russia House’ wing of British Intelligence when the publisher/agent who he was managing, Barley Blair, went missing and defected for love (the story told in the novel, The Russia House.)

Partly as punishment for this foul-up, Ned is despatched to serve out his last years till retirement supervising the Intelligence training school at Sarratt. He invites Smiley up from his retirement in Cornwall to come and lecture the trainees, followed by whisky by the fire and reminiscences.

This is the frame narrative within which Ned proceeds to remember key moments in his career, starting in the early 1960s and proceeding up to the present – to the fall of the Berlin Wall and (the unthinkable) fact of senior Circus bosses being invited to Moscow to tour KGB headquarters! In light of the defeat of Soviet communism and the triumph of the West, Ned can’t help wondering all the failures and the betrayal were worth it.

1. Fat Boy and Panda One of Ned’s first assignments is to tail a rich Saudi prince, in London to finalise important arms sales. He quickly wins the nickname Fat Boy from the watchers, and his wife earns the nickname Panda for the dark rings round her eyes. It is a comic story, for the MI6 watchers following her soon realise that she is herself being tailed by a Middle Eastern man, and begin to panic whether it’s a kidnapper or even an assassin. Bit it turns out the Panda is a kleptomaniac, and this man is employed by her to hush up the outraged store detectives and pay for everything she’s walked off with stuffed into her handbag and up her sleeve.

2. Ben In training Ned is paired with Ben. They went to public school then Oxford at the same time, then both took commissions in the Army before joining British Intelligence. Ie their story is proof of the very narrow pool of like-minded, posh people who make up the Service. Ben is posted to Berlin. One day Smiley and a squad of searchers arrive at Ned’s place and start interrogating him. What’s going on? Ben has disappeared: kidnapped, gone over to the other side? And their main network in East Germany has been ‘rolled up’, betrayed, arrested. They know the pair were good friends and then, Smiley reveals, they have discovered a love letter to Ned from Ben. Turns out Ben was gay and in love with Ned, though Ned never knew. Ned remembers Ben had mentioned the old country estate of some cousins in the Western Isles of Scotland. Ned does a bunk, evading the watchers set on his flat, catches a train to Glasgow and then ferries out to the estate. Here he meets Ben’s aloof cousin – Stefanie – who, in this wild mountain scenery, he falls in love with on sight. Ben is out at the loch, fishing mournfully. Ned walks down and stands by him. After some manly silence Ben tells him the story: the boss at Berlin was an intimidating martinet, testing Ben again and again before his first meeting with the leader of the East German network. Ben, like a good swot, makes a set of prompt cards with complete details of all the agents, their names, address, passwords, secret codes. When the day for his first drop into the East and first meeting with the Top Agent arrives, Ben finds himself taking them with him in his jacket pocket. He has to get out of a not-quite-stationary car, pick up a bicycle, cycle to the rendezvous, lock it up, meet the Agent, exchange documents, back to the bike and unlock it, cycle back to a rendezvous with a different car. When he got back into this car, he realised the notes had all gone from his pocket. He had dropped them somewhere. East German agents must have found them and used the information to arrest the entire network, because by the end of that day the network had been betrayed. Distraught, Ben flew to London, then onto Glasgow, then the ferry boat to this Western Isle, where Stefanie cooks for him but leaves him to cope with despair at his ineptitude and failure. Soon afterwards, Smiley and his people arrive to arrest him. Ned returns to London, convinced he will be fired, and bewitched by the beautiful, artistic, remote Stefanie.

3. Bella and Captain Brand But Ned isn’t dismissed, he is sent to Hamburg. It is the early 1960s and Ned takes charge of Captain Brand and his circle of Latvian patriots, who run illicit missions along the Baltic coast. Brand is a big-hearted sailor with a drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend, Bella. As soon as Brand and crew have departed on a mission to drop agents on the Latvian coast, Ned and Bella are at it like rabbits. Le Carré gives slightly cringe-inducing descriptions of her riding him, going down on him, offering him her rear for his penetration etc etc. When the mission to Latvia goes badly wrong – the patriots are met with machine guns, several killed – Ned is summoned back to England, to the executives on ‘the Fifth Floor’ who are convinced Bella is the traitor and Ned finds himself defending her, despite his own misgivings. Smiley plays an oblique role, appearing to defend Ned and his instincts against Bill Haydon, head of European operations, who insists Bella is the spy who betrayed the mission. Three years later the events described in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy take place, revealing Haydon to be a high-level Russian mole, confirming that it was hearty sailor Brand who was the spy, all the evidence against Bella having been cooked up by Moscow Central to protect him. She is shipped off to a new identity in Canada, never to see Ned again.

4. The Professor Ned is posted to Munich and tasked with managing a Hungarian professor, Teodor, who claims to be running a Hungarian network. Ned is suspicious of him from the start, him and his unhappy, ex-actress wife Helena, especially when he almost immediately starts asking for a British or American passport. But Toby Esterhase, one of the main characters in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and who survived the Bill Haydon revelations, insists he is a great source for the Americans. When Ned checks with the Americans they say, No, we were told he’s a great source for you. Hmm. One night Ned gets a melodramatic phone call from the Professor. A Hungarian assassin – Latzi – has come to kill him, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, confessed, and is now in his house. Ned rushes over. The shamefaced middle-aged, meek assassin empties his pockets of gun, cyanide bullets, garroting wire etc and tells an elaborate story about being briefed and sent to kill the Very Important Professor. All three are whisked away to a safe house where they are interrogated by MI6 and the CIA. Eventually, the Professor and wife are given US passports and put on the next flight Stateside. But not before the wife, walking down by the lakefront with Ned, admits it’s all a con. The ‘assassin’ is an out-of-work actor they hired to make the Prof look important. Ned doesn’t tell.

5. Colonel Jerzy Oskar, an agent in Poland who had gone quiet, suddenly activates again, sending messages in all the right codes, using all the right procedures. London is sceptical but Ned insists on going over to find out for himself whether it still is the same man. He flies into Poland on a forged Dutch passport and travels to Gdansk to meet Oskar. Instead, it is a trap and he is picked up by a group of well-organised communist security men who immediately start beating him up, then take him to a big empty house where he is really systematically beaten, losing several teeth, getting cracked ribs, before passing out, then waking up chained to a radiator burning his back and getting beaten some more. He sticks to his story that he is a Dutch businessman and this is all a terrible mistake and eventually, reluctantly, the officer in charge of the beating, stocky pock-marked Colonel Jerzy, orders him released. He is helped to a bath, cleaned and put in new clothes, then Jerzy drives him to an isolated spot and orders him out of the car. Dazed and in pain Ned wonders if he is going to be executed and pushed in the river. But no. Turns out Jerzy wants to become a spy for the West! Amazed, Ned sticks to his line of being a Dutch businessman and the exasperated Jerzy says, ‘OK, Have it your way, I will send you good information via such and such a channel when you are safely back in the West. We take it from there, OK?’ And indeed Jerzy becomes a totally reliable, high-level agent, revealing much about Polish and eastern Bloc security plans for the next five years. Ned speculates at length about Jerzy’s motives, but he appears simply to be bored. In a post-script, after the Berlin Wall has fallen, Ned is watching a TV report about a Catholic cardinal holding a huge open-air mass and, to his amazement, witnesses the moment when, among the throng pouring round him, the cardinal spots a hesitant Jerzy. The cardinal makes straight for him and there is a moment of recognition between them before Jerzy kneels to be blessed. And in that moment Ned knows the cardinal is one of the many many Poles that Jerzy has tortured and interrogated.

6. Britta Ned is in Beirut, in the depths of the Lebanon civil war (1975-1990), hearing the AK47s firing nightly, and the occasional car bomb. He is tracking down a German woman agent known as Britta. Eventually he discovers she is being held in an Israeli camp in the Negev Desert. Ned flies out there and interviews her under the supervision of some typically tough Israeli security officers. Britta turns out to be a) she is stunningly beautiful (as so many of the young women in le Carré are) b) phenomenally indoctrinated in a kind of sexual liberation / terrorist Marxism, a creed which justifies throwing bombs onto buses in order to ‘waken the slumbering masses’ etc. She refuses to co-operate in any way and Ned, in his self-absorbed way, departs shaken that her fanaticism speaks to something in him which wants to rebel. — [The whole episode feels like an off-cut from The Little Drummer Girl which dealt so intensively with the same milieu.]

7. Hansen Like Ned, half-Dutch, Hansen is an extraordinary figure, a wanderer and trouble-maker who, as a youth, is sent to the Jesuits in the hope they’ll make something of him, and becomes a fully qualified priest before being despatched to Dutch South-East Asia. Here he becomes a languages and culture scholar before sinking into more familiar le Carré territory ie reports soon emerge of his sexual escapades in villages and cities, with men, women and children. Finally, the Head of Station in Bangkok reports he’s been spotted by a Chinaman in their pay. Ned flies out to meet him and spends a long night in a hotel room listening to Hansen’s extraordinary story – how he lived in a safe part of Cambodia, well embedded in a village, with a native wife and young daughter, radioing in targets for the American bombers to pulverise. The Khmer Rouge are active in the area and one day he returns to the village to find it completely empty. He follows the trail of corpses to the Khmer Rouge camp, is captured but vows to survive the torture in order to protect his teenage daughter. To his dismay, she is successfully indoctrinated by the Khmer and denounces him as an imperialist bourgeois lackey etc. Still, it is probably her intervention which prevents him being murdered when the Khmers up sticks and move on. But Hansen follows them and her, discovering she left the group, scouring South-East Asia and eventually discovering her in a brothel in Bangkok. She is numbed, almost lobotimised by her experiences, and only finds authenticity in servicing her clients. But Hansen gets a job at the brothel as a jack-of-all-trades so he can keep an eye on her and take her home safely at night. Ned offers him money to be resettled somewhere. Hansen, totally embittered by the awful job he did calling in a holocaust of bombs on innocent villages and the disastrous effect it’s had on Cambodia, says, ‘Keep your stinking money’, and Ned returns to the office a sadder and wiser man.

