John le Carré

The great master of the spy novel died yesterday at the age of 89. His real name was David Cornwell and he spent a few of his younger years working for both MI5 and MI6, the British domestic and foreign spy agencies. Much was made of le Carré’s time in the espionage racket. His fans assumed that his experiences informed his books and made them more authentic. His critics—including government service insiders—complained that the pictures he painted of the spy trade were fantastical rubbish.

I’m sure he loved the hubbub. What writer doesn’t like people fussing over his stuff?

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (his third novel) was published in 1963 and was successful enough that le Carré could quit his job and devote himself to writing full-time. He followed that with another twenty or so novels covering everything from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Mostly he emphasized character over action and moral quandaries over shootouts but that does him a bit of an injustice. His books are usually gripping reads with long stretches of anguished tension, as taut as any hard boiled crime novel and as fast-paced as any thriller. While le Carré created a more erudite and literary version of the suspense novel he managed to keep them, well, suspenseful.

As far as realism and authenticity go, that sort of debate misses the point. We are talking about fiction. Fiction is stuff people make up. This idea that fiction has to be realistic is silly. Good fiction has to seem real. It has to feel real. It doesn’t have to be real. Whether le Carré’s spies used actual, real-life fieldcraft on their missions or instead used entirely made up stuff is not important. What’s important is the reader’s immersion into the fictional world. If the reader buys it, it is as good as real.

When I said le Carré was a master of the spy novel, this is what I meant. He drew you in and enveloped you completely in his imaginary universe. That imaginary universe corresponded to the real world in the sense that Russia was Russia and China was China and all that. There weren’t any elves or aliens. Gravity worked, as did guns. But it was still make-believe despite its verisimilitude.

As he got older le Carré’s books got more weary and cynical. He was always more interested in the dark side, focusing on the lies, hypocrisies, and betrayals instead of the triumphs, but his books usually had a little light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel got a little longer and the exit a little smaller over the six decades of his writing.

I suppose we are all susceptible to weariness and cynicism as we age. One of the reasons I like to read noir fiction is that it makes me feel better. It’s sort of like playing blues music when you are sad, it tends to lift you up. At least that’s the way it works for me.

If you are interested in le Carré, I really liked The Little Drummer Girl (1983) and A Perfect Spy (1986) but even his more recent books like A Most Wanted Man (2008) and A Delicate Truth (2013) are still great.

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