Absolute Friends by John le Carré (2004)

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

For three quarters of its length this is the best, the most compelling, gripping and psychologically rewarding le Carré novel for years: for excitement and plausibility I would recommend this one over all its predecessors as far back as A Perfect Spy. It is a return to the full-blown world of Cold War spying, but now continued on into the more uncertain, violent and scary post-9/11 world and also, for the first time in his fiction, gives a real sense of age and frailty and remorse.

Then bizarrely, right at the end, the narrative turns into a rant against George Bush, Tony Blair and the US invasion of Iraq, our heroes get assassinated by the wicked, imperialist Americans and the whole thing is covered up in a finale that’s reminiscent of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, only without the wit or style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like yet another channeling of le Carré’s own life story. Like the author, the main protagonist Ted Mundy is brought up by a braggart father – this version is a British Army Major who stays on into post-Independence Pakistan, all bristling patriotism and military lingo, his mother having died in childbirth. When his father is cashiered from the Army in the 1950s, young Ted returns with him to grey, rainy England and, like the young JLC, is packed off to a succession of boarding schools which he hates, before – exactly like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional instance, to Berlin (le Carré went to study in Basel in Switzerland).

As with A Perfect Spy, the closer le Carré is to his own life, the more grounded the text and the language feel. Granted the entire childhood in Pakistan, the food and Muslim prayers and Urdu words for things, are not directly autobiographical but the product of research – nonetheless, the character’s feelings of being puzzled, isolated, seeking escape from a childhood world which is both smothering and the only support he knows, are powerfully conveyed and give the novel more psychological conviction than its four or five predecessors.

The plot

At Oxford Ted had taken a lover (le Carré heroes are never short of women, they luxuriate in an atmosphere of sustained sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is one of the defining characteristics of these books).

Strident young Ilse introduces him to sex and radical politics, packing him off to Berlin with a letter of introduction to the city’s top student radical, Sasha (we never learn his last name).

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

Here we come to one of le Carré’s most irritating mannerisms – the way so many of his protagonists are in awe of super-famous, notorious, legendary figures. Thus everyone in Berlin knows Sasah, just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel, everyone in the City knew ‘Tiger’ Single, and so on and so on.

Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but, again, like all le Carré leading men, the smirking ‘conqueror’ of numberless women – as well as being the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

It’s rather a relief that, for the first time in five or six novels, the books features scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary and/or what total rotters each other are, in that insufferably self-congratulatory public school way.

Indeed, the scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped no end by being set among foreigners who don’t end each sentence ‘old boy’, and therefore sound like normal people, not the self-regarding ‘legends’ of Eton or Harrow or Shrewsbury who populate his other post-1990s novels.

Ted enjoys free sex with, inevitably, the most beautiful and aloof of the many beautiful young women in the squat. All women in le Carré novels are young and beautiful and carefree, personally I find this thread rather creepy.

They go sticking up posters calling for the workers to overthrow the system etc, and then there’s a big demonstration in which 6-foot-tall Ted a) rescues Sasha from a beating by the police b) is himself arrested, soundly beaten, handed over to the British Consulate and deported.

Time passes during which Ted does not resume his degree at Oxford but tries various life experiments and the narrative gives a good sense of the confidence and open horizons so many people experienced in the early 1970s.

Ted teaches at schools (inevitably he has affair with one of the other master’s wives), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (obviously has an affair with a painter’s wife), tries his hand as a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, before drifting back to London and getting a homely little job at the British Council.

He also lowers his sexual sights from artists and free spirits and falls in love with a practical young woman, Kate, teacher in a local state school (that is, not a fee-paying boarding school – crikey, there are a few around, apparently) who also happens to be an activist in the local Labour Party.

In his new British Council role Ted is tasked with accompanying a youth theatre group across north Europe and then around the Eastern bloc countries. This meandering account all leads up to the seismic moment when Ted is hailed by Sasha backstage in an Eastern European capital. Yes, Sasha, Sasha from the old days in the Berlin commune!

