The British have always loved a good spy story, real or imaginary. Stories of blue-blooded patriots battling the Empire’s foes stirred the imaginations of schoolboys for decades. In more recent times, the James Bond novels and films together with icons of popular culture (The Avengers, The Persuaders) ensured that the genre never went out of fashion.
A serious spy writer!
The publication of John Le Carre’s, ‘’The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’’ altered people’s perception of what used to be thought of as a glamorous profession. His novel showed spies as disheveled, double-dealing opportunists of dubious loyalty, a far cry from the suave 007! Subsequent novels followed in a similar fashion, the plots becoming well known for their complexity. After the TV serialization of, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” the celebrated radio presenter Terry Wogan famously asked his listeners “Does anyone have any idea what’s going on?”
A different kind of spy
The settings for the stories were isolated border crossings, dingy offices and sleazy bars. Whereas in traditional spy stories the loyalty and patriotism of the main characters was rarely in question, in Le Carre’s world ‘defection’ was often portrayed as a realizable career move. The early novels also appeared at a time when the British Secret Service was still reeling from several well-publicized spy scandals!
An inside story on Le Carre’s experience
The sinister atmosphere of the novels owed itself to their creator’s experiences with MI6 in Germany during the post-war period. Therefore Le Carre could capture the feel of the service often much to the displeasure of his former employers.
For me the best novels are the early ones; ‘’The Spy Who came in from the Cold’’, ‘’The Looking Glass War’’, ‘’Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’’ and ‘’Smiley’s People’’. These novels drip with tension and Cold War menace. Le Carre also created one of the great figures of post-war English literature; George Smiley, the portly, academic anti-hero.
Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea
Though (or more probably because) his books sold in their thousands many critics dismissed Le Carre as ‘middlebrow’ rather than ‘serious literature’. It’s true that his later novels have lost their immediacy becoming mere vehicles for the author’s political views. Nevertheless, Le Carre had the last laugh when his back catalogue was made available in the Penguin Modern Classic series! Undoubtedly Le Carre made the espionage thriller ‘respectable’ though forerunners like Helen Macinnes, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene might justifiably claim to have laid the foundations. Nevertheless, for anyone looking for a British perspective on the Cold War I would argue that John Le Carre’s early work is indispensable.
Which Le Carre novel or film adaptation is your favourite?
 Blue-blooded – patriotic
 Icons – figureheads, important characters
 Dishevelled – scruffy, untidy
 Suave – stylish, sophisticated
 Dingy – dark, without light
 Sleazy – dirty, vulgar
 Defection – to move to the other side/country
 Portly- rather overweight
 Middlebrow- more sophisticated than ‘lowbrow’ but not as intellectual as ‘highbrow’.