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John le Carré, a Trade Secret. Part 3.

By Peter Randall

This is where the magic happens now. MI6 headquarters.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series can be found Here and Here.




Following the end of the Cold War, John le Carré’s next novel was The Night Manager. The original antagonist of the book was intended to be the character introduced in the final chapter of The Secret Pilgrim, Sir Anthony Bradshaw, but while writing it, le Carré changed it to be a younger, non-aristocratic man, Richard Onslow Roper. In the book, British Intelligence attempts to take down an arms trafficker – Roper – by having his organisation infiltrated by the titular hotel night manager – Jonathan Pine. Having first known of this book because of its 2016 adaptation by the BBC (starring Tom Hiddleston), I expected to like this more when I read it. Ultimately I found the plot less engaging than the adaptation, and with an ending I found unrealistically positive.

Blink and you'd miss it. David Cornwell, appearing briefly in the BBC adaptation of The Night Manager as a disgruntled diner.

Picture courtesy BBC.

This was followed by Our Game, a story rooted in the Cold War, looking at what happens to a pair of Cold War warriors once their skills are no longer required. The knowledge and contacts within the Soviet Union of Tim Cranmer and his agent Larry Pettifer have become irrelevant to the changing security picture, and both have been retired by the Secret Intelligence Service without hope of recall. Larry goes missing, and Tim is tasked with tracking him down. There is the germ of an intriguing plot within Our Game, but ultimately I find that it is poorly developed.


The Tailor of Panama was written by John le Carré as his homage to Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, whom he had greatly admired. An expatriate tailor, Harry Pendel, with well-placed connections within Panama including its president, is recruited by MI6 agent Andy Osnard to gather intelligence on opposition groups within the country. Given his job, it is fitting that Pendel proves to be excellent at inventing intelligence out of whole cloth, and Osnard is willing to pass off the fabricated intelligence as there is also a financial incentive for him. The Tailor of Panama does suffer a common problem with homages, in that the material they are paying homage to is often better. Our Man in Havana also benefited from being prescient about how affairs would develop in Cuba over the coming decade, whereas The Tailor of Panama lacked the same foresight.

Daniel Radcliffe's film debut in The Tailor of Panama.

Picture courtesy Columbia Pictures Wiki.

If The Tailor of Panama lacked prescience, Single & Single had more foresight into the decade ahead by looking at the oligarchs of Russia. Oliver Single, formerly the junior partner of London finance house Single & Single, has been living in anonymity for a few years, ever since informing on his father, Tiger Single, to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Oliver is reactivated by HMRC when his father goes missing. Like many of le Carré’s novels, there is an autobiographical element to the story, and the plot is ultimately a wish fulfilment, with a son helping bring a crooked father to justice. Single & Single is probably one of the more underrated John le Carré novels and lacks a high-profile adaptation to aid its reputation.


Talking of films with high-profile adaptations to aid their reputation, The Constant Gardener was adapted as a film in 2005 and earned four Academy Award nominations, netting the award for Best Supporting Actress for Rachel Weisz. Inspired by real-life pharmaceutical practices in Africa, The Constant Gardener has a husband, Justin Quayle, investigating the murder of his wife, Tessa, and stumbling on a corporate scandal. It is typical of post-Cold War le Carré in that there is a morally ‘good’ actor or actors, opposed by morally ‘bad’ actors, which stands in contrast to the morally grey actors of his Cold War novels – for as much as we might root for George Smiley, there’s little suggestion that the methods of MI6 are in any way an improvement on those carried out by their opponents in the East. Written in 2001, The Constant Gardener now stands out as having been overtaken by events – before the end of the year, the terrorist attacks on 11 September would mark a new focus for international relations in the 21st Century.


It would take over two years for John le Carré to bring out a book referencing the Global War on Terror, Absolute Friends. Like Our Game before it, it’s a book rooted in the Cold War; Ted Mundy having worked for the British Council in conjunction with MI6. And this work actually comprises the majority of the book, with the modern-day sections being sparse and largely disconnected from the Global War on Terror, despite its looming presence.

Counterfactual 5: John le Carré and the Global War on Terror

After the variety of topics John le Carré used in the years after the end of the Cold War – Russian oligarchs, pharmaceutical multinationals, arms trafficking – the Global War on Terror could have provided him with the opportunity to focus on the leading international security issue of the day.


Combating terrorism proved greatly challenging to security services that had previously been focused on countering the state actors, as terrorist organisations lack the centralised structure of state security organisations, and infiltrating them or getting members to inform on their activities proved a more difficult prospect.


With regards morality, the war on terror seemed to have endless opportunity for the sort of writing John le Carré pioneered with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, with one side ready to use methods such as extraordinary rendition and torture to achieve its aims, while the other ultimately sought to kill civilians who they saw as being on the wrong side of a holy war. The Little Drummer Girl almost provides a blueprint for the sort of novels that could have been written by John le Carré in the setting, and yet he produced no novel which is The Spy Who Came In From the Cold for the Global War on Terror.

Florence Pugh as Charlie Ross and Alexander Skarsgard as Gadi on The Little Drummer Girl.

Picture courtesy Amazon

But with le Carré having the ability to write such a book, and the contacts with the relevant security services to gather material, this was a reasonable prospect, and a suite of novels could have been written between 2001 and the end of le Carré’s life, or at least the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. These could have investigated different aspects of the war on terror – radicalisation of Muslims within Europe, financing of terrorism, Islamist training camps in Asia and Africa, surveillance by Western security organisations, the use of torture – the topics that could have been covered are multitudinous. In reality, the war on terror appears to be a hole in le Carré’s output, tackled reluctantly from obscure angles, rather than head-on.