This is the most powerful and the most Catholic of the stories. The violence and the casual attitude to prostitutes and brothels and the Catholic self-dramatisation of Hansen telling his story remind me of Graham Greene and of his novel set in Vietnam and with a prostitute as a central character, The Quiet American.

8. Ken Hawthorne A retired soldier sends a letter to the Service which George is tasked to handle. His tearaway son, in prison, insists he is a British agent, briefly returned from Russia and hiding in prison as a cover. ‘Don’t contact me again, Dad,’ he says: ‘but listen, there’s a club of us spies and we meet every year and, if we’ve done well, they award us special cufflinks.’ Dad gets letters from his son in various hand-writings hinting at secret missions. Then he is murdered in prison and his mum and dad bury him. The dad writes the letter to MI6: was his son an agent? Smiley calls him in for a slow patient questioning, then goes away and ransacks the Circus’s raddled files. No. He wasn’t. He never had anything to do with the Service and is indeed the sadistic thug his criminal record suggests. But, in a gesture of sweet kindness, Smiley invites the parents for a second interview: insists his son was nothing to do with them; never undertook any missions for them; he can disclose no more. And silently hands the dad a pair of beautiful gold cufflinks. They leave with tears in their eyes. Ned later finds out the cufflinks were a present to Smiley from his adulterous wife, Ann.

9. Frewin An anonymous letter denounces Cyril Frewin, an anonymous operative in the Cipher Section, as a spy, linking him with Modrian from the Soviet Embassy. Ned goes to Frewin’s sad suburban semi and the novel gives us a lengthy verbatim account of his interview of Frewin: over twenty pages or so we see precisely how a clever man like Ned can manipulate and play on the psychological weaknesses of a sad loner like Frewin to get him to finally confess that, yes, he was a spy for Modrian. But more than that, the story shows how Modrian and the Russians skillfully and elaborately played on Frewin’s sense of isolation in order to befriend him, to identify the things he loves (classical music, educated conversation), to persuade him they are on his side, in order to exploit him, and slowly increase the level of information they ask Frewin to send them. Ned realises he is guilty of just as much psychological exploitation as Modrian and (we’re getting used to it by this time) feels soiled and sickened.

Was love an ideology? Was loyalty a political party? Or had we, in our rush to divide the world, divided it in the wrong way, failing to notice that the real battle lay between those who were searching, and those who, in order to prevail, had reduced their vulnerability to the lowest common factor of indifference? I was on the brink of destroying a man for love. (p.332)

There is an awful lot of pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-theological discussion of love and betrayal and love and fidelity and love and loyalty in these stories. Who knew that British intelligence agents spent so much time thinking about love?


Tone

The style is deliberately, overtly posh, an attempt – I think – to give Ned a distinct voice. Public school, Oxford, a commission in the Army, then a spell in the Navy, before the Secret Service, Ned is impeccably pukkah and so is the world he moves in. When he mixes with the 95% of the population who didn’t go to private school – Monty and his team of ‘watchers’ or mum and dad of Ken Hawthorne – he is nervously aware he is mixing with ‘the other ranks’, the ‘NCOs’, people who can’t write a decent letter or are intimidated in the presence of their ‘betters’.

As in previous Circus novels there is a tone of complacency typified by the use of ‘we’. Back in those days we all this… We revered those senior figures… We felt that Smiley… In those days we…  etc. — Ned’s tone suggests a schoolmaster fondly recalling some of his more reprobate pupils, or a young master filled with awe and reverence for the old timers who embody the much-loved institution and its values. It is a tone of complacent self-justification, as if the ‘Circus’ and its internal squabbles is all that matters in the world.

After all, le Carré had a spell as a teacher at Eton. Eton. Is it possible to be more Establishment than that? And Ned’s role in the novel is as teacher or supervisor of trainee spies at Sarratt – so the patronising smugness of the old teacher – whoops, master – may be justified. Still, Ned’s tone often makes it seem as if British Intelligence was rather like a ramshackle public school, populated by eccentric, clever, spiteful masters, forever politicking among themselves and sending poor East European agents to their capture, torture and death. Oh well. Can’t be helped. Can I tempt you to another glass of this rather fine brandy?

Clive Bellamy, a gangly, mischievous Etonian, was in charge of Sarratt. (p.221)

Rumbelow (Station Head in Bangkok) spoke like an Etonian bookmaker. (p.225)

He put on an avuncular, friend-to-friend manner that reminded me of my preparatory-school headmaster. (p.318)

I continued writing to her from Tunbridge Wells but it became as difficult as writing home from [boarding] school. (p.334)

Even the enemy are seen in the same ‘what-ho, old Duffers eh, what a card’ public school tone of voice:

After my five years in the Russia House, Sergei Modrian was plain Sergei to me, as he had been to the rest of us: old Sergei, the crafty Armenian, head boy of Moscow Centre’s generously over-staffed residence at the Soviet Embassy in London. (p.274)

Head boy! Did the KGB see its operatives in terms of English public school positions?

At various points Ned has qualms and doubts and maybe the novel as a whole is meant to signify his ‘pilgrimage’ towards greater self-awareness and understanding of the role MI6 really played in these historical events. But it feels limited, like the master at a posh school who slowly comes to realise that maybe the senior staff aren’t the gods he was led to believe, and the mission to educate and civilise isn’t everything it was cracked up to be. But he doesn’t leave and he can’t leave, because deep down this is the only world, and these are only values, he knows.

Self-dramatisation

The ‘we we we’ is one aspect of the comfortable self-dramatisation. Ned takes the mickey out of himself for doing it, but carries on regardless making epic drama out of his life and work. The trip to see Ben in Scotland talks about the ‘Wagnerian’ setting and the ‘Romantic’ situation. In all the other stories he reaches for grand comparisons from European culture. It is typical that he refers to the revelation that Haydon was a Russian spy as ‘The Fall’, and the periods before and after as ‘Before The Fall’ and ‘After The Fall’. Typically bombastic. And it conceals the reality. There was no Fall, it wasn’t a legendary, mythic event. You idiots let a Russian spy rise to become chief British Intelligence’s entire East European spy network. He passed on every important secret which crossed his desk for 15 years or more. All because he was a jolly good chap, went to a good public school and Cambridge, had a ‘first-rate mind’ and so on and so on. The bombast – the comparisons with Wagner or the Bible or Don Quixote or Shakespeare – conceal the incompetence. No wonder the Yanks distrusted us.

Although, on a conscious level, the narrator analyses the career of spying as shabby and full of moral qualms etc, he actually describes it with grandiose and self-aggrandising comparisons, with a mock heroism that is so consistently present that it eventually turns into just heroism.

Like Quixote, I had set out in life vowing to check the flow of evil. (p.186)

Only Ahmed behind the counter who for a few dollars and a smile, would tell you the secrets of the universe. (p.200)

[Was he] a high-school war tourist on the hippy trail, searching for kicks in the city of the damned? (P.201)

The language, the comparisons, all as inflated as Milton’s Grand Style. On the same page he describes being in bed with his mistress, Monica, when he gets a call saying his mother’s been taken ill.

By an act of divine ill taste I was in bed with Monica when I took the call. (p.186)

‘Divine ill taste?’ Really? You think God had something to do with it? Isn’t it just an accident? In fact, does it matter at all where he is or who he’s with? No. Only to someone used to dramatising their every step as divinely fated or divinely tasteful would this be worth noting. He goes on to write of  his mother’s death:

‘I was orphaned and elated all at once… At last I stood unencumbered before life’s challenges… And when I looked at myself in the mirror of the undertaker’s rose-tinted lavatory after my night’s vigil, I was horrified by what I saw. It was the face of a spy branded by his own deception.’ (p.187).

I think the expression is: Get over yourself!

Catholic melodrama

The tale about the Dutch Jesuit spy Hansen is the most powerful piece because of the intense description it gives of being captured and tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Le Carré, in my opinion, weakens it by having the very tough Hansen a) be a Roman Catholic priest b) be taken prisoner because he is on a religious quest to find his young daughter. Thus a story which is quite harrowing enough, piles on every possible opportunity to cast each event, from his torture to her assimilation by the guerrillas, as edge-of-the-seat threats to their immortal souls. Having recently completed reading all of Graham Greene’s novels, I’ve had enough to last me a lifetime of the self-obsession and overblown melodrama of literary Catholicism:

Hansen had glared into my face with eyes lit by the red hells from which he had returned. (p.217)

‘Once you have embarked upon the impossible concept of God, you will know that real love permits no rejection. Perhaps that is something only a sinner can properly understand. Only a sinner knows the scale of God’s forgiveness.’ (p.238)

Maybe. But it seems a certainty that once you come out of the closet as a Catholic novelist there is no end, literally no end, to the amount of sentences and paragraphs and chapters and novels you can fill with pseudo-theology and self-important attitudinising:

[Hansen was] in search of Marie, his pure love, the earth mother who was his daughter, the only keeper of his grace. (p.240)

With Marie to support him, he could bear anything. Each would be the salvation of the other. Her love for him was as fierce and single-minded as his for her. He did not doubt it. For all his loathing of captivity, he thanked God he had followed her. (p.242)

I am nourishing her from my own breast. I am her guardian, the protector of her chastity. I am her priest, giving her Christ’s Sacrament.