Quickly Sasha makes a rendezvous with Ted at which he tells the incredulous Englishman what’s happened to him in the decade since the glory years in Berlin. Briefly, he was lured by radical colleagues to cross the Wall into the East where he was at first interrogated and grilled in the notorious ‘White Hotel’ interrogation centre, and then, finally, rehabilitated, on condition that he became a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

Now, by the time of this backstage meeting with Ted, Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as ‘red fascists’. He has begun copying incriminating documents and building up an archive of the State’s criminality against the long-awaited day, far in the future, when the communist regime will collapse. And then he was amazed to see his old friend Ted’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha tells Ted he wants to spy for the West. He has access to files and documents and information all of which he will give to the West, for nothing, just out of anger and hatred of the regime. Ted doesn’t know what to think, and has the latest of many out-of-body experiences he has throughout the novel whenever he finds himself out of his depth. However, Sasha stipulates that he will only hand these goodies over to Ted, in person, no-one else. To manage this, Sasha explains, to cement their bond, Ted must offer himself as a spy to his Stasi masters. This will provide the perfect excuse for their meetings.

Ted becomes a spy

Sasha even explains to Ted who to get in touch with when he gets back to the West, a drawling, upper-class Intelligence officer in West Berlin, Nicholas Amory, who becomes his case officer. Ted now undergoes training in a) how to collect Sasha’s information b) how to present himself as a candidate for recruitment by the Stasi, not being too earnest, playing hard to get, then ultimately giving in and agreeing to become a double agent.

This central part of the novel is familiar territory for le Carré, but fascinating nonetheless. His classic spy novels from the 1960s and 70s emphasised the human cost of the trade and this is no different. Ted has married Kate and they have a young son, Jake, but all of them find it wearing to cope with Ted’s more and more frequent trips to Eastern Europe, ostensibly attending conferences promoting British Culture, but in every instance a) pretending to the Stasi that he has vital espionage material to feed Sasha b) in fact collecting and transporting back Sasha’s top secret information to his British handlers.

The narrative makes a deal out of the multiple versions of himself Ted has to navigate: Mundy One, his ‘true self’, Mundy Two the British spy, Mundy Three the pretend Stasi spy. Throw in playing the roles of good father and dutiful husband, and you have a very confused public schoolboy, who wishes he could just go and play cricket. I found the narrative’s portrayal of this slightly hallucinatory sense of managing multiple selves very convincing.

Amidst all the spying Ted is introduced by Amory to a tall, shaggy, comfortable American, who interviews him in depth over a number of days, and who he grows to like, one Orville J. Rourke (‘call me Jay’), whose dear old mother, like Ted’s, is of Irish descent.

Then, one day, Jay disappears, without a goodbye or anything. Amory explains to Ted that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (i.e. the CIA) and passed clean. Good for him.

Over the years Ted and Kate drift apart. She finds herself promoted within the Labour Party and put forward as the PLP candidate for her home town of Doncaster, which requires her to move up there, along with Jake. Because of his work Ted remains in London, and is often abroad anyway. The inevitable happens and, some years later, they have a summit meeting where Kate announces she’s leaving him, for a shadowy man in the background, Philip, something to do with the shiny New Labour Project.

(Le Carré, who gives every sign of loathing Tony Blair, is heavily sarcastic about Kate and her steady rise in the New Labour hierarchy).

What rings most true from these sequences is Ted’s heartfelt sorrow at missing out on his son’s childhood, sadly meeting up with the teenage Jake and realising he is a stranger to him.

Then one day they all find themselves watching on TV the Berlin Wall being hammered to the ground, while the East German police look on in bemusement. Ted has a moment of concern for his friend Sasha, liable to be lynched by the mob in the anti-Stasi reprisals; and then panic for himself, as he realises his own Stasi file, proclaiming him a communist spy, might be published. But it doesn’t happen…

The present

All le Carré’s post-Cold War novels start in media res, i.e. in the middle of the complete sequence of events they describe. After establishing the situation in ‘the present’, they then go back to explain the often long and convoluted backstories which led up to this moment. Thus Absolute Friends opens soon after the Allied invasion of Iraq (March to May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again and explains everything I’ve just summarised in a flashback.

