John le Carré, who died Sunday at the age of 89, was the author who dragged spy fiction out of the fantasyland of James Bond and gave it back to the professionals.
Le Carré, real name David Cornwell, had worked in British intelligence before he became a published author, and while he never claimed that the gray, unromantic world of espionage that he created was realism, he certainly made it seem so to his readers. For le Carré did not just write thrillers. He wrote the only spy novels of the last century that can be called literature, which is to say, books that outlive the time in which they were written.
Over the course of a very long career, beginning in 1961 with Call for the Dead and culminating in 2019 with Agent Running in the Field, le Carré wrote books that drew their plots, locations, and predicaments from all over the globe. He ranged from Central America to the Middle East, and wrote about arms dealers, terrorists, and the machinations of Big Pharma. But the books for which he will be remembered are those featuring George Smiley, the short, pudgy, myopic fixture at England’s MI6, or the Circus, to use the made-up nickname le Carré invented for it.
Smiley appears in le Carré’s first novel and his last but one, but the books in which he features front and center, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People, are the ones people remember, because they were among the best stories le Carré ever wrote. Together with The Honourable Schoolboy, the book that separates the first two and in which Smiley also appears as a more peripheral character, they compose a trilogy that still serves as the best literary recreation of the Cold War yet written.
Le Carré turned the Cold War into a metaphor for futility—a closed circuit, members-only world that seems to exist exclusively for the triumphs and defeats of its constituents on both sides of the fight, a zero-sum game that nonetheless costs its protagonists everything.
He further distilled that conflict to a lifelong battle between two men, Smiley and the enigmatic Russian spymaster known only by his code name, Karla.
It is Karla who plants Bill Haydon as a Russian mole in the Circus. Haydon was based on Kim Philby, upper class and Cambridge-educated, who was widely seen as the most successful of the Cambridge Five, all recruited by Russia before World War II while still in college. Haydon is slicker than Philby, lacking his inspiration’s debilitating alcoholism but sharing his charm. But Haydon’s greatest cover is Karla’s work: It is Karla who urges Haydon to seduce Smiley’s wife and to make sure Smiley knows that he has been cuckolded. And Smiley, a man who refuses to let emotion affect his work, thus misses Haydon’s spying because he can’t bring himself to mix his personal and professional lives.
How Haydon gets caught is the story of Tinker Tailor. Karla gets the best of Smiley, for a time at least, because he is the more unscrupulous. In Smiley’s People, it is Smiley, the dumpy little spook who’s always cleaning his glasses on the end of his tie, who gets the better of his nemesis, luring him to the West by holding his daughter hostage. Each man, then, has used the other man’s family to gain advantage.
“Smiley win, Karla loses,” le Carré wrote in 2000 in a new introduction to Smiley’s People. “But at what cost to both of them? Facing each other, they are the two no-men of no-man’s-land. Karla has sacrificed his political faith, Smiley his humanity.”
When I heard on Sunday afternoon that le Carré had died, I was rereading Smiley’s People. This is not entirely a coincidence. I go back to this book and the other two in the trilogy a good bit (and to the miniseries of the first and third volumes starring Alec Guinness in an acting job so persuasive that le Carré admitted that even for him, Guinness perfectly personified Smiley). And these are books that bear rereading, because while the Cold War is long gone, the stories these novels tell are evergreen. Their plots are labyrinthine—one begins a lot of le Carré’s novels wondering where in the hell he’s going—but they add up. Things fall into place with a firm and lovely click. And they have an undying moral weight.
You can see why so many le Carré novels have been turned into movies. The milieus they inhabit may be unromantic and grubby—there’s not a martini in sight, shaken, stirred, or otherwise. But the stories are rock solid, and the people in them are etched with the finest tools and the steadiest hand.
From dodgy Toby Esterhase to bloviating Saul Enderby to the ass-covering albeit clueless Oliver Lacon, the Circus’ denizens alone would give le Carré immortality. (Le Carré had a wonderful knack for names, my favorite being one of the arms dealer’s muscled-up goons in The Night Manager: Frisky.) But George Smiley is his triumph. Quiet, deferential, the sort of outwardly colorless man you talk to for 20 minutes at a party and then can hardly remember the next day, Smiley proves to be not only patient and dogged but also a man you ignore at your peril.
Smiley might be the patron saint of every middle-level bureaucrat whose competence is dismissed, who gets passed over in favor of someone flashier, and whose good sense—never mind his humanity—is routinely dismissed by his employers because they resent his intelligence and wisdom. Smiley is a turtle besieged by a league of hares but a turtle who wins.
More than that, for the reader, Smiley is the best company on the page. In the first place, he’s an excellent spy who misses nothing. In Smiley’s People Le Carré devotes 10 pages to Smiley’s hunt for a cigarette pack discarded by an old spy on Hampstead Heath moments before he was murdered. Somehow le Carré makes this plodding search as suspenseful and satisfying as any movie chase scene: an old man poking around in shrubbery for half an hour and you’re on the edge of your seat.
What brings Smiley most to life—the shadows that convey dimension—are his flaws. He is a good man, but a man not above feeding booze to an alcoholic old analyst put to pasture just so he can pick her brain. He’s also self-aware enough to know what he’s done and apologize.
Of le Carré’s life outside his fiction, there’s little to say. Two wives, four children. Educated in Switzerland and at Oxford. Worked undercover for British domestic intelligence starting in college and transferred to MI6 in 1960. His career as low-level undercover agent ended four years later when all the agents whose covers may have been blown by Philby were recalled. So Philby’s treason did literature a favor at least. After leaving the government’s employ, le Carré spent the rest of his life writing, living on the Cornish coast where the success of his writing enabled him to buy a mile of coastline. Otherwise he mostly kept his name out of the papers, with the exception of the occasional op-ed (opposed the invasion of Iraq, hated Brexit).
Le Carré leaped to fame with the publication of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold in 1963. A complicated tale that concentrates on the pawns of espionage, the men and women set in play who seldom know why they are being moved on the board, it was le Carré’s first bestseller and the loose template for what was to follow for more than half a century. And it set a very high standard in espionage fiction. (I would say fiction generally, but I can feel the self-effacing Smiley tugging at my shirt.). Very few spy novels have met that standard since le Carré left government work to be a full-time writer, and of that very few, le Carré himself wrote most of them.