Once this tone of holy pretentiousness is broached it becomes catching. Chapter 11 starts with Smiley explaining to the young acolytes:

‘And some interrogations are not interrogations at all, but communions between damaged souls.’ (p.273)

The stories themselves are gripping and fascinating. The intellectual framework within which they’re cast – the self-dramatisation, the emphasis on love and redemption and grace and salvation and communion etc, give them a very strong flavour, a particular set of spices, which I think you either love or hate.

Stefanie, Bella, Mabel, Monica, Marie, Sally

Lots of nubile and sexually available or provocative young women in le Carré’s fiction:

  • Stefanie is the half-German artist cousin of his friend and incompetent Ben, who he falls for heavily but she ignores him and moves abroad. He carries a torch for her the rest of  his life.
  • Bella is the scorchingly sexy girlfriend of beefy Captain Brand, who introduces Ned to championship sex.
  • Mabel is the dull English woman he actually marries and who likes curling up on the sofa in the evening with the Daily Telegraph (p.181).
  • Monica is a girl in the Service’s Industrial Liaison Unit who he has an affair with (p.186).
  • Marie is the Asian daughter of Hansen, the Jesuit priest-turned-spy, who he pursues across South-East Asia only to find her turned into a numb prostitute in Bangkok. Before he finds Hansen Ned is given a display of her skills. The way she turns, raises and wiggles her bare bottom provocatively at him (p.231) reminds the reader of the gorgeous Bella doing the same (p.100). Lucky Ned.

In chapter 11 he is having an affair with Sally, a tall, fair designer and ‘dancer’. Colleagues irritate him by asking after his wife; are they separating? Divorcing? He has become a mirror image of Smiley, who is faithful and quiet, betrayed by his wife, Lady Ann, taking serial lovers. Here it is Ned who appears to have the serial affairs, betraying his staid wife, Mabel. But in both models, a marriage is actually about betrayal and is another way to justify the tone of world-weary self-importance which dominates the book.

Out with the old…

Once you look, you realise every reference to George Smiley lays on with a trowel his wisdom, his insight, his patient deduction, the way he is ahead of everyone. In the last few pages he is referred to as sitting on a ‘throne’ as he talks to the students. Earlier we had heard of the cup and saucer he bequeathed to the secretary pool at the Circus being treated like a ‘chalice’. This is ridiculously overblown; makes it sound like an Arthurian romance. Smiley delivers a suitably vague and bombastic peroration about Russia – characteristically referred to as ‘the Bear’ rather than any detail of actual administrations, actual leaders, actual complex policies – we must help her join the community of nations etc. But his parting shot to the trainees is they must also be alert to the way we in the West have ‘given up too many of our freedoms in order to be free’. We must be watchful of our own society, as well.

Like the farewell speech of a much beloved headmaster. And so, amid sentimental tears and wise admonishments, George Smiley leaves the scene.

… and in with the new

But that isn’t the end. Instead, with only days till his retirement, Ned is sent on one last mission, to persuade an arrogant financier, a man who has built a fortune, bought a knighthood and a vast landed estate, based on business deals he did for the Service, to now stop selling arms and munitions to unsuitable nations (Serbia, central Africa).

Rich, replete Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw offers him champagne and tells him to fuck off. With dismay Ned realises these are the new breed, the completely ruthless, amoral international financiers who he has made the world safe for. Ned toys with telling him that, now we’ve defeated communism we have to set about defeating capitalism. But Bradshaw pounds on about how if he doesn’t sell the buggers arms someone else will and good luck to them. Business is business. This country’s going soft. Where there’s money to be made, he will make it. Ned fails, He has made the world safe for people like Bradshaw, and now it is over to them…

Credit

The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré, published in 1991 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1991 Coronet paperback edition, 1994 impression.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Looking Glass War by John le Carré (1965)

‘All right,’ Haldane conceded. ‘We have our brief. But things have changed. It’s a different game now. In those days we were top of the tree – rubber boats on a moonless night; a captured enemy plane; wireless and all that. You and I know; we did it together. But it’s changed. It’s a different war; a different kind of fighting.’ (p.62)

Failure and misery

This novel has the unrelenting despair and misery of a Graham Greene book. Everyone is unhappy, incompetent, in failed marriages with wives who despise them, children they don’t understand, in unsuccessful careers, too old, living in the past, working for a superannuated organisation, slack, doomed to failure.

He went back to his room. There were times when he confronted his own image as a man confronts an empty valley, and the vision propels him forward again to experience, as despair compels us to extinction. (p.103)

The same wish-to-lecture as Greene. And the same subject: despair, emptiness, the horror of life.

The flat was in darkness. Standing before it, he tried to detect in the house, in himself, some trace of the sentiment, or affection, or love, or whatever it was that explained their marriage, but it was not to be found and he supposed it had never been. He sought desperately, wanting to find the motive of youth; but there was none. He was staring into an empty house. (p.151)

And the same easy equation of complex situations with half a dozen standard bromides about love and guilt.

He was terribly tired; the tiredness was like a physical despair, like the moment of guilt before making love. (p.212)

Like most of Greene’s editorialising, this sounds fine but, on inspection, is meaningless, as if the words ‘despair’, ‘guilt’ and ‘love’, ‘faith’ and betrayal’, are shiny counters which can be placed in any order to deliver a Grand Statement about the Human Condition.

‘Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.’ (p.196)

Greeneitis.

Competence and the thriller

If you can put aside the relentlessly depressed view of human nature, the novel has other themes.

It highlights the importance of ‘competence’ as a key concept in the thriller. From Sherlock Holmes to Jason Bourne the hero has a super-human ability to swiftly size up situations and seize the advantage. Despite le Carre’s reputation for the downbeat and realistic, George Smiley (p.32) does in fact perform the function of the omni-competent hero in the eight novels in which he is mentioned (part of the reason I don’t like the running gag about his glamorous wife, Lady Ann, having left him, is because it is so obviously a ruse designed to conceal the fact that Smiley is, beneath his thick glasses and badly-tailored clothes, as shrewd and all-seeing as Holmes.)

The Looking Glass War

In this novel le Carré goes out of his way to portray incompetence. It is set in a government ‘Department’, which had a clear brief during the War to gather intelligence but has now fallen on hard times, its staff dwindling, its agents taken over by the ‘Circus’, in whose shadow the resentful handful of remaining ageing bureaucrats dream up schemes to reassert their importance, led by a hesitant, small man named Leclerc. The old-timers with too much time on their hands reminisce about the War, and the plot boils down to an effort by these middle-aged dreamers to recapture the intensity, the sense of purpose and the excitement they felt, during the War.

Part one

In the brief first part we are introduced to Taylor, a boastful man sent by Leclerc to a remote airport in Finland. A commercial flight has been instructed to fly over East German airspace with cameras in the belly, presumably to look for military installations. Taylor is to meet the pilot and take receipt of the roll of film. The point of the entire section is to highlight Taylor’s incompetence:

  • he fluffs elementary security by telling his wife about the mission, and she has told their daughter (!)
  • he is tempted at every turn to impress the airport staff with how jolly important he is
  • instead of finding a quiet corner of the bar and waiting for the pilot to arrive, he hogs the bar and makes himself memorable by insulting the barman
  • when the pilot arrives he is himself flustered by having been intercepted by MIG jets, unhappy with the mission
  • and they exchange the roll of film and money in plain sight

By the time Taylor has realised he’s drunk, the last airport taxis have all gone and he sets off to walk through the heavy snow to the hotel. A car seen earlier loitering, accelerates up behind him and deliberately runs him over, killing him. The strong implication is this murder follows logically from the folly of the mission and the failure of Taylor to observe almost every rule of ‘tradecraft’.

Part two

Leclerc hosts a meeting of the ‘Department’. Le Carré forensically highlights the politics, the psychological combat, of the attendees. (Le Carré literally belittles Leclerc: he has small fists, a small head, struggles to assert himself.)

Leclerc tells them a mechanic who fled from the East brought photos of what appear to be the latest type of Russian missile being installed in secret locations in East Germany. The attendees are sceptical. They point out that their man who forwarded this ‘information’ – Gorton – has his contract up for renewal; maybe he invented it. (On page 167 Haldane, head of Research, finds similar photos which are known to be fake, but doesn’t inform anyone.) They are critical that Taylor, an overt courier, had been used for a clandestine mission (which explains why he was so puffed up and incompetent), but generally accept the conclusion that this could be a new Cuban Missile Crisis. –What comes over in spades is their collective sense of inferiority to the ‘Circus’, their resentment of the Foreign Office, their determination to prove themselves. All desperately downbeat and depressing.

This is one of the eight Smiley novels: he is not the main figure, as in Tinker, Tailor or Smiley’s People, but not quite as peripheral as in Spy. Once the Circus learns what the Department is up to, Control asks Smiley to lend a hand and keep watch. Smiley interviews Avery on pages 55 to 58. It is clear that he is appalled at his ignorance of tradecraft. Smiley gives him detailed instructions on how to ‘drop’ the film to an experienced courier. He reports back to Control and is tasked with keeping a watch on the Department’s activities.

Avery comes across as a young romantic fool. His trip to Helsinki to collect Taylor’s body is a disaster. Le Carré shows unrelentingly how your story must be perfect to the utmost bureaucratic detail or else the Consul, the Embassy, the local police, the coroner, the airline – someone, in the normal course of their duties, will stumble across any anomalies, and then start asking difficult questions. Avery is portrayed – like Taylor before him – as completely out of his depth. He cannot even manage burning Taylor’s letters and affects in his hotel room without staining the sink, leaving tell-tale traces, and making the hotel staff suspicious.