Having lost his family in England around the same time the Cold War ended and his career as a spy came to an abrupt end, Ted has returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

So as ‘the present’ of the novel opens, this school has shut down, bankrupted by the (possibly) criminal activities of Ted’s business partner Egon, and Ted has drifted down to Munich, where he has fluked a job as an English-speaking tour guide to one of the castles of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, giving chummy, unfunny lectures to bemused tourists.

He has also fallen in love with a poor Muslim immigrant, Zara, who approached him one night in a bar offering to prostitute herself. The decent public schoolboy and soldier’s son in him turns this down and insists on buying her a nutritious dinner. She explains that she is the victim of an arranged marriage made back in Pakistan to a man who turned out to be a crook and wife beater, and who smashed out her front teeth among other assaults, before being arrested and sent to prison. Now she prostitutes herself to support her proud little son, Mustafa.

Ever one for a lost cause (and leaking a fair bit of sentimentality), Ted becomes Zara’s protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart a jolly decent chap, an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the reason why le Carré had his protagonist born and raised in Pakistan. It makes him sympathetic to Muslim culture, it makes him ready to be taken along by Zara and Mustafa to their impoverished mosque in the backstreets of Munich, it contributes to his anger at the short-sighted stupidity of the Allies for invading Iraq on a trumped-up pretext.

But despite the naked contrivance of all this, the actual descriptions of Ted’s childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving.

Above all, it is a relief not to be among the braying diplomats and their bitchy wives who have dominated JLC’s past few novels. It feels a little bit like actual modern life, in its poverty and anxiety and multi-cultural confusion. And it feels like an achievement for le Carré to have reached beyond the bubble of his age and class and grasped that.

The counter-university

And so all this brings us to the final act. Out of the blue Ted gets a letter from his old comrade in arms, Sasha, who makes his third great interference in Ted’s life. This time, when they meet, Sasha introduces him to a mad new scheme: there is a secretive billionaire who is so incensed at the West’s invasion of Iraq, and by the stranglehold the new, more virulent military-industrial complex is exerting over all aspects of Western media, culture and education, that he has a magic plan at hand – he wants to set up a Counter-University, which will provide a safe space for voices speaking out against the Complex, where alternative discourses and theories can flourish.

Sasha drives Ted out to an aircraft-hanger sized barn in the countryside outside Munich, where they transfer to a 4-by-4 driven by a stern female operative, and then up hill and through a maze of forests and valleys to a remote mansion.

It is like a James Bond lair, immaculate and clean in every detail, and Sasha leaves Ted to be processed by several sets of slick young receptionists and security guards before being admitted to the vast room of Mr Big, who turns out to be a tracksuited, twinkly old man of 70, who gives his name as Dimitri and delivers a long monologue about the evils of the US military-industrial complex. He outlines his plans to set up the Counter-University and even produces a reading list of the kinds of books they should be teaching, a list which could come straight from the pages of the Guardian:

  • Naomi Klein
  • Arundhati Roy
  • George Monbiot
  • Mark Curtis
  • John Pilger
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Susan George

I’ve read articles or books by all of these authors and even attended lectures by some of them (Klein, Stiglitz). I am broadly sympathetic to their views, but I found le Carré’s decision to promote their views via the mouth of a wizened, old James Bond-style villain, bizarre.

‘I am speaking of something even more important to the development of western society than the ballot box. I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or State manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor fuck of a student.’ (p.276)

In the fiction, Ted is driven back to his flat where he agrees the whole deal with Sasha. However, Ted is not that naive and the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, only to find it full of farm equipment, and then continues up to the James Bond mansion in the forest, only to find it stripped and bare. Spooky!

Stumbling back through the woods he is aggressively captured by a large force of armed and trigger-happy Austrian security police, stripped, hooded, bundled into a jeep and interrogated before it all comes to a halt with the reappearance of Jay, the CIA man from years before.

