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John le Carré, a Trade Secret. Part 2

By Peter Randall

David Cornwell (John le Carré) when he moved from being a spook to writing about them.

Picture courtesy Spiked.

Part 1 of this series can be found Here.




Rather than try non-genre fiction again, John le Carré decided to give the public what they wanted, and what they wanted seemed to be more espionage novels featuring George Smiley.


For me, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the perfect espionage novel. The setup is very simple: one of four men high up within British Intelligence (‘the Circus’) is a mole, a deep-penetration agent, reporting to Karla, the mysterious head of Soviet Intelligence. George Smiley, recently forcibly retired, is tasked with finding out who the mole is. The plot owes something to the real-world case of the Cambridge Five, in particular Kim Philby, deeply-embedded Soviet assets within British Intelligence who passed information to their handlers in the course of their careers and were somewhat able to protect each other as a result of their positions.


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a great success, leading to its adaptation by the BBC as a seven-part drama in 1979, starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, helping to cement its reputation. The book was also adapted as a film in 2011, this time starring Gary Oldman.

The Honourable Schoolboy is a direct sequel to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and picks up with George Smiley as head of the Circus. British Intelligence is in a mess, with everything that the mole has had access to presumed compromised, the Americans refusing to trust the British (echoing how James Jesus Angleton, head of counterintelligence within the CIA between 1954 and 1975 believed British Intelligence to be harbouring moles beyond the Cambridge spy ring), and a resultant contraction of resource available. Smiley’s strategy is to look into investigations shut down by the mole to suggest genuine Soviet intelligence operations that were being protected.


The ‘Honourable Schoolboy’ of the title is Jerry Westerby, a minor character in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy brought back in an expanded role in this novel. Westerby, a journalist by trade, is set to work by Smiley following up the initial lead in Hong Kong, and subsequently Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. Set in 1974, the snapshot it provides of Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge just outside the capital Phnom Penh has a feel somewhat like that of Germany in Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.


The third book in the Quest for Karla trilogy was Smiley’s People. Forcibly retired again, George Smiley is called on to investigate the murder of one of his former agents. Why was an elderly Estonian exile such a threat to Karla that it was necessary to murder him? The best aspect of Smiley’s People is that it demonstrates why Smiley has been such a successful intelligence operative in his career, as he is able to get people he is interviewing to reveal what he wants to know without revealing to them that he wants to know it.

Counterfactual 3: A longer Quest for Karla series.

Smiley’s People tied up the Quest for Karla series and brought down a curtain on John le Carré’s most successful character (though he would be revisited in The Secret Pilgrim and A Legacy of Spies). But the Quest for Karla was originally conceived of as a series running to perhaps as many as fifteen books, though during actual writing this was continually revised downward. But what if John le Carré had stuck to the original idea and had stretched out the series?


Probably the book that we came closest to having was one set in the Middle East, which John le Carré travelled to for research purposes before abandoning the idea, unable to conceive of a plot that could take Smiley to the area. If inspiration had struck, then a further book could have been forthcoming. Other books could have taken inspiration from real-world Cold War espionage plots, such as the defection of Oleg Gordievsky in 1985, while later books like The Russia House and aspects of A Perfect Spy could have been reworked for the Quest for Karla narrative.

Beirut 1976 during the Lebanese Civil War. Quite how inspiration failed to strike le Carré for ideas for this setting baffles me. Coco the African Grey; the Commodore; the dapper Youssef Nazzal with almost inhuman sang froid; the MI6 operation of the time.... There's enough material there for a better pen than mine.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The main thing that would have prevented the continuation of the Quest for Karla series may ultimately have proved to be the end of the Cold War, with the Berlin Wall falling in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolving itself in 1991. But this need not have limited the Quest for Karla much, as the publication date of the books could be separated from their setting: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was set roughly contemporaneously with its publication date of 1974, but The Honourable Schoolboy (published 1977) was set in 1974, and Smiley’s People (published 1979) was set somewhere around 1977 or 1978.