Wives

Depression and failure colour the entire book. Le Carré carries it deep into the characters’ private lives. The members of the Department fail to keep basic security by telling their wives what’s happening. Their wives don’t believe them or despise them. We meet:

  • Woodford the technician and his drunk weeping malicious wife, Babs – ‘she was a thin, childless woman’ (p.168)
  • Taylor’s wife, horribly distraught with grief, when told her husband has died ‘for his country’
  • Fred Leiser’s wife, drunk and resentful and suspicious: he’d rather spend the night with a prostitute than return to her
  • Young foolish Avery emerges as probably the lead character in the novel and we learn far too much about the sterile love-hate marriage with Sarah, who bitterly resents his secrecy and his new sense of puffed-up importance, and are mildly nauseated by the way both of them use their young son Anthony as a pawn in the endless arguments – ‘If it weren’t for Anthony I really would leave you’ (p.164)
  • Smiley thinks Control stays in town on Monday nights because he wants to get away from his wife (p.154)
  • and, of course, everyone knows about Smiley’s wife, the glamorous Lady Ann, and her serial infidelities

All relations between the sexes, in this novel, cause pain. Reading the many passages about relationships in this novel are like having toothache.

Part three

Back in Blighty, young Avery discovers there’s been more incompetence: since he had used his own name when visiting Helsinki to reclaim Taylor’s body, the irregularities in Taylor’s identity were noted and pursued by immigration police our end, who called on Avery’s wife in the middle of the night. As if that wasn’t bad enough, because he’d blabbed to her, she proceeded to tell the police all about Taylor and his secret mission. If they were police, that is…

Meanwhile, we are shown Leclerc adroitly handling the Whitehall system and getting permission and money to ‘send a man in’ to check the rocket rumours. We are shown Department buffer Woodford going to a shabby old club, the Alias Club, on Villier Street near Charing Cross, set up by veterans of the War, and asking about old contacts, trainers he could call up, plus does anyone know the whereabouts of the man they’ve chosen for the mission, the only man they have on the books from the old days who can speak German, a Polish emigré who fought with us during the War, Fred Leiser.

The novel describes the way old hands from the War are tracked down and set to work training Leiser for his top secret mission at a rented house in Oxford. But the whole flavour of the thing is bitter farce: they are all dreamers, deluded; they want the old days to return, the War years to restore a sense of purpose to their empty lives. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is downbeat, but the leanness of the narrative and the slowly-revealed depths of intelligence in the plot are invigorating for the reader. This novel is plain depressing. Everyone is deluded.

The training is described in minute detail. Maybe it is an accurate portrayal of espionage tradecraft circa 1960. Certainly the class consciousness is very 1960s. Leiser and the the trainers are sergeants and NCOs, not proper officer material, dontcha know. While Leclerc and Haldane swell into their officer-class sense of self-importance, Avery notices the trainers and the agent himself have ‘something of the backstairs’ (p.166).

In the East

The final forty or so pages, describing Leiser’s pointless ‘mission’ into East Germany, are vividly imagined and written, heart-stopping, terrifying: he sneaks across the night-time terrain, through the wire, suddenly killing the young border guard he encounters, then blundering through snow, through darkened villages, stealing a motorbike, asking questions and causing suspicion wherever he goes, leaving a trail a mile wide. The defining mistake is transmitting a radio signal back to his controllers for a solid six minutes, when the maximum for security purposes is two-and-a-half. After three the East Germans have detected it, and the remaining minutes allow them time for several receivers to pick him up and work out his location. They close in for the kill.

Control

It’s not as if the ‘Circus’ (the name all the characters use for British Intelligence due to its location on Cambridge Circus in central London) is much better. The Circus is well-informed about all these developments but let the Department’s crazy plan go ahead anyway, deliberately lending them antiquated radio equipment, fixing passports and papers. On pages 216 to 218 a conversation takes place between Control and Smiley in which the former seems to be admitting that they’ve set the Department up to fail; in other words, that they’re happy for this agent to be captured or killed if it leads to the disgrace and closure of the Department and the triumph of the Circus. ‘It’s not my fault they’ve taken so long to die.’ (p.218)

This exchange clinches one’s view of Control. He is nasty, amoral and manipulative (as he seems to have been in conceiving the plan which led to Liz and Leamas’s death in the Spy Who Came In From The Cold). But, worse, he comes over as doddery. He is portrayed as a querulous old man who detests the modern world and judges people as much by snobbery as on their merits.

  • I do detest the telephone (p.216)
  • Leclerc’s so vulgar…a silly, vulgar man (p.217)
  • God, how I loathe civil servants. (p.217)

Partly this looks forward to Control’s death just before the start of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and everyone’s comments in that book that he’d lost it, become obsessed, should have been pensioned off etc. But on every page of this novel I thought, if this is a remotely accurate account of Britain’s intelligence services in the early 1960s no wonder the Americans were so supremely reluctant to share anything with such a shower.

Short

The narrator not only belittles the silly ‘Department’, its foolish plan and its ham-fisted incompetence, he literally belittles the characters. They’re always short, under-sized.

  • Leclerc Smaller than the rest, older. (p.29) Leiser laughed in a reserved way. It was if he could have wished Leclerc a taller man. (p.182) His small hands folded tidily on his knee. (p.202)
  • Leiser He was a short man, very straight (p.106) He was very much the small man just then. (p.184) As Leiser put on each unfamiliar thing… he seemed to shrink before their eyes. (p.187) … his small face was turned to her… (p.237)
  • Smiley Little sad bloke.’ (p.112)

Everything about the book is little and sad, including, by extension, England itself, its shabby pubs and seedy clubs, its streets full of prostitutes, its awful food and grim weather. The descriptions are beautifully precise. Le Carré’s prose is crisp and clear. But this is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read.

He handed in his suitcase to the depository at Paddington Station and wandered out into Praed Street because he had nowhere to go. He walked about for half an hour, looking at the shop windows and reading the tarts’ advertisements on the glazed notice boards. It was Saturday afternoon: a handful of old men in trilby hats and raincoats hovered between the pornography shops and the pimps on the corner. There was very little traffic: an atmosphere of hopeless recreation filled the street. (p.149)

The movie

Made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of The Looking Glass War

Pan paperback cover of The Looking Glass War

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with plausibility, precision and thrilling intelligence.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) Depressing tale of a ramshackle wing of British intelligence left over from the War, whose members try to recapture the old glory when they receive a (dodgy) tip about missiles stationed in East Germany, and wangle the funding to give incompetent training, useless equipment and send to his pointless death, a hapless Polish émigré. A detailed and persuasive account of a dispiriting shambles.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist German political movement.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European emigre in Hampstead leads, eventually, the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to allow herself to be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things start to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré (1963)

Who do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, I hate his guts; but not now. It so happens they need him. They need him so that the great moronic mass that you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.’ (p.231)

This is a really brilliant novel: wonderfully conceived, powerfully imagined, expertly executed, clearly written. It was le Carre’s breakthrough novel, only his third, which established him as a major player and created an entirely new downbeat, realistic feel for spy thrillers.

Plot

Alec Leamas works for British intelligence as station officer in Berlin. When his network is ‘rolled up’ ie arrested by East German security, he returns to England, like all le Carré’s protagonists aware of his advancing age and wondering if he is over the hill. He is given menial duties working in the banking section of the ‘Circus’ (so-called because it is located in London’s Cambridge Circus) and called in for a special meeting with ‘Control’, who has a plan.

Leamas will undertake a daring mission. He will be dismissed from the Circus under a cloud to the accompaniment of orchestrated gossip that he’s been badly treated and tricked out of a pension. He will drink heavily, get himself thrown into prison, in every way appear to be disillusioned, and so make himself available to be approached by ‘the other side’. He will, in short, set himself up to be a defector.

And this is just what happens. He drinks heavily to cultivate the image. Bad mouths the Service which has given him a menial job in banking. Eventually the Service ‘lets him go’. He is unemployed. He drinks heavily. He gets a job at a library and falls in love with a Jewish communist librarian, Liz Gold. He drunkenly assaults a greengrocer, knocking him out, getting arrested and sent to prison.

Sure enough, as soon as he gets out he is approached by one Ashe, who offers to look after him. After some chat he is passed on to a tougher man named Kievers. This man ascertains that Leamas worked for the Service and is prepared to talk about it, and explains he will be taken abroad for a short while to earn money telling what he knows. He flies under a false passport to Holland where he is handed over to a more senior figure, Peters. This Peters offers Leamas £15,000 to tell everything he knows about the Circus. Leamas agrees and answers all questions over several days interviewing.

They are in the middle of the process when news comes that the authorities in Britain have put out an alert for him. At this point Leamas becomes genuinely afraid – this wasn’t in Control’s plan. Peters and his German minders say he must now be moved East for his own safety. They fly to Berlin and drive across the checkpoint into East Berlin. From there Leamas is taken to an isolated safe house amid pine forests and meets Fiedler, number two in the Abteilung, the East German secret police.

In long interrogations – really conversations – with Fiedler, Leamas reveals everything he knows about the Circus’s operations in East Germany: about his network, how it was run, who was paid what etc. In among all the true stuff, though, is the thread of disinformation – a set of misleading facts about secret payments he had to make via Scandinavian banks.

The point of the mission

It is this which is the core of Leamas’s mission: because the dates of the payments have been timed to match the dates of trips to Scandinavian countries by Mundt, the head of the Abteilung. In other words, the entire deception is designed to frame Mundt and give his number two, Fiedler, the evidence he needs to arrest and eliminate Mundt. Cunning.

