There was a singular character that sucked me back into Thrillers when I started reading them in earnest last year… George Smiley, created by John le Carré. Smiley is an odd character; to me he didn’t feel directly prominent but there was something about him that stuck in the back of mind, like he was watching me reading in the same way that he fictionally watched both Agents and the Establishment.
My first introduction to le Carré was through audiobook versions of ‘The Looking Glass War’, ‘A Murder of Quality’ and ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’. There is a combination of almost fatalistic, realistic cynicism in the stories that comes from both le Carré’s unique voice and the ever-present tensions of the Cold War. Each story lifts a fictional lid on what feels like cold, murky, secrets from the world of espionage. We know le Carré’s background and wonder if he is telling us a truth… if it is REALLY like that, something that most of us will never directly know the truth about. Interestingly, in his stories ‘the truth’ itself is fluid, and none of the characters seem to know the ‘real truth’ about what is happening.
In ‘The Looking Glass War’ we are allowed to see the interplay of organisational rivalries between Smiley’s ‘Circus’ and Leclerc’s ‘The Department’. Leclerc’s organisation is waning and he wants it to regain its position in the Inelligence world. He arranges a secret mission to spy on a missile base in Eastern Germany, reactivating one of ‘The Department’s’ old wartime agents, Fred Leiser, for the mission. Leiser is poorly prepared and ill-equipped for the mission. He kills a guard when crossing the border and that death really shakes him. A German girl hides him in her hotel room, hoping he will take her back to the West. But Leiser makes mistakes with his radio procedure and forgets to change frequencies, allowing the East Germans to trace his transmissions. ‘The Circus’ then become fully aware of Leiser’s mission and Smiley persuades Leclerc to abandon him, saying that they can deny his role as a spy by highlighting his obsolete equipment and poor technique. The whole mission is a failure, Leiser is expendable and the existence of the missile base itself turns out to have probably been a lie from an unreliable source.
‘A Murder of Quality’ is more of a study of class differences in the early 1960’s. Smiley, who has now retired, is contacted by a old wartime colleague, Ailsa Brimley. She has received a letter from Stella Rode, a reader of the small Christian magazine that she edits, saying that her husband is plotting to kill her. Smiley agrees to investigate the claim but Stella Rode is killed before he can take action. Smiley then moves through the tensions in Carne between “town and gown” (a rich field that Colin Dexter made great use of in his ‘Inspector Morse’ stories), and the religious divisions between Church of England adherents and non-conformists. His investigation slowly reveals a hidden side of Carne life that is full of illicit sexual activity, blackmail and other abuses before he eventually ‘solves the case’. This story felt like an interesting side-show holiday for Smiley.
I think that le Carré is best known today for ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (1974), but it is his 1963 novel ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ that resonates most strongly with me. I have very strong memories of the closing days of the Cold War which often resonate in my own writing. Films like ‘When the Wind Blows’, ‘The Day After’ and ‘Threads’ had shown just how devastating a nuclear war would be. I remember news reports of US Cruise Missile launchers prowling the UK countryside on manoeuvres, practicing for the day that they might need to rain nuclear hell on the USSR. For a teenager growing up in those days, reports about anti-nuclear protests by CND, the Falklands War, the Reagan Administration’s ‘Star Wars project’ (ie SDI) , social uprisings in Eastern Europe, the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification made ‘The World’ seem like a very dangerous place… it was, and it still is.
‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ is a delicious trip into that Cold War paranoia. When the West Berlin office of the Circus loses its last Agent in East Germany, the Station Head, Alec Leamas, is recalled to London. Leamas is persuaded by the Circus chief, known as ‘Control,’ to take on one last operational mission. He is to fake his defection to an East German intelligence officer called Mundt, so that he can eventually frame Mundt as being a double agent for Britain. The framing is indirect and Leamas will have to manipulate one of Mundt’s subordinates called Fiedler, who already suspects that Mundt is a double agent.
To come the East Germans’ attention as a potential defector, Leamas is sacked from the Circus and sinks into a degrading, alcoholic life, taking a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain as his lover. Leamas is, of course, eventually recruited as a defector and taken to East Germany. He drip feeds a story about payments to a double agent in the Abteilung and eventually meets Fiedler, where more of his tale is revealed.
Mundt has Fiedler and Leamas arrested and tortured. They are both summoned to present their cases to a tribunal convened by the leaders of the East German régime. Leamas reveals a series of secret bank account payments that Fiedler has matched to the movements of Mundt. Fiedler has other evidence that implicates Mundt as being a British agent.
Leamas’s mission falls apart when his lover is brought into the hearing. She reveals that Smiley has paid for the lease on her flat, and that she had promised Leamas that she would not look for him after he disappeared. Realising his cover is blown, Leamas offers to tell all in exchange for her freedom. Fiedler is arrested.
Mundt unexpectedly helps Leamas and his lover to escape. During their drive to Berlin, Leamas realises and reveals that Mundt must be a double agent reporting to Smiley, and the purpose of his mission must have been to compromise Fielder, probably because he was getting close to exposing Mundt. In the closing action of the book both Leamas and his lover are shot trying to escape from East Germany while climbing over the Berlin Wall. The reasons for their deaths are complicated and I won’t spoil you fun by revealing them here. — A wonderful story that fully evokes a sense of the dangers of the Cold War.
I have since read ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ and enjoyed the book as much as the audio version. I don’t care much for the film version, however.
So, that’s my le Carré review – he definitely gets 5/5 on the ‘Cloak & Dagger’ scale!
== There’s more about my writing at russellweb.org.uk, @LeeJ_Russell on Twitter
image of “JOHN LE CARRE AT THE BODLEIAN LIBRARY” by ‘summonedbyfells’ on flickr.com – https://www.flickr.com/photos/summonedbyfells/6892145730/ – image tagged as Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)