Jay reveals to Ted that they have their eyes on Dimitri and have traced his money back to Riyadh. The Saudis. Muslims, Ted. Has it crossed Ted’s mind that Dimitri might not be a peace-loving philanthropist but part of the new web of anti-Western terrorists spreading around the world?

Ted is cleaned up and dropped home where he is paid another visit by his old MI6 minder Nick Amory. For the first time since Ted’s known him, Nick is himself at a loss and puzzled. He reveals MI6’s uncertainty about Dimitri’s background and motives: is it to found a grand new liberal university in the venerable university city of Heidelberg? Or is that the facade for some evil ‘spectacular’ like blowing the city up?

And Nick tells Ted that Jay is no longer with ‘the Company’ i.e. the CIA: he’s been a freelancer, advising big US corporations for four years or more. So whose interests does he have at heart? Ted is right to feel confused, and the reader along with him. Thirty pages from the end Ted loads Zara and Mustafa onto a plane back to Turkey, to attend her sister’s wedding, glad to have them out of the way of whatever happens next.

The big shoot-out

What happens next is Ted drives to the big, empty school building where he’s made an appointment to meet Sasha. Sasha is late. After a few drinks, Ted takes a jemmy and opens the crates of books which have started arriving as preparation for the big new university and are piled up in the big main hall.

Sure enough, he finds lots of books on philosophy etc, but then… some on how to make home-made bombs, tips on arson, and then some crates full of hand grenades and guns. Oh. OK. In a very cinematic moment he sits back in the armchair in the big unlit atrium of the schoolhouse staring at the pile of cracked-open crates in utter silence, wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.

Then he hears the moan of a motor car, a screech of brakes and all hell breaks loose – the doors and windows are smashed in by black-clad US Special Forces firing machine guns in all directions and letting off small explosions. Ted runs to the stairs and stumbles up them despite being hit in the leg and shoulder. He makes it up to the attic where he swings open the skylight, looking down into the road in time to see Sasha being shot to pieces outside. At which point half a dozen SWAT troops burst into the attic followed by a balaclava-ed, tall, shaggy guy with a smooth Boston accent – God, it’s Jay! – who takes careful aim with a sniper’s rifle and shoots Ted through the head.

The cover-up

Exactly as in The Constant Gardener a) the hero is killed by the forces of evil b) le Carré embarks on an elaborate explanation of how a completely fictional cover story is manufactured by the State and media c) one good man speaks out in a bid to tell the truth but is stifled.

So official sources give out that US forces only just managed to prevent a major terrorist atrocity right in the heart of Germany. Huge stockpiles of ammunition and guides to terrorism were seized and two of the hardened terrorists shot dead but not before an intense firefight. Ted’s life is completely rewritten to make him look like an embittered loser who has turned to Islamic radicalism (even marrying one of them, godammit!) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasi spy and failed radical. So much for the cover-up.

We go on to learn that Dimitri was a conman and actor hired to deceive both Sasha and Ted, who has taken a big payoff and retired to the States. We learn that Zara was arrested on arrival in Ankara and is being tortured until she corroborates the official story. We learn that a high-ranking British official published a ‘true’ account of Mundy’s life on an anonymous website (this would be Nick Amory), an account which was comprehensively rubbished by the powers-that-be and gullible journalists who, in le Carré’s view, are always easily impressed by the glamorous world of ‘intelligence’.

And the motive behind this elaborate and murderous scam? Germany had refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which invaded Iraq. This entire incident and the deaths of Sasha and Ted were engineered to terrify German public opinion, helped along by paid articles from America-friendly journalists, designed to bring pressure to bear on the German Chancellor to fall into line with US foreign policy, with the American military-industrial hyperpower which, in le Carré’s view, has gone mad, and is undermining the whole world.

A spot of biography

Le Carré’s father, on the evidence of his own interviews and the recent biography of him, was a world class con-man, who gathered round him gangs of collaborators and conspirators who all agreed with the Chief and supported his mad schemes. Within this small world, tightly knit together by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy John all the adult characters around him seemed larger than life figures, with superhuman qualities.