At every stage Leamas plays it perfectly by being reluctant: pretending not to know that the dates tie up, then refusing to believe Mundt could be a spy since he, Leamas, ran the German network and would have known about him. Leamas’s ignorance and reluctance to go along with the notion of Mundt’s guilt are designed to encourage Fiedler’s belief in it.

Mundt in A Call For The Dead

NB It is useful to have read A Call For The Dead before this novel, as this is the same Mundt who appears as in that novel as the head of the East German Steel Mission to Britain. When the network is ‘blown’ he oversees the assassination of agents who risk further exposure.

a) Although these events are referred to in Spy, it is more powerful to have read and experienced them in the earlier book; it gives a stronger sense of Mundt’s brutality. b) It is part of Fiedler’s case against Mundt that Mundt was able to leave England so easily after his network was exposed because Mundt did a deal with British Intelligence, and ever since then has been a double agent, rising up in the Abteilung, sending information to London.

Reversals

The novel is perfectly paced. All the events unfold with a deep and pleasing inevitability, yet nothing is forced or hurried. There is a sudden reversal – Fiedler is still interrogating Leamas when their house is taken over by security guards working for Mundt, who has intervened to arrest Fielder and Leamas. The latter is badly beaten then begins to be interrogated by Mundt (who we finally meet, cold and calculating). But almost immediately there is a further switch, because Fielder had just sent a dossier of his case against Mundt to the Praesidium, who now release Fiedler and imprison Mundt.

The impasse must be resolved and so the Praesidium organises an investigation to be set in a court room, each side making its case. Fiedler argues compellingly against Mundt, listing the evidence which has led him to believe Mundt is a British double agent. However, Mundt’s lawyer then demolishes it: He all-too-accurately describes the Circus’s plot, the way Leamas was laid off, ran out of money poor, drank too much, assaulted the grocer – Mundt’s lawyer accurately describes this all as a scam, designed to lead to his recruitment by the Abteilung.

Up to this point he is describing events which could be interpreted either way. But then, in a dramatic coup, he introduces Liz, Leamas’s lover, the librarian, into the court. (In a parallel strand of the novel we had seen her be contacted by the British communist party and invited on a ‘goodwill visit’ to East Germany. It was all a ploy to enable her to be produced at the trial.) Here Mundt’s counsel extracts, from an obviously honest and reluctant witness, the fact that Liz knew about the assault before it happened, that Leamas said he had something he had to do, that he made their last night a formal goodbye (the day before he assaulted the grocer and went to prison) that, in other words, the whole thing was planned.

In further, damning, evidence, she reluctantly admits that she was visited by Smiley, who left a card and told her to get in touch if she had any problems or if she heard from Leamas; and that her lease was bought and sent to her, as if in payment for her aid.

Leamas listens in amazement. How incompetent of London! It is almost as if they were trying to undermine his mission, it is almost as if they wanted the mission to indict Mundt to fail, it is almost as if the whole mission was actually designed to incriminate Fiedler… at which point, Leamas realises with a shock… that Fiedler is right. That Mundt is London’s man. That Control and Smiley lied to him, and have used him and Liz as pawns in a deeper plot to discredit Fiedler – a genuine communist – because he was getting too close to Mundt – London’s double-agent.

Liz Gold

The narrative then follows Liz as she is taken from the court through miles of corridors of the vast prison for dissidents and intellectuals, has a dispiriting conversation with the zealous woman guard, and sinks in despair onto her bed… when the door of her cell is opened and it is Mundt, hurrying her along corridors, out of a door onto a gravel drive to the main gate, through it and up to a car and to Leamas. He leaves them.

This is a particularly effective passage because a) it skips quickly over events in the court room, which probably got a bit tedious b) it powerfully conveys Liz’s fear and bewilderment – for once we are not following the actions of a seasoned player of ‘the game’, we are feeling the devastating impact of this terrifying world on someone like us, the disorientation, the terror.

The Wall

Mundt has triumphed. Leamas and Liz are free. They get in the car and, as Leamas drives at speed back towards Berlin, he reveals the moral of the story. Because Liz is such a complete innocent, Leamas is able to explain the rationale of espionage from the ground up, how it is the logical extension of two conflicting ideologies, how it is infinitely superior to actual war, but how it has its own casualties, compromises, amorality. What did she expect? (See the quote at the head of this review.)

They pick up an agent at a pre-arranged place who guides them to the Wall and gives them precise instructions about how to climb over at a place where the wire has been cut. And so they walk to it and climb up and over as instructed except that, as Leamas pulls the girl up after him all the searchlights go on and there are shots. Liz’s body goes limp then falls. She and Leamas had discussed in the car how odd it was that Mundt was letting her go, an idealistic fool who now knows he is a top-ranking double agent ie she holds his life in her hands. Leamas realises Mundt planned to have her killed all along. And, in deeper disillusionment, realises his own side must have known it as well. And we don’t need to be reminded that Mundt is viciously anti-semitic and Liz was a Jew. The full horror of these people, of this world, of total expediency, hits us.

Leamas hears voices from the West telling him to climb over and down to safety. He hears Smiley’s voice ‘from quite close’. And, like the ageing, tired, and completely disillusioned man he is, Leamas deliberately climbs back down into the Eastern side, knowing what will happen, no longer wanting to live. And is shot dead.

The sense of psychological defeat, betrayal, moral squalor, is complete, and leaves an enduring taste in the mouth. The le Carré flavour.

Jewishness

Throughout the text characters show a sensitiveness to Jewishness which is strange to me. Maybe it’s Germany, with its special history, that makes it so prominent. But it is also important to the plot that Liz the librarian is Jewish, and that Fiedler, the number two, is Jewish. In the brief spell when Mundt’s men take over, before the Praesidium intervenes, Mundt is described as torturing Fiedler, and whispering ‘dirty Jew’, ‘filthy Jew’, in his ear. The woman gaoler in charge of Liz is similarly automatically, thoughtlessly anti-semitic. Leamas is not anti-semitic but immediately recognises someone as Jewish.

Maybe this ‘Jew awareness’ is one of the differences between 1963 and 2014 (when I’m writing), 50 years which have seen enormous immigration to all West European nations and the creation of truly multicultural societies. Maybe Jews were more noticeable in 1963, in a society almost 100% white and caucasian – whereas in 2014 any slight physical difference they (may) exhibit has been lost in the vast sea of racial/ethnic differences which now surrounds us.

Memories of the Cold War

This sensitivity to Jewishness is one aspect of the way this novel is now part of a vanished history. When I first read 1984 and Darkness At Noon in the 1970s, they scared me more than any horror story, they described an abyss into which all society, all humanity, could quite possibly fall, they described outcomes which might result from the political struggles of the time, from the power of communist and socialist parties across Europe even, potentially, from the power of the radical wing of the Labour Party.

It is not just that the Cold War ended and the West won. It is the way even the notion that one single ideology could conquer the world has evaporated. When this novel was published the world population was 3 billion. China, the USSR, all East Europe, Korea then Vietnam, Cuba and parts of Latin America, and a lot of Africa could be described as communist or at risk of becoming communist. Now the world population is over 7 billion and it’s not clear that any state is now genuinely communist. Although Islamic fundamentalism gives the West’s security services something to do, that sense that ‘one side’ will triumph has disappeared. There are now lots of anxieties, but they are to do with the economy, the environment, global warming, random acts of terrorism.

That one, bottomless, existential fear about the death of human freedom and the triumph of totalitarian communism which I remember from the 1970s and which was captured in novels like this, has disappeared like morning dew. It is impossible to explain it to my children. They have no idea what I’m talking about.

Dramatis personae

  • Alec Leamas – fifty-year-old spy, pretends to be a defector
  • Control – head of the ‘Circus’ ie British intelligence
  • George Smiley – peripheral to the plot, but appears at various moments, specifically when he visits Leamas’s girlfriend Liz Gold, to find out what if anything he’s told her communist party leaders about Leamas (he also witnesses Leamas beating up the grocer, and pays off Leamas’s landlord)
  • Liz Gold – naive, idealistic librarian and member of the Bayswater communist party
  • Ashe – effeminate, nervous German agent, who makes first contact with Leamas, hands him on to…
  • Kievens – who establishes that Leamas is prepared to defect
  • Peters – in Holland, debriefs Leamas at length
  • Jens Fiedler – number two in Eat German Abteilung, interrogates Leamas in a friendly collaborative way because he suspects his boss, Mundt, is an English double-agent
  • Mundt – head of East German security; cold, cunning, sadistic, he is in fact a British double-agent, and the whole point of Leamas’s mission turns out to be to protect him by discrediting Fiedler

Credit

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré, published 1963 by Victor Gollancz. All quotes from the 1981 Pan paperback edition.

The movie

The novel was made into a fantastically atmospheric black-and-white film, released in 1965, starring Richard Burton and featuring Michael Horden, Sam Wanamaker, Oskar Werner and Robert Hardy. It is as much a classic of the film world as the book is of literature. All the actors are immaculate. The direction, by Martin Ritt, is wonderful. The framing of almost every shot is perfect, many of the frames can be frozen and make classy still photos. Ritt has a fantastically good eye and a choice way of locating the camera, conceiving action, framing the shot. And at the heart of it is a towering performance by Burton, acting much older than his 40 years, looking and sounding a thousand years old.

