Cloak-and-Dagger!

Looking for some good beach reads? How about a little dose of espionage? Intrigue, double agents, femme fatales, surveillance, sabotage and psychological warfare - ah, the territory of spy novels! And nobody does it better than John le Carré, the master of the spy genre. With elegant prose, atmospheric details, and superbly-drawn characters, le Carré captures the shadowy world of espionage staged against the back drop of the Cold War. In writing about the art of spy craft, le Carré creates intricate puzzles which are an enjoyable challenge for readers. So much of le Carré’s esoteric jargon: mole (undercover agent/a double agent), the Circus (MI6), honey trap (using sexual liaison solely to compromise a target), the Cousins (the CIA), has now become a regular part of the spy lexicon! Unlike the often superficial and glamorous world of espionage portrayed by Ian Fleming novels, le Carré’s writing describes the more ruthless, cloak-and-dagger reality of the post-World War II geopolitical stage.

Born David John Moore Cornwall, le Carré adopted his pen name while working for MI5 and MI6 in order to be able to write his spy novels.  With an insider's knowledge of the world of espionage, le Carré wrote not just taut, suspenseful thrillers but stories that showcased the frailty and the ambiguity of human nature. Themes of loyalty and betrayal, moral dilemmas, human desires and personal sacrifices haunt the murky world that is inhabited by le Carré's characters. His heroes do not possess the moral certainty or the sophistication of the super spy, James Bond. John le Carré's people are outsiders; socially awkward, brilliant but flawed, walking a tightrope as they balance the moral and the political imperatives of their highly demanding job. Do the ends justify the means? And, in meeting those ends, are we losing the very values that we set out to defend? These are just some of the issues of moral relativism that haunt le Carré's characters.
         
Hailed as "the pre-eminent spy writer of the 20th century..." (Garner, Dwight . “'I have Pretended To Be A Gentleman For So Long’." The New York Times Magazine 21 Apr. 2013: 18-23. Print.), le Carré wrote his first book, Call for the Dead, in 1961. A slim book where we first encounter George Smiley, the master spy: a finely drawn portrait of the man, his marriage, and his work. In 1962, le Carré wrote, A Murder of Quality, a murder mystery, which George Smiley is summoned to solve. It was le Carré's third book, written in 1963, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which received great critical acclaim and the character of George Smiley, a central character in seven of le Carré  books, gained a foothold in the public's imagination.  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a disturbing tale of loss and betrayal set in East Berlin, was hailed as "the best spy story I have ever read" by English writer, playwright, and literary critic, Graham Greene. Le Carré’s next book, another well-written and well-plotted thriller, was the LookingGlass War.
         
Looking Glass War deals with the harsh realities of the Cold War. The Russians are in the process of installing missiles near the West German border and, in a clandestine operation, a member of the British Secret Service goes into East Germany to investigate. This was le Carré's fourth book featuring the enigmatic George Smiley.

A brilliantly drawn portrait of a character who is perpetually middle-aged and mild-mannered George Smiley wears thick square glasses, is portly and misleadingly ordinary, but his superiors (in A Murder of Quality) claim that he possesses "the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin." George Smiley is a loner, a philosopher of sorts, has a terrific memory and his interrogation skills are legendary. He may be mild-mannered and polite but he can get people to talk! For those who are more inclined to explore the world of le Carré in film and television, Alex Guiness’ portrayal of the character of Smiley in the BBC Television series adaptation of Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy, and Smiley's People is so exemplary that I feel le Carré must have had Guiness in mind when he created the character of George Smiley! “His (Alec Guiness) performance is one of the great literary-cinematic creations of the post-war era, an actor’s masterpiece” says David Denby in The New Yorker. (Denby, Davis. “We Are All Smiley’s People.” The New Yorker 28 Feb. 2012).
         
 In Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy the British Secret Service has been compromised. There is a Soviet mole in their midst, perhaps at the very highest echelons of the secret service. George Smiley's job is to find the mole and salvage what is left of the secret service.  It is also in this book that we meet Smiley's nemesis, his Soviet counterpart Karla. Their paths cross again in TheHonourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People. These three books comprise, what is informally known as, the "Karla Trilogy." Intellectually well matched, Smiley and Karla compete as each tries to gain the upper hand in the theater of the Cold War.
         
The sequel to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy is an incredibly well nuanced and finely crafted book, with deeply realized characters and a page-turning plot. In trying to rebuild the British Secret Service and mount an offensive operation against the Soviets, Smiley recalls a former agent, the titular schoolboy of the title, Gerald Westerby. Westerby is an idealist, a romantic, with a tremendous sense of honor and duty. About this book, Kirkus Review wrote in September 1, 1977: "...if le Carré is the Henry James of spy novels, firing more nuances than bullets, then this is the Golden Bowl - dense, hard, and gleaming on the outside, dark within, and worth possessing, whatever the price."
         
Smiley's People, the last book in the "Karla Trilogy" is filled with enough twists and turns to make it an extremely satisfying read. Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate the murder of a Russian defector. Once again coming to the aid of the British Secret Service, it is also Smiley's last chance to match wits with his old enemy Karla and bring about his downfall.
         
The Secret Pilgrim, is the last book featuring George Smiley. The Cold War is over, the Berlin Wall has come down and Smiley reminisces with a bunch of new recruits about his past and the business of espionage.

Needless to say, I have read and reread most of le Carré's books and, with each reading, I discover much to relish.  There are so many other titles that I would like to mention here but there are space constraints, even in a blog! So I end this post, with apologies to James Bond, and a shout-out to Carly Simon:
"Nobody does it better
Makes me feel sad for the rest
Nobody does it half as good as John le Carré [sic]
Baby, you're the best"


-Rina B.

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