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John le Carré, A Trade Secret. Part 1

By Peter Randall.

David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, master of betrayal.

Picture courtesy Associated Press.

John le Carré was the alter ego of David Cornwell. Over a nearly 60-year literary career, le Carré defined espionage writing through his 26 novels, including the recognised classics The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and The Perfect Spy. I’ve opened by saying that John le Carré defined espionage writing, but it would be fair to say that he also defined espionage – or at least the language of it. If we talk about a “honey trap” to catch a “mole” who “burned” our “scalphunters”, or if we talk of the “tradecraft” of a “pavement artist”, we would be using language that le Carré invented, or at least popularised. Some of his terms were so useful that they have actually entered usage within real-life espionage services.


David Cornwell worked within MI5 (the British domestic security service) and MI6 (the British foreign security service) for a brief amount of time, during which he wrote a short detective novel, Call for the Dead. Call for the Dead is a mystery novel, opening with the apparent suicide of a civil servant, and only notable in retrospect for introducing elements that would be familiar in John le Carré’s later novels such as the Circus (the fictional headquarters of British Intelligence) and the character of George Smiley.


John le Carré followed this up with A Murder of Quality, even more removed from espionage, with Smiley investigating a murder at a boarding school. It’s fairly formulaic stuff that imitates better mystery writers such as Agatha Christie. Le Carré had actually begun work on A Murder of Quality before Call for the Dead. Minor amendments meant that he had a sequel ready to go.


Counterfactual 1: John le Carré the crime author.

There were many reasons why John le Carré’s first two novels had been crime thrillers. One is the influence of John Bingham, Baron Clanmorris, the author of a number of thrillers, with whom le Carré had worked at MI5. Bingham (one of the main influences on the character of George Smiley) had encouraged le Carré to pursue writing and had helped put le Carré in touch with his publisher, Gollancz.


As le Carré was working in intelligence, writing in the crime thriller genre was also safer. Graham Greene, so the story goes, was close to being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, as Our Man in Havana depicted too accurately the relationship between head of station and field agent. Le Carré himself was (he claimed) aware of this, and submitted his books to his employers for approval ahead of publication.

Our Man in Havana; masterly writing, great actors.

Picture courtesy Modern Art Museum Fort Worth.

There is, perhaps, another universe other than our own in which John le Carré never moved beyond writing safe crime thrillers. He had the talent for it, as books such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy demonstrate, and there’s no reason to believe that novels in which George Smiley – or other creations – solve crimes would not have been successful at the time.


However, in our universe what really set John le Carré’s book apart from the others was his ability to write convincingly about espionage (no matter how strenuously he claimed his works were entirely fictional). If he was not writing about espionage then he might have been largely forgotten by today. Joan Fleming – a contemporaneous crime writer – was fantastically successful at the time, but the majority of her works are now out of print.




Fortunately for his career, John le Carré’s subsequent novel was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the book that was such a success that he was able to resign from MI6 and become a full-time novelist. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is the story of Alec Leamas, who is persuaded by the head of MI6 to undertake one more job before he’s allowed to retire; to fake a defection to East Germany in order to undermine the head of the East German intelligence services. It’s a lean but fantastically written book, with overlapping and competing ploys and a healthy dose of paranoia and uncertainty.

"Alec Leamas, come in from the cold."

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

With the success of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carré found that he had a problem that has plagued authors from time immemorial; death of the author meaning that people took the “wrong” message from the book. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was – for le Carré – meant to highlight that the effort of espionage was ultimately futile and did not perform a moral service. His audience, especially in his native Britain, instead took the message that Alec Leamas was a tragic hero. John le Carré decided that something less subtle was necessary, and so penned The Looking-Glass War, in which an MI4-like aerial reconnaissance agency (others have suggested that the novel’s “Department” is a stand-in for the Special Operations Executive which, like the Department, had been located in Baker Street) are so desperate to maintain their own relevance that they launch an intelligence operation so amateurish that it can only be doomed to failure. This book was not as successful as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but I do actually enjoy it. There’s an enjoyable Graham Greene feel to it with its satirical take on espionage, and I would recommend it if you have enjoyed other works by John le Carré.


John le Carré’s next novel, published in 1968, was inspired by his work in Bonn in the diplomatic corps (cover for his intelligence work with MI6) – though originally he had planned to set it in Vienna. A Small Town in Germany was possibly his book most influenced by contemporary politics. Against a backdrop of a United Kingdom that was trying to negotiate its entry to the European Economic Community, le Carré posited a burgeoning neo-nationalist movement, headed by an ex-Nazi industrialist. Today, the novel seems far-fetched, as nationalist parties in Germany did not have any noticeable success until the recent rise of the Alternative fūr Deutschland. At the time, however, the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands seemed to be on the rise, while denazification had allowed figures to return to society without facing repercussions for their actions between 1933 and 1945. Kurt Georg Kiesinger had spent 1940-45 producing propaganda, some of it antisemitic, on behalf of the Auswärtiges Amt, and yet was able to become Chancellor of Germany by 1966. John le Carré found the writing of A Small Town in Germany difficult, as he was undergoing personal problems at the time, particularly in his marriage, and the book was a long time in the making.


The Naïve and Sentimental Lover represented John le Carré turning his back on espionage writing. The Looking-Glass War and A Small Town in Germany had reviewed poorly and sold solidly but not spectacularly, and le Carré was beset by doubts over his ability to produce an espionage thriller of the quality of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold again. At the same time, he struck up a friendship with James Kennaway, author of Tunes of Glory (his film adaptation of which had garnered him an Academy Award nomination), who looked down on ‘genre fiction’ and encouraged le Carré to move away from espionage writing. The Naïve and Sentimental Lover drew from le Carré’s own experiences with James Kennaway and his wife Susan (with whom le Carré had an affair), and sees a young man falling in with a bohemian couple who introduce him to a life he had never known.


Counterfactual 2: le Carré walks away from espionage writing forever.

The Naïve and Sentimental Lover did not review well – though it was not universally panned – and its reception encouraged le Carré to return to espionage writing. It was perhaps a mistake for David Cornwell to use the John le Carré pen name for the book, as this had too much expectation attached to it with regard to genre and would inevitably disappoint his audience. I don’t believe John le Carré considered publishing under an alternative name, but let’s imagine for him that he had chosen a different nom de plume for his non-genre fiction writing (perhaps one of the names suggested by his first publisher, ‘Chuck Smith’ or ‘Hank Brown’, or his own first choice ‘Jean Sanglas’). The Naïve and Sentimental Lover might have been reviewed more favourably as a ‘debut’ novel, giving le Carré heart and encouraging him to continue down this path. Further novels could have followed before it was ‘discovered’ that Chuck Smith was John le Carré, allowing him to bed into non-genre fiction. John le Carré put a lot of his own experiences into his own writing, and it seems his personal life would have provided sufficient material on which he could draw (as Adam Sisman illustrates in The Secret Life of John le Carré).

Susan Kennaway. John le Carré later said: "My infidelities became a drug for my writing."

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The death of James Kennaway in 1968 meant that David Cornwell would never be able to prove to his friend that he too could produce non-genre fiction of worth. One can therefore imagine a continuing motivation, pushing him to produce something that he would see as worthy of the praise of a man who was no longer alive to give it.


In the next part of this series, I look at the books in the Karla series, plus possibly some others, and posit a few more counterfactuals his writing career might have taken.




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