Interviews

Le Carre has given innumerable interviews to the press and TV over the years.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

A Murder of Quality by John le Carré (1962)

‘This is a critical moment in Carne’s development. Many public schools have conceded to the vulgar clamour for change – change at any price. Carne, I am pleased to say, has not joined these Gadarene swine.’ (p.67)

The snobbery latent in Call of the Dead comes out to dominate this, le Carré’s second novel. Why do so many English writers who went to public school seem unable to escape its influence and so often feel compelled to write about their wretched/happy experiences? Because it isn’t an education – it is an entire world, their world, an insular world of agreed attitudes and behaviours, which teaches them what to wear and how to speak and what to think, a world they can never escape.

Carne

This novel is set in a (fictional) private school, Carne, in Devon, where the ageing teachers drink the finest port, bitch about each other and lament the country going to the dogs, where the pupils are schooled in how to speak snob, how to identify plebs at a hundred paces and how to put servants in their place. Some of the parents and even (gasp!) masters are, to be perfectly frank, old boy, not quite up to snuff, if you know what I’m saying. One of them (it turns out to be the crux of the plot) went to grammar school! How ghastly!! The opening pages set the tone of the school and its pupils:

‘Mrs Rode’s quite decent, though – homely in a plebby sort of way…’ [pupil speaking]

‘He says emotionalism is only for the lower classes…] [pupil speaking]

‘My Pater says he’s queer.’ [pupil speaking]

Mr Terence Fielding, senior housemaster of Carne, gave himself some more port and pushed the decanter wearily to his left. (p.4)

‘What was his regiment, Terence, do you know?’ (p.5)

‘He’d never seen a game of rugger before he came here, you know. They don’t play rugger at grammar schools – it’s all soccer.’ (p.6)

‘I’m told her father lives near Bournemouth. It must be so lonely for him, don’t you think? Such a vulgar place; no one to talk to.’ (p.6)

‘The value of intelligence depends on its breeding.’ That was John Landsbury’s favourite dictum. (p.16)

‘His mother is a most cultured woman, a cousin of the Stamfords, I am told.’ (p.59)

‘I’m never sure about funerals, are you? I have a suspicion that they are largely a lower-class recreation; cherry brandy and seed-cake in the parlour… She would wear black crêpe on Sundays… Forgive me, but do the lower classes always do that?’ (p.99)

This isn’t a subtle code. The air of superiority which everyone in this tiny world gives themselves is rammed into your face from the first page. You – poor plebeian reader – are not of this exclusive world. You are admitted on sufferance.

(Maybe le Carré is satirising this world, but he is satirising it from within and is therefore implicated – in its aloofness, its petty cruelties, its unkindness, its ‘effeminate malice’ (p.55), its air of seedy failure, of moneyed stupidity, of well-dressed philistinism. His character Smiley, we know from the first novel, went to a public school and on to an Oxford college, and fusses about the right wine to drink and people’s accents and their suits.)

The plot

A teacher (sorry, master)’s wife sends a letter to an obscure Christian periodical, saying she fears her husband intends to murder her. The woman who runs the periodical single-handed happens to have worked in Intelligence during the War and ponders which of her colleagues could help out. More or less the only one left standing is George Smiley.

She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation. His natural diffidence in most practical matters was reflected in his clothes, which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him. (p.20)

What percentage of the population, I wonder, has a personal tailor? 1%? What percentage was it in 1962? More subtly mannered is the deployment of ‘for’ instead of the common English usage ‘because’. His frequent use of ‘for’ is a symptom of the Victorian prose or Biblical phraseology which le Carré is prone to slip into once he strays from direct factual description (‘For it is written, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”‘). When he wanders from action and factual description into generalising about characters or settings, le Carré is sometimes in danger of sounding portentous (‘done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress’).

Everyone is notable

Inevitably, the letter-writing master’s wife comes from a notable family – the Glastons, don’t you know – ‘Stella’s grandfather was old Rufus Glaston, a Lancashire pottery king; he and John Landsbury’s father built chapels and tabernacles in practically every village in the Midlands.’

Inevitably, Fielding the senior house-master at Carne, is brother of a chap who worked for ‘the Service’. His retirement was mentioned in The Times, dontcha know?

Inevitably, Smiley met him once at Magdalen High Table, nice chap, not quite the same calibre as his brother, dontcha know.

— In this small, privileged world, everyone knows everyone else, a connectedness which is rooted in the public school system and extends beyond it to university, into the professions and the civil service, across the Army and down into the police force (always down into the police force: Smiley et al admire the police but they’re not People Like Us.)

Inspector Rigby looked at Smiley thoughtfully over his desk, and decided that he liked what he saw. He had got around in the war and had heard a little, just a very little, of the work of George Smiley’s Service. If Ben said George Smiley was all right, that was good enough for him. (p.31)

Of course, Rigby the local policeman is himself admirable, competent, efficient, clever. The police always are in le Carré, as they always are in real life.

Strongest and best

Because everyone in these texts just is jolly bright – clever man, good man, solid man, dependable chap, one of the brightest and best. Thus Smiley, who critics sometimes refer to as some kind of everyman, is exactly the opposite: he is routinely described in the novels as ‘the strongest and the best’ (p.23), the cleverest, the cunningest, the subtlest etc. which, if you take it literally, is quite an indictment of our ruling class and its shabby, shambolic intelligence services in the 1960s and 1970s.

Old school tie

This is the same old-school-tie world which Len Deighton sets about satirising in his spy novels, which are exactly comtemporary (Deighton’s début, The Ipcress File, was published the same year as this, 1962). Deighton’s protagonist is an insubordinate, joke-making NCO – fun, creative, witty, sexy – everything Smiley is not.

Le Carré was barely 30 when these first two novels were published and yet the main characters – Smiley and the CID inspector, Mendel – are on the verge of retirement. Le Carré seems happiest writing about late middle-aged men, slow, unfit, much given to drinking whiskey at home and claret at their club, tutting over the younger generation. A world away from the smart, cool world of Deighton’s fictions.

Old man

The air of toff-ish superiority, of snobbish knowingness implicit in a lot of le Carré’s prose is brought out if you add ‘dontcha know?’ or ‘old man’ at the end of sentences describing knowledge or expertise, and imagine the speaker wearing a monocle.

The seven-five from Waterloo to Yeovil is not a popular train, but it provides an excellent breakfast, dontcha know? (p.25)

The Sawley Arms is only full at Commemoration and on St Andrew’s Day, old boy. (p.29)

The dénouement

And the woman who was murdered? Far from being a hapless victim, she turns out to have been a monster who was blackmailing the flamboyant house-master Fielding because of some indiscretion with a boy during the war, mercilessly ribbing him till he could take no more. Le Carré steers suspicion at first towards the local loony lady who hangs out in the abandoned chapel on the moors – then onto the husband (after all the wife had been warning everyone he was about to do her in). But both are red herrings. The Master did it. All is revealed when Smiley invites him to his house in Chelsea, tells him the correct version of events and, as he makes a break for it, is arrested by the solid, honest Devon copper, Rigby.

Not unlike an episode of Morse, with its revelations of malice and blackmail among the oh-so-scenic cloisters.

Related links

TV adaptation

The novel was adapted for TV by Thames Television in 1991. Le Carré adapted the book himself, and it starred Denholm Elliott as George Smiley, with Glenda Jackson, Joss Ackland, Diane Fletcher, David Threlfall and a young Christian Bale.

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Call For The Dead by John le Carré (1961)

[Smiley] hated the Press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass-media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century. Everything he admired or loved has been the product of intense individualism. (p.138)

This, John le Carré’s first novel, introduces British intelligence officer George Smiley, who will go on to appear in seven subsequent le Carré books. The first chapter gives his biography – public school, Oxford, scholarly interest in 17th century German poetry, recruitment into the intelligence service, running agents in 1930s Europe – and contrasts his unromantic, intensely intelligent and scholarly character with that of his flamboyant wife, Lady Ann Sercombe, who he surprises everyone he knows by marrying – and then who surprises no-one at all by leaving him for a glamorous Cuban racing-car driver before the novel begins.

The plot

The British Intelligence Service receives an anonymous letter pointing out that Foreign Office staffer, Samuel Fennan, was a communist party member in the 1930s. Intelligence officer George Smiley is tasked with interviewing him and gives a standard and sympathetic interrogation while they stroll round St James’s Park, and concludes by telling him he has nothing to worry about. The next day Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. Why?

With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind Fennan’s death, namely that he was murdered by an East German spy ring. Unknown to Fennan, his wife was a spy and had been copying the classified documents he brought home, then meeting with her controller to give him copies. Fennan wrote the anonymous letter accusing himself because he knew it would activate an enquiry, and call in Intelligence, at which point he would be able to air his suspicions of his wife. Following his interview with Smiley, Fennan had sent the latter a note inviting him to meet again for lunch. Presumably at this lunch he would have stated his suspicions – but someone saw him in St James’s Park with Smiley, thought (correctly) that he was about to reveal his suspicions – and murdered him.

The same person, later identified as a tall, blonde assassin, Mundt, is intruding in Smiley’s flat in Bywater Street, when Smiley arrives home after meeting Fennan’s wife. Smiley hears noises, rings the bell as if a visitor, notes the man who answers the door, makes his excuses and walks away – noting the numbers of all the cars in the street.

The CID man on loan to Smiley helps track one of these cars to a dodgy south London car salesman who, after a bit of pressure, admits to loaning out the car at regular intervals to a foreign gentleman. Smiley is inspecting the car in question in the dealer’s yard when someone attacks him savagely, beating him about the head. He comes round in hospital. A few weeks later the car salesman’s body is found in the Thames.