This sense of a small, claustrophobic world in which everyone is a legend to everyone else is one of the hallmarks of le Carré’s fiction. A Perfect Spy is a great novel because it has the force of a barely fictionalised recap of le Carré’s odd childhood. The same sense of a magic circle of large-than-life characters is strongly felt in Single & Single where the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single lords it over his gang, and also in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator of le Carré’s fictions is always an interloper into these secret worlds, an outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma, who ends up overturning them. Thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays his slick arms dealer chief.

As part of his odd childhood, young le Carré was packed off to a series of boarding schools where he encountered another self-enclosed, self-regarding world full of ‘legendary’ masters and ‘fabled’ young stars of the cricket pitch or concert hall or whatever.

From which he progressed to Oxford University, also notorious for promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status.

And then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (another institution not shy of turning its masters and pupils into legends) on to the Intelligence Service, another inward-looking organisation, also not slow to lionise its leading lights, such as good old Kim Philby, solid chap.

This background of a whole series of cliqueish little worlds full of people telling each other how terrific they are, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which consistently concerns itself with small groups of figures who all regard each other as legends and stars.

The Constant Gardener is ostensibly about criminality in the worldwide pharmaceutical industry and takes the hero (the Old Etonian Justin Quayle) from Africa to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and back in his quest for the truth. But in his mind he never leaves – and the narrative never really shakes free from – the small number of People Like Us in the Nairobi High Commission where we first meet him, their secrets and lies, all conveyed in dialogue dripping with the privileged slang and superior attitude of their gilded circle.

Use of the word ‘our’ in the fiction of John le Carré

Thus, in these later novels, all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’, larger-than-life super-characters who simply everyone knows, darling. This verbal habit is like a chummy arm round the shoulder of the reader pushing you to buy into these cliquey circles, an over-familiar embrace which le Carré’s many fans eagerly welcome or don’t notice, but which this reader, for one, coldly resists.

It also explains why le Carré has a funny relationship with the word ‘our’. ‘Our’ is a ‘possessive determiner’ (according to linguistics) which, when used factually, simply conveys that something belongs to two or more people, one of whom is me. Our car, our house, our country.

But in le Carré’s hands it is used in a number of ways to compel the reader into the myth-making world of his ‘legendary’ characters, to pressure the reader into seeing things his, and their, way, to acquiescing in their overblown heroic status and the generally bombastic mind-set which surrounds them.

Thus JLC characters are regularly over-sold as ‘our’ hero this, ‘our very own’, ‘our dear old’ so and so. I noticed it prominently throughout this text:

… our own dear Neville Chamberlain… our beloved British monarchy… Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator… our poor King Ludwig… our recently appointed misanthrope…

It is part of the general tone of smothering, over-familiar, hugger-muggerness, the sense that you are being jostled and coerced into a gang of upper-class twits who you would normally cross the road to avoid, which can make reading his novels feel more like an endurance test than a pleasure.

He uses the word ‘our’ to do a number of things:

1. To be vastly patronising – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148) conveys a sense that ordinary people like the Queen but you and I, dear boy, ha ha, we are so much more sophisticated and worldly wise, eh.

2. Appropriating historical or eminent figures to our cause or discourse, while simultaneously looking down on them – ‘our poor King Ludwig..’ (p.18)

3. To pour scorn and derision on political leaders – ‘Bush and Blair, our two great war leaders…’

4. To show how superior one is to history by mocking it – ‘When our Dear Führer came to power..’ (p.75) ‘… our dear Führer’s old Olympic stadium..’ (p.147) ‘our gallant British forces liberating the imperilled Suez Canal..’ (p.255)

5. To conceal anger beneath mockery – ‘As a young woman she [Sasha’s mother] was of course repeatedly raped by our victorious Russian liberators’ (p.78) Referring to the Stasi interrogation centre in East Germany as ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)

6. To puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior upper class drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’; one of the teenage actors is described as ‘Lexham, our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)

7. Loftily mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)

8. Normal, standard use of ‘our’, striking for its rarity – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)

9. ‘Our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – Kate’s working class, northern father always refers to her as ‘our Kate’ (p.204)

