Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

What Spies Really Think About John le Carré

| Dec. 26, 2020

The British novelist didn’t just write about the world of intelligence. He changed it forever.

David Cornwell, who wrote for six decades under his famous penname, John le Carré, and who died Dec. 12 at the age of 89, came from a long tradition of British writers who were also spies. Unlike others in that tradition, however, his books transcend their spy-novel genre. Like espionage itself, they are about human frailty—moral ambiguity, intrigue, nuance, doubt, and cowardice. And for the same reason, le Carré's fiction had the rare distinction of tangibly influencing his subject—the intelligence world.

Although he worked for British intelligence for only a few years, in low-level positions—le Carré was the only novelist to have served in both MI5 (Britain's domestic-focused Security Service) and MI6 (foreign intelligence)—his experiences shaped his entire subsequent writing career. He wrote his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961), a minor masterpiece, while commuting by train to MI5's London headquarters—making it surely the best novel ever written on a train—though he had moved to MI6 by the time it was published. At the time, both services were heavily shrouded in secrecy, far more so than today. Britain's government then did not even publicly avow the existence of its intelligence services. Forbidden from even mentioning either service, le Carré instead amalgamated them into a single fictional institution: the Circus.

That book introduced readers to George Smiley, le Carré's most famous character. Although brilliantly written, Smiley's initial introduction in the novel gave no hint that he would become the greatest ever credible fictional spy. Le Carré's first description of Smiley—short, fat, quiet, unattractive, with "really bad clothes," looking like a "bullfrog in a sou'wester," who marries an astonishingly beautiful titled lady—was the antithesis to Ian Fleming's James Bond, then dominating the field of spy fiction. From that novel onward, le Carré brought a gray drudgery to the world of espionage, which readers could identify with—including many intelligence officers.

MI6 immediately had, and continues to have, a complex and difficult relationship with Smiley. Le Carré's novels were so widely read that they came to define MI6's public perception. Their readers were, and are, forgiven for concluding betrayal was a defining characteristic of MI6 and, following Smiley, its officers. The reality is otherwise. Declassified British intelligence records reveal the high degree of trust among its officers—responsible for keeping Britain's most sensitive secrets....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walton, Calder and Christopher Andrew.“What Spies Really Think About John le Carré.” Foreign Policy, December 26, 2020.

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