Throughout this time Fennan’s widow, Elsa, had claimed to Smiley that Fennan was the spy, and had been murdered by his controllers. She span an elaborate story about how Fennan was recruited on the Continent, and about his controllers, with lots of detail describing how messages were sent between them. But on closer investigation various details just don’t ring true, especially the letter from Fennan inviting Smiley to diner: why send it then kill himself? Smiley begins to suspect the wife. And when his people discover that the East German Steel Delegation was being run by a man named Dieter Frey, the pieces slot into place.

Because Smiley had himself run Frey as an agent against the Nazis during the War. Clearly he had survived the War and gone on to become an important figure in East German intelligence.

At the climax of this short novel Smiley uses his knowledge of Frey’s old procedures to send a (fake) emergency request meeting to Elsa Fenner. When she rendezvous with Frey in a crowded theatre, the latter realises it’s a set-up, that British Intelligence are on to him. He silently and shockingly strangles Elsa in the theatre, then makes his getaway through the exiting crowds and the foggy streets. But the persistent CID man tails him to a houseboat near the Lots Road power station, and it is here that Smiley meets him and, as Frey attacks and beats Mendel, charges into the fight, battering Frey and accidentally pushing him over the embankment wall into the oily, black Thames where he drowns.

Comments

All the components of le Carré’s fiction are here in this first, highly-finished novel. It is deeply imagined and eminently plausible, detailed in description of people and procedure, and agreeably jaded and world-weary in its analysis of human nature. What I didn’t like is the snobbery and the Lady Ann plotline.

Lady Ann Smiley appears in no fewer than eight le Carré novels, and the ongoing saga of his unfaithful wife follows him like a tiresome puppy. This runaway wife schtick always seemed to me too pat, too improbable – as portrayed she genuinely is too glamorous and exciting to have ever married a quiet, thoughtful nobody like Smiley – and it is a sullying of Smiley’s integrity. As if Conan Doyle tried to persuade us that Holmes had a hot little mistress on the side. It is inappropriate and not necessary. Smiley’s character, and the storylines, are better without her.

Snobbery In the early pages of the novel, as he skims through his biography, le Carré emphasises that Smiley went to an ‘unimpressive’ public school and an ‘unimpressive’ Oxford college – but the snobbery and elitism of this tiny world are present in the very need to demarcate him so much from the priviliged few who went to impressive public schools and impressive Oxford colleges. It is all part of their closed code. These people represent less that 1% of the population, and yet, to hear them talk, they are the only people who matter, they are Britain and the Empire etc. Some of the ‘best’ of them, of course, turn out very gratifyingly to have been vile traitors. (And Kim Philby’s treachery is the basis of le Carré best-known novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.) Le Carré may be satirising and condemning aspects of this tiny world – but he still speaks from inside it.

On a more superficial level, Smiley is just as comme il faut as James Bond: fastidious about eating at the ‘correct’ restaurants, and drinking the ‘correct’ wine with the ‘correct’ dish; noting the place in the elaborate class hierarchy of non-public school characters, the precise calibration of their accent, whether their trousers have a neat crease in them or not, and so on.

This book was published in 1961, just before the attack on deference and class consciousness which was, allegedly, a key achievement of that noisy decade ie we should maybe forgive its dated attitudes. Still, the continual drip-drip of the just-so restaurant and the florid chaps calling each other ‘old man’ and ‘old bean’ over the whiskey or the port, grate a little on the nerves of someone who didn’t happen to go to a public school, impressive or otherwise.

Resignation

Only a few chapters into the novel Smiley resigns. He is already portrayed as over the hill, superceded by younger, flashier men in a much-expanded Security Service and he is enraged by his boss’s attempts to smooth over the murder. Thus he conducts the majority of the investigation unofficially, with the key aid of the CID man and Guillam, who remains ‘on the inside’, and can use the Service’s resources. At the end of the novel his smooth boss – Maston – sends him a letter urbanely rejecting the resignation, understanding that he was ‘under a lot of strain’ etc etc, of course consider yourself still employed. Smiley sends back a rejection of the reinstatement and takes a flight to the south of France to be reunited with his wife. But we know he’ll be back.

Credit

Call For The Dead by John le Carré, Gollancz, 1961. Quote from the 1979 Penguin edition.

Related links

The movie

Call for the Dead was made into a movie in 1966 with the title The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring James Mason as the Smiley figure (renamed Charles Dobbs), with impressive support from Harry Andrews as the solid English copper Mendel, Simone Signoret as the spy Elsa Fennan and Maximilian Schell as the old friend-cum-spymaster Dieter Frey.

It is not a good watch because of the Mason character; instead of Lady Ann, the screenwriters have lumbered the Smiley figure with a wife half his age, and foreign, and instead of Lady Ann’s tactful absence, this woman is there whenever Mason gets home, and they have horribly intense and realistic rows.

As so often in his later films, Mason comes across as a very tortured soul and the intensity of these scenes with his unhappy young wife completely overshadow the espionage plot. The whole thing is shot in a virulent technocolour which makes everyone look as if they’ve died and been badly made up by a cheap undertaker, and, given the gloom of the characters and the constant rain and the locations in the crappy back streets of south London, it seems wildly inappropriate that the film has a bright and breezy bossa nova soundtrack.

Poster for The Deadly Affair

Poster for The Deadly Affair

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

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
Background

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

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

  • 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
 Values

  • 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
Heroes

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

  • 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.

The Russia House by John le Carré (1989)

It is the time of perestroika and glasnost. Poor ill-fated Mikhael Gorbachev is trying to modernise the great failed Soviet experiment. An Anglo-Polish emigré publisher is in Moscow for a trade fair. A strange woman approaches and asks him to take a package on behalf of the publisher whose stand is next door but who hasn’t shown up. He does. He smuggles it back to Britain. He presents it to the Security Services. And thus begins the plot of The Russia House, le Carré’s 12th novel.

Her indoors Most le Carré protagonists have sad, broken, jaded middle-aged man-of-the-world relationships with woman. Over the course of the Smiley trilogy I became weary of Smiley’s failed marriage to the absent-but-constantly-asked-about Anne. It became a tic, the tired man’s failed marriage a synecdoche – his failure in this respect, and her betrayals and infidelities in another respect, standing for the multiple betrayals and failures of the milieu, of the spying life as a whole.

There was little of this in A Perfect Spy – or rather Pym’s asides about betraying his wife Mary and the suicide of his father’s Jewish refugee mistress, Lippsie, though they recur like motifs, are swamped by the other highly coloured and varied material.

But in The Russia House with its relatively smaller cast, the periodic narrator – the Service lawyer who gives the false name of Harry – rarely reflects on the action without referring to his oh-so-doomed affair with Hannah, wife of the senior partner at his law firm, and oh the betrayals and oh her long-suffering and oh I wish he would shut up.

‘And, God help me, I think of Hannah again. He has woken the pain of her in me as if she were a brand new wound.’

This self-pitying stance, this attitude of the jaded man of the world sadly lamenting the little lady feels incredibly forced, dated and patronising:

‘Married, Harry?’
‘Not so you’d notice,’ I replied.
‘Hell does that mean.’
‘I have a wife in the country. I live in the town.’
‘Had her long?’
‘Couple of lifetimes,’ I replied. (page 134)

Posh Like all the many 20th century English writers who went to public school (how many of them didn’t?), le Carré can satirise the preposterousness of his class, but he can’t escape it. The tone strays into PG Wodehouse territory. The shabby but pukkah publisher, Barley, whom a Russian dissident has sent secret documents to, is the drunk, jaded owner of a feeble publishing house, in reality funded by his maiden aunts but he went to Harrow, dontcha know? In one scene Harry the narrator is sent to manage the aunts:

I had already squared the sainted aunts [comic reference to the dated exclamation]. Over luncheon at Rules [posh restaurant or club] I had wooed and won [Wodehouse comic hyperbole] the Lady Pandora Weir-Scott [posh], better known to Barley as the Sacred Cow [learnèd joke, geddit] on account of her High Anglican beliefs [who cares which strand of Anglicanism people belong to nowadays: the high Anglicanism is a pointer to class].

[Harry then tells her he’s authorised to award her a bursary for deserving publishers even though there are other contenders.]

‘Well I’m a bloody sight more deserving than anybody,’ [bathos of titled posh girl turning out to be rude and selfish…] Lady Pandora averred, [ironic use of high diction], spreading her elbows wide to get the last scrap out of her lobster […and comically greedy and graceless]. ‘You try running Ammerford [presumably her stately pile] on thirty thousand a year […and comically unself-aware, ignorant of her wealth and privilege].’ (p.136)

Le Carré’s narrators often satirise, in a fairly familiar way, the English upper classes. But they are part of it, they come from the same cloth, with the same assumptions, style, phraseology, in-jokes, public school fetish for games, its anti-intellectualism and, when it really matters, its well-known fondness for treachery and unreliability. In the Russia House an Old Harrovian ends up betraying his country and the surrounding posh boys Harry and Ned sympathise with him. Is anybody wonder the Americans mistrust them?

Paucity of plot Not much happens. The Soviet physicist with his ludicrous talk of changing the world may or may not die a natural death. No-one else dies or is even threatened. British publisher is approached with Russian secrets. British Secret Service coach him to go back to Russia to make direct contact with dissident physicist and get more. Publisher falls in love with physicist’s former lover and turns himself in to the Soviet authorities on condition she is not harmed. She isn’t, he disappears for a while but then reappears in his Lisbon flat where Harry meets him for an all-night chat in which the events recounted in the novel are clarified.