The Mission Song is probably my favourite post-Cold War book that John le Carré wrote. The book follows Bruno Salvador, a top translator of East African languages who often gets called on to work for the British government translating intercepts. It’s through this work that he gets invited to work on peace negotiations between a few Congolese warlords. At the conference, Bruno is given his additional task: in addition to translating the conference, he is also to listen in on and translate the private conversations of the warlords.


It is quickly apparent that what is being planned at this conference is a coup in Kivu, to allow Bruno’s employers, the Syndicate, to make a quick profit off stockpiles of coltan in the area – a plot inspired by the real-life coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea in 2004, where a group of mercenaries with alleged private British backing attempted to overthrow the dictatorship in the country, in order to profit from the country’s extensive oil deposits.


A Most Wanted Man was John le Carré’s next attempt at the war on terror, this time approaching it through illegal immigration in Germany. It struggles with a main character, Issa Karpov, who is only seen through the eyes of other characters, and ambiguities and difficulties of the war on terror are hinted at without being fully developed. It’s a better war on terror novel than Absolute Friends, but a far cry from what you feel could have been.


Our Kind of Traitor saw John le Carré return to Russian oligarchs, this time with an oligarch, Dima, offering to spill the beans on a major Russian money laundering operation in return for asylum in the UK. The plot has thinly-veiled references to George Osborne and Peter Mandelson and their relationship to Oleg Deripaska. Like The Constant Gardener and A Most Wanted Man, it was adapted for film, garnering it a reputation I feel the book isn’t able to reach.


A Delicate Truth looks at a British special forces’ operation in Gibraltar and its aftermath, with the operation being covered up when things go wrong. There’s little to recommend A Delicate Truth if one’s not a dedicated reader of le Carré’s writing.


With A Legacy of Spies, John le Carré made a final return to his most famous spy, George Smiley. The novel is an interesting concept, with Peter Guillam questioned in connection with the events surrounding The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. A Legacy of Spies feels a bit like leftovers from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, unevenly reheated and served up to diners who had really enjoyed a meal at the restaurant last week.


Agent Running in the Field is concerned with Nat, a 47-year-old spy who has been returned to Britain and only just reprieved from retirement by the offer of a job in a near-defunct branch of MI6. The book begins with Nat being challenged to a badminton match by Ed, a young man who has sought him out, and the two become something like friends. At Nat’s work, MI6 set up an operation involving a recently activated Russian sleeper agent who is, unbeknownst to Moscow, a double agent. This then ends up linking to Ed’s plot which, despite being predictable, still managed to be executed in such a surprising way that I found it genuinely effective.


John le Carré died in 2020 at the age of 89. He left one unfinished novel, Silverview, which his son Nick Cornwell (who writes under the alias of Nick Harkaway) completed. Silverview has elements familiar to readers of John le Carré: an MI6 investigation to identify the source of a leak within the service; retired agents obfuscating their past; people escaping to coastal British towns; references to German literature; men with difficult relationships with their fathers. But it’s a very slight volume, shorter than any John le Carré novel since A Murder of Quality, and mainly gives a glimpse of what might have been, rather than what actually was.


Counterfactual 6: le Carré the scriptwriter

In addition to a desire to publish non-genre fiction, which le Carré pursued and abandoned with The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, he also harboured a longstanding desire to get into scriptwriting; either as playwright or screenwriter. In his life he had opportunities aplenty: Francis Ford Coppola asked him to adapt Our Game for the screen, while Sydney Pollack made aborted efforts to adapt both A Small Town in Germany and The Night Manager with John le Carré contributing. And he was not limited to writing adaptations of his own works; Stanley Kubrick explored having le Carré adapt Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, before eventually having Frederic Raphael adapt the book as Eyes Wide Shut. For the stage, Alec Guinness had suggested a play in which George Smiley gives a lecture to graduates of MI6’s training establishment – this idea ultimately inspiring the novel The Secret Pilgrim. For television he proposed a four-part series, The Face of Conflict, which was rejected.


When John le Carré did successfully manage a small amount of screenwriting – End of the Line, a play for ITV’s Armchair Theatre; television adaptations of Smiley’s People and A Murder of Quality; a partial credit for The Tailor of Panama – these did not sate or dampen his interest in script writing, which would continually be a largely unfulfilled ambition.


The easiest means of entry that would have allowed le Carré the success he desired would seem to be the play for Alec Guinness, reuniting le Carré’s most iconic spy with the actor most associated with the character, this could have been a runaway success, preceding things like the Yes, Minister stage play.


But instead let’s have John le Carré adapting Traumnovelle with Stanley Kubrick. Eyes Wide Shut was a critical success, but underperformed with regards to awards: it and The Shining were Kubrick’s only films since 1957’s Paths of Glory not to receive any Academy Award nominations. It would be incredibly unfair of me to lay this failing at Raphael’s feet, but let’s just imagine that something about le Carré’s script chimes more with the Academy than Raphael’s did. A nomination at the 2000 Academy Awards follows – maybe it wins as the Academy’s last opportunity to honour Kubrick; maybe Traffic still wins, but it establishes le Carré as a screenwriter of the highest echelon. Further adaptation opportunities follow, but le Carré also works on his own original screenplays. These are, maybe, a little slow-paced for a commercial audience. Sometimes complex. Sometimes with references to early modern German literature that go over people’s heads. Often angry, with a point to make about our modern world. Maybe one time in his last twenty years there is a fortunate collision between his script, the right director, and a talented cast. For people in the know, The Pigeon Tunnel is partly autobiographical. While not a box office smash, it is the darling of the critics. It is nominated for a host of awards, and on a February night at the Dolby Theatre, an envelope is opened.


“The Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay goes to… John le Carré for The Pigeon Tunnel.”


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