10. Most of all for a self-mocking exaggeration of his own characters, as if the whole novel is a witty in-joke among public school People Like Us:

  • Ulrike our moral angel, our leading leftist, high priestess of the Alternative Life… (p.83)
  • Sasha our charismatic orator, our coming man for the leader’s throne, our Quasimodo of the social genesis of knowledge… (p.90)
  • Sasha our charismatic Socrates.. (p.119)
  • Sasha the great double agent (p.264)

This kind of pompous, overblown, superior, knowing mockery stands in for analysis throughout the book. What underlies all its forms is the breezily arrogant superiority of the true public school article, the upper-class disdain for the ordinary view, for normal phrasing, for anything which isn’t detached and ironised.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name a character, but repeatedly to blow him up to mock-heroic proportions. We see and hear a lot of Ted’s thoughts and actions, but the narrator also overblows and mocks him in a series of comic, third-person cartoons as if he was a cardboard cutout of a human being:

  • First thing in the morning the chaste English boarding-school boy and as yet unbruised recruit to the cause of world liberation springs forth from his field bed… (p.71)
  • The good soldier is not fazed… The aspiring novelist likes to spread his notebook… (p.72)
  • ‘Ted Mundy, life’s eternal apprentice…’ (p.100)
  • ‘The former head prefect and cricketing hero signs up with a rural preparatory school…’ (p.106)

Why describe a character’s emotions when you can big him up with bombastic, if self-mocking, grandiosity? This mockery owes more to P.G. Wodehouse than the thriller tradition.

Endless comparisons to boarding school

So many English public school-educated writers seem never to escape their childhood, with the result that almost everything around them reminds them of their dear old alma mater:

  • Teddy tends to announce himself ‘in his best head prefect voice.’ (p.63)
  • Life in Berlin begins ‘for the chaste English boarding-school boy.’ (p.71)
  • Those students who don’t leave the squat in summer are ‘like uncollected children in a boarding school.’ (p.73)
  • When Ted meets his MI6 controller, his first thought is ‘whether Amory is one of the prefects who beat him in the washroom.’ (p.97)
  • As he starts his career as a spy, Ted is so scared ‘it’s like opening the bowling for the public schools at Lords every time…’ (p.225)
  • ‘To Mundy they look more like cricket umpires than removal men.’ (p.331)
  • When he puts her on the plane to Turkey, Zara clings so tight to Mundy, that ‘he imagines she is his daughter and he is sending her off to boarding school against her will.’ (p.345)

Is that really the most powerful comparison the text can think up for a terrified woman clinging to her only security in the world? This continual drawing of the wider world back into the bubble of upper-class English public school experiences, slang and attitudes, has a reductive effect on the imagination. Although the narrative travels widely across Europe and tells you it is taking in the world-spanning implications of the American military-industrial complex, it is fighting a losing battle against the narrowing impact of the le Carré’s relentlessly public school and cricket mindset.

The big issue

Belatedly, I realised that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geopolitical ‘Issue’. (It reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s early plan to write a novel about each of the vices, starting with Hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit and then Pride in Dombey and Son, before he quietly dropped his plan.) Thus each of the novels deals with a Big Topic:

  • The Night Manager – the international arms trade
  • Our Game – not clear
  • The Tailor of Panama – US intervention in Latin America
  • Single & Single – City institutions laundering money for the wicked (Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower (America) run riot

The big issue which this long fiction leads up to is the alleged stranglehold on Western culture, education and media exercised by a new, all-pervading and toxic American military-industrial complex.

‘If you tell a big lie long enough everyone will believe it,’ le Carré has Sasha yell at Ted – ‘and then anybody who speaks out against it can be labelled mad.’

Dimitri has a long speech about the evil of Bush and Blair, the wickedness of their war, the stifling of free speech. Ted nods his acquiescence.

Does it matter that a thriller contains or ends on some kind of political message? Not necessarily, no.

Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels contain references throughout to the wickedness of the East German state, without denting the novels’ plausibility because the thought is integrated into the narrative.