Traitor or not There’s a built-in limitation to the outcome of these kind of books in that it is binary: either they’re a spy or they’re not; either a traitor or loyal. In Tinker Tailor is Haydon, Bland or Esterhase a traitor? In The Perfect Spy is Pym a traitor? In The Russia House will Barley be loyal or a traitor?

I didn’t feel the slightest shred of tension, possibly because the two previous novels had covered similar ground but with much greater psychological depth and variety. By page 300 I quite wanted it to hurry up and be over. Le Carré himself seems to lose interest at the end of the book: the last 20 pages or so are disconnected fragments. The interest, in other words, isn’t in the plot, it lies elsewhere.

World-view It is, I suggest, partly in the posh but jaded, the shabby English milieu of 50-something, public-school-educated white men drinking scotch and gin in embassies and clubs, in safe houses in Hampstead and secret meeting rooms in Whitehall, the world of their cynicism and mutual loathing and their failed marriages and ungrateful children. These are not young people’s books. It is a Daily Telegraph mind-set, of retired military men who think the modern world is going to the dogs.

Pen portraits But the interest is also in le Carré’s phenomenal ability as a writer. Sometimes he’s flat and factual, but sometimes he can turn on a sixpence and conjure magic out of the air. Many pages in his books contain vivid, leaping turns of phrase; a good example is his way with quick devastating portraits of minor characters:

A burly man came tripping down the crazy-paving path to greet us. He wore a blazer of British racing green and a tie with gold squash rackets on it, and a handkerchief shoved into his cuff.
‘You’re from the Firm. Well done. I’m O’Mara…’
O’Mara had grey-blond hair and an off-hand regimental voice cracked by alcohol.His neck was puffy and his athlete’s fingers were stained mahogany with nicotine. (page 222)

There was a knock at the door and Wintle came in, an eternal student of fifty-seven. He was tall but crooked, with a curly grey head that shot off at an angle, and an air of brilliance almost extinguished. He wore a sleeveless Fair Isle pullover, Oxford bags and moccasins. He sat with his knees together and held his sherry glass away from him like a chemical retort he wasn’t sure of. (page 223)

I had to Google Fair Isle pullover and Oxford bags to find out what they were. I suspect they were old-fashioned in the 1980s of loadsamoney and the Stock market Big Bang. Now they’re getting on for needing footnotes, like a lot else in the novels.

Anti-Americanism This is the first of his novels where Americans play a major part and le Carré’s characters pour various forms of scorn on them. They have money the Brits can’t dream of, technology we can’t afford, and it is no surprise when they pretty much take over our contact, our case and our man. And inevitable that they prompt snideness and awe and resentment in the British characters.

… the American interlopers… They wore navy blazers and short hair, and they had a Mormon cleanliness that I found slightly revolting… I looked again at the new Americans, so slight, so trim, so characterless… (page 218)

The implication being that we Brits are the opposite: scruffy, hairy, unshaven, ramshackle and stuffed full of character, which generally seems to mean knowing the rules of cricket and being a drunk. O’Mara and Wintle stand as good examples of the Brits; Bob, Cy, Sheriton and Brady standing for the can-do, gung-ho, over-confident Americans. But our Old Harrovian betrays them too.

Credit

The Russia House by John le Carré, published in 1989 by Hodder & Stoughton. All quotes from the 1990 Coronet paperback edition.

The movie

The novel was swiftly turned into a movie, directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer and released in 1990. Apparently it was one of the first movies to be shot on location in the newly ex-communist Russia.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré (1986)

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré is a marvellous, overflowing cornucopia of a novel, crammed with hilarious characters, wonderful insights and amazingly flexible, resourceful prose.

Plot The scaffold is a spy story, a thriller: Magnus Pym, model family man, good chap and manager of Eastern bloc agents from the decent safety of the British Embassy in Vienna, his father dies and so he returns to Blighty for the funeral. And disappears. Cue panic in Vienna, then London, spooks turning up to interview the distraught wife and the innocent son at boarding school, meanwhile the American cousins begin to suspect something’s up and maybe they’ve got yet another English traitor on their hands…

But in fact Pym hasn’t defected to Moscow; he has holed up in an out-of-season boarding house on the Devon coast where he sets to feverishly writing the story of his life, an autobiography which, as it proceeds, makes abundantly clear the psychological and personal experiences which led Pym into spying, a wandering text which is sometimes addressed to wife, Mary, sometimes to son, Tom, sometimes to colleague and recruiter Jack.

The outrageous father And central to these memoirs and to the whole book, and to the rip-roaring sense of ebullience which distinguishes it from his previous books, is the scandalously larger-than-life character of Pym’s father, the outrageous confidence trickster, con man, wide boy, devoted parent, lifelong bankrupt and king of a wandering court of hacks, cronies, spivs, dodgy lawyers and biddable ‘Lovelies’, Richard T Pym, universally known as Rick.

The Style is very confident – this is le Carré ‘s 11th novel and he has the skill and ability to turn sentences on sixpence, to move perspective or timezone in a few words, so that blocks of action interpenetrate or overlap creating a pleasurably dense fabric of multiple time frames. As a handful of days pass at Pym’s hideout, panic stricken interviews are taking place in Vienna, London and Washington, but at the same time Pym’s memoir is flashing back to events from his childhood onwards; and these multiple levels are woven with delicious skill.

Le Carré uses Thriller Standard, short, punchy sentences stripped of qualifiers:

The room is low and windowless and overlit. A uniformed guard mans the peephole. Spaced along the wall sit Frankel’s greying female assistants at their trestle desks. They have brought Thermos flasks and share each others’ cigarettes. They have done it all before, like a day at the races. Frankel is fat and ugly, a Latvian headwaiter. Brotherhood recruited him, Brotherhood promoted him, now he was taking over Brotherhood’s mess. So it goes. It is three in the morning. It is today, six hours ago. (page 215)

There are numerous pin-sharp pen profiles:

Syd Lemon was a tiny, thickset old man, these days, dressed all in brown like a rabbit. His brown hair, without a fleck of grey, was parted down the centre of his skull. His brown tie had horses heads looking doubtfully at his heart. He wore a trim brown cardigan and pressed brown trousers and his brown toecaps shone like conkers. From amid a maze of sun-baked wrinkles two bright animal eyes shone merrily, though his breath came hard to him. He carried a blackthorn stick with a rubber ferrule, and when he walked he swung his little hips like a skirt to get himself along. (page 505)

Surely as good as Dickens, as vivid, as perceptive, with just the right proportion of simile to lift and glow the crisp factuality. There is much more simile, metaphor and perceptive throwaway phrasing in this book than in his previous ones. He lets himself go more, to wonderful affect on page after page.

McGuffin Rick with his endless escapades, ever more outrageous scams, floating population of willing Lovelies and regular court of rogues and reprobates, is the Falstaff who brings the novel alive. There is a very basic level of suspense while we read Pym’s memoirs as he details his life in chronological order and wait to find out whether he truly is the spy London and Washington fear… The answer only comes around page 500 of this 600-page book and, in one way, didn’t matter much at all: I just wanted the Rick’s larger-than-life personality, and Pym’s strange mystification at his own odd life to continue.

Autobiography The short biography le Carré uses in his books cheerfully describes his education at private school, in Berne and Oxford, before going on to work for the Foreign Service and this exactly the career of the fictional Pym. In addition, his Wikipedia entry openly describes his rapscallion father who moved in various criminal milieux exactly as Rick does in the novel. It seems fair to think this is a very autobiographical text though obviously filtered and reversioned for the purposes of fiction.

The Implied Author is the point of view or character or mindset or mental and verbal habits which such a long text creates, or which we the readers create form the text. A few points are worth noting:

  • Public school Pym/le Carré ‘s public school upbringing makes him most confident dealing with this stratum of England’s jolly class system: in previous books Smily, obviously, and the clubland he moves in; Jerry Westerby the ‘honourable schoolboy’; even Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl, all the protagonists come from the 5% of the population which was privately educated and can’t help looking down on the poor unfortunate 95% who didn’t.
  • Foreign But le Carré Pym’s significant spell studying abroad, learning German to a high level, allows him to see the ridiculousness of the very class he belongs to: its primness, narrow-mindedness, prudishness, and the bumbling amateurishness which runs through all the books. le Carré effortlessly places Britishness in a wider international context which gives us readers the sense that, yes, we too are at home in foreign capitals, swanky hotels, speaking various languages, knowing about fancy wines and women.
  • Sex And Pym/le Carré are more explicit about sex than the average public school author tends to be. As Sabina says, “You are English, you are hommsexual,” and upper-class homosexuality was for the Victorian period and well into the 20th century the caricature of the stiff, repressed, sexually clumsy Englishman abroad. At the start of the novel his wife Mary, starts to fondly Pym through his trousers immediately after they’ve hosted a dinner party; and then Mary’s character changes after Pym disappears and his boss Jack Brotherhood shows up and we realise Mary was Brotherhood’s mistress until Pym arrived: and at various further points she fantasises about propositioning other men; all in a way I found a) unlikely, based on the  posh, very tightly-wrapped upper class women I’ve met; b) foreign. le Carré writes about English women as if they are free and easy in the Continental way, and in an unabashed way about sex which is not English, certainly not the pukkah public school English of the class he mostly, but not always, inhabits.

This wavering between (maybe an academic would call it ‘exploration of’) countries and cultures, loyalties, affections, classes and styles, is what lifts le Carré above the thriller or spy genre, into something richer and more interesting.

This is a really good book. If you only read one le Carré novel, this is the one.

Credit

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré, published 1986 by Hodder & Stoughton. All quotes from the 1987 Penguin paperback edition.

The TV series

The book was swiftly turned into a BBC TV adaptation starring Peter Egan.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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