The rate of dislocation could see le Carré maintain his publication schedule as in our universe, but only be wrapping up the Quest for Karla after eight or nine books in around 1993-1995, with a book set in the mid- to late-1980s. Further books could have been written set in the ‘missing years’ of George Smiley, between the events of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and those of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or earlier still in the careers of Smiley and Karla.


There’s every reason to believe that further novels in the Quest for Karla series would have been successful, though le Carré himself may have grown tired of the series. Ultimately in this universe, he may have resorted to killing off his most famous character, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie before him.




The research that was originally done with a Quest for Karla book in mind in the Middle East was instead utilised for le Carré’s next novel, The Little Drummer Girl. The central character of the book, Charlie, was inspired in great part by John le Carré’s sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell. The book moves away from British Intelligence entirely, focusing on Israeli Intelligence and their attempt to disrupt the operations of Palestinian terrorist operations. After the Quest for Karla trilogy, it’s an interesting step away, but the plot lacks the intrigues that are familiar from classic le Carré for my liking.

Having written a character based on his sister, in A Perfect Spy we get a characters based on John le Carré himself and his father, the conman Ronnie Cornwell. Parts of the novel are semi-autobiographical, and map closely onto the real experiences of John le Carré. The book is actually an epistolary novel, the written recollections of Magnus Pym (the character based on John le Carré) to his son, attempting to explain why he betrayed the country for which he worked. It’s certainly a fascinating book and probably gives the greatest insight into John le Carré’s psyche of all his fiction.


With the Soviet Union becoming more open, the opportunity arose for John le Carré to travel to the country for the first time. This was arranged through his publishers, who also put him in touch with Russian authors. John le Carré, being a ‘write what you know’ author, wrote about a publisher meeting dissident Russian authors in the Soviet Union in The Russia House – the title being taken from the in-universe branch of the Secret Intelligence Service that handles the Soviet Union. The book does not live up to the quality of its predecessors, and its main legacy is that its film adaptation, starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, was one of the first American films to be shot in the Soviet Union.


The Secret Pilgrim is quite a different book to others by John le Carré. With the framing device of George Smiley talking to students at British Intelligence’s training establishment at Sarratt, the chapters are short stories, the reminiscences of Ned (previously head of the Russia House) prompted by George Smiley’s comments. The book had its genesis in a concept for a play which would have seen Alec Guinness reprise his portrayal of Smiley, with the character giving a lecture at Sarratt.


Counterfactual 4: John le Carré and the eternal Cold War

The Secret Pilgrim again drew a curtain on the character of George Smiley, and also on the setting of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War saw John le Carré asked on numerous occasions: “What will you write about now?”


This wasn’t a question that le Carré himself had any doubts about how to answer – books like The Little Drummer Girl already demonstrated that he need not be tied to the bipolar East-West conflict.


But if we imagine that John le Carré had greater doubts himself that he could move out of the Cold War era, The Secret Pilgrim also suggests a way in which he could have continued to write in the espionage-heavy setting of the Cold War, rather than adapting to the murkier post-Cold War world.


We can imagine a universe in which John le Carré is struck by the possibilities of having further stories set within the Cold War, drawing on his direct experience and the research he had already conducted, and either uses the modern day only as a framing device, or abandons it altogether in favour of writing ‘historical’ fiction. This would ultimately come to pass when John le Carré wrote A Legacy of Spies, so it’s not altogether far-fetched. On the one hand, it might have proved more popular, as criticism of le Carré’s post-Cold War novels often brought up how the strength of his Cold War writing was his insight into the grey world of British espionage.


On the other hand, the post-Cold War environment allowed le Carré to keep his writing fresh by tackling a wide variety of topics, and allowing himself to become a writer of historical espionage fiction would have risked his writing becoming stale and stuck in a rut, potentially drawing criticism for treading the same ground when the world had moved on.




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