Similarly, Robert Harris’ terrifying bestseller Fatherland contains harrowing indictments of the Nazi régime, but the indictment is wholly integrated into the plot, and the seamlessness of that integration is a large part of the reason it is so satisfying as a novel.

Martin Cruz Smith’s novels manage to be very exciting but at the same time to shed fascinating light on the repressive nature of the countries and systems he is depicting (Russia, Cuba).

Even a comedy like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt On High can end on a page-long diatribe against the madness of nuclear weapons and not be damaged by it because it arises naturally out of the plot (and is all the more effective because Sharpe and his character Wilt are, on the whole, right wing and ridicule lefty politics so their anger is all the more impactful).

But it fails in this novel because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was already angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes bananas after the invasion of Iraq. Just before this novel was published he wrote an opinion piece in the Times newspaper, The United States of America Has Gone Mad (link below) which I found embarrassing in its strident simple-mindedness.

If I was Arundhati, George, Naomi and all the rest, I would be flattered to be namechecked in a John le Carré novel, but also embarrassed at the guileless shoutiness of the context.

At key moments, and their central points, all these books lack analytical intelligence. Emotional depth? Often. Colourful ability with language? Yes (if much given to bombast and exaggeration). Cunning plotlines? Certainly. The artful creation of multi-levelled timeframes? Emphatically yes.

But when a character has to explain the exact geopolitical crux, the issue firing the whole narrative, the great wrong which must be understood – time and again JLC gives the speech to a drunk, bombastic, over-the-top or imbecile character: to the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, to the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, to the ridiculously implausible ‘Dimitri’ in Absolute Friends.

It is revealing that the first two characters are bigged up to ‘legendary’ status – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – because in these crux scenes le Carré doesn’t analyse (let alone dramatise): he creates a loud, shouty character and effectively says, ‘Look everybody – this guy is really famous and really clever and he thinks it’s a bad thing, so you should, too.’

It’s also dismayingly characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot as if swearing guarantees the truth o what’s being sworn about:

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle…’ (Jonah, Tailor of Panama, p.290)

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

Instead of subtle and understated analysis, le Carré has the key explanations of the big theme of each of his post-Cold War novels delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

What’s ultimately so dismaying and demoralising isn’t what le Carré is saying, it’s its complete unoriginality: when you read the long speeches the characters are given telling you that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that the Bush presidency was electorally invalid, that Tony Blair shamelessly sucked up to George Dubya for nothing, that the hysteria around the War on Terror was cranked up by the corporate-owned media in order to boost the profits of the arms industry, and so on – who among le Carré’s liberal readership is going to disagree with any of this?

Like all his readers I know al this already because I read about it in the papers all the time. I just don’t care very much because:

a) There is nothing I can do about it.
b) It is the way of the world. Which war in the past 150 years wasn’t good for the arms industry? Which British Prime Minister of the last sixty years hasn’t sucked up to an over-mighty America?
c) That was then. Things have moved on a lot since 2004.

Either le Carré’s arguments should be made much more forensically, analytically, dispassionately, and zero in on precise wrong-doings; or they should be woven much more cannily into the narrative (à la Robert Harris’s much more canny novels). But they do neither and feel too simple minded to be effective, too bolted onto the main plot to have as much dramatic impact as they should.

The combined effect, in this novel especially, is to make le Carré’s views look childish and shallow.

My little pony

I have a bet with my son that every post-Cold War le Carré novel will contain a reference to a private school character having a little pony. In his previous three novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies or of competing in the local gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama, Quayle finds a photo of Tessa’s first pony in The Constant Gardener).

Disappointingly, the main character in Absolute Friends does not have a my-little-pony memory but… the receptionist at the Bedford Square house where Ted goes to see his back-up team during his spying days, is ‘a jolly girl called Laura with freckles and a pony club smile’ (p.210).

So I’m still just about winning my bet. I just need there to be a pony reference in his last four novels and I win a pound.


Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All page references are to the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing 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 trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary Larry Pettifer who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia – and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma – in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically ‘the Orlov brothers’ from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar except there was no terrorist. Instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

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?


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.


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.


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.


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)
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