R.I.P. John le Carré (1931-2020)

I was very sad to hear the news last night of the death at the age of 89 of author John le Carré. I’m sure I’m not the only person who discovered his novels as a result of watching the 1979 TV series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which I watched while still a schoolboy. I loved so many things about that series, including the Circus jargon (tradecraft, lamplighters, honey-traps, etc) and the code-names (Gerald the Mole, Source Merlin, Operation Testify). When I got around to reading the novel I realized that there was much greater depth to le Carré’s writing than I’d imagined. I was particularly impressed with the sympathetic way he handled the character of the traitor Bill Haydon who, after he is revealed as the mole says to George Smiley:

Do you know what’s killing Western democracy, George? Greed. And constipation. Moral, political, aesthetic.

I’m with him on that one. “Half-Devils against Half-Angels” is another phrase I remember as a description of the “wretched Cold War” the protagonists found themselves fighting.

I also remember this, from Smiley’s People:

In my time, Peter Guillam, I’ve seen Whitehall skirts go up and come down again. I’ve listened to all the excellent argument for doing nothing, and reaped the consequent frightful harvest. I’ve watched people hop up and down and call it progress. I’ve seen good men go to the wall and the idiots get promoted with a dazzling regularity. All I’m left with is me and thirty-odd years of Cold War without the option.

That’s true in fields other than espionage.

Anyway, having read Tinker Tailor I bought everything I could by John le Carré and devoured all the books avidly. Not all his early books were great, but The Spy who came in from the Cold is excellent as are Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People – the so-called Karla trilogy.

Most obituaries circulating today describe John le Carré as a “spy novelist” but I see him as a writer whose excellence as a writer transcended that genre. I think the same way of many great crime novelists, such as Dashiell Hammett, who wrote great novels that happened to be about crime.

The last John le Carré book I bought was A Legacy of Spies (2017), which I haven’t yet got around to reading. I’ll put that on the list of Christmas reading, and drink a toast to an author who has given me so much to enjoy and to think about over so many years.

Rest in peace John le Carré (David Cornwell, 1931-2020).



21 Responses to “R.I.P. John le Carré (1931-2020)”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    How does he compare with Ken Follett?

  2. I confess that I’ve never read le Carre, although I’ve always meant to. My inclination would be to start with either the Karla trilogy or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Does that sound right to you?

    I’ve enjoyed some of the filmed le Carre adaptations. I found the feature film adaption of Tinker Tailor impossibly confusing (although I liked the gray, depressing production design). The Alec Guinness BBC series worked much better for me; I wondered if the story was simply too complex to fit into a feature film and wanted the longer treatment. (Or maybe I’m just not bright enough to follow the more compact version!)

    More recently, I quite enjoyed the televised version of The Night Manager, in which Hugh Laurie was very good as the bad guy.

    • telescoper Says:

      The Spy who came in from the Cold is a good one to start with – there’s even a brief appearance by George Smiley. I loved the BBC series of Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People. The one shortcoming in the former (in my view) was that they didn’t develop the character of Roy Bland (“Soldier”) enough to make him a viable suspect. It’s a shame they didn’t make a TV series of The Honourable Schoolboy as it is based around the character of Jerry Westerby, who appears in Tinker Tailor played by Joss Ackland.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The Constant Gardener is a fine film.

    • There is a fine film of The Spy who came in from the Cold, starring Richard Burton, and made in black and white in the 1960s. The scenes set in Berlin were actually shot in Belfast.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Yes, I saw it in the cinema as a child, having seen a James Bond film and badgered my parents to take me to it in expectation of more of the same…

  3. I agree with you about Hammett. With detective stories, there’s a simple but effective criterion for deciding which ones, as you say, “transcend the genre”: Would you reread them, even though you already know the ending? I would put Hammett, Chandler, and Sayers in that category.

    I would also include the less well-known Sarah Caudwell, although she’s quite different from the others: her books have the form of detective stories (and are quite well-plotted), but they are primarily arch and frankly absurd comedies of manners.

    By the way, there’s a relatively new annotated edition of Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Many of the annotations pertain to the film adaptation, although there’s plenty of information about the book, Chandler, and the Los Angeles of that era. I found it quite fascinating.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Sayers was a polymath. I’ve read and enjoyed her Notes on Dante, her verse translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, her exposition of the Trinity with application to literary criticism (The Mind of the Maker), her radio play cycle based on the gospels, and her Peter Wimsey detective tale The Nine Tailors. The last absolutely drips the atmosphere of the fens a century ago, and seems a cut above the rest of her detective novels.

      • telescoper Says:

        I think The Nine Tailors is her best, but Gaudy Night is also very good.

      • I agree that the Nine Tailors his the best of the Wimsey novels and that Gaudy Night is also in the top tier.

        To be precise, those are the best novels of the bunch, although they’re not the best-constructed detective stories. They’re certainly not bad, but to me the earlier, lighter ones, such as Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, have more satisfying puzzle-mystery plots.

        I’ve never read any of Sayers’s non-detective writing, but my wife has read some of her theological writing and, I believe, thinks highly of it.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I gather that Strong Poison is semi-autobiographical.

      • I didn’t know this, but Wikipedia confirms it (so it must be true). In particular, Sayers had a love affair with some pointed similarities to Vane’s romance with Philip Boyes (although not identical — Sayers and Vane made different choices at a key moment in their respective affairs).

        It’s obvious, of course, that there’s a lot of Sayers in Harriet Vane — no author would create a character with such similarities to herself without intending to convey that impression. But I didn’t know that the similarities went beyond that. If you’d asked me which of the novels is most autobiographical, I would have guessed Gaudy Night, because I assume that Harriet’s complicated and ambivalent feelings about Oxford are probably based on Sayers’s.

      • telescoper Says:

        Shurely a “polymath” is now called a “newuniversitymath”?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The 1974 TV adaptation of the Nine Tailors is posted at YouTube, together with others. I remember watching that.

      • I remember watching that series back in the day. There have been countless versions of the Agatha Christie canon but not much of Sayers on TV or film.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        DLS was an unofficial Inkling, although living far from Oxford and not being male limited her interactions with that crowd.

  4. Dave Carter Says:

    I have read most of le Carre’s books, best for me is A Perfect Spy, which I learned after I read it is largely based upon his own life. The depth of his characters is outstanding, which is why dramatisations only really work well with great actors such as Alec Guinness. Some of the film adaptations just do not capture the depth of the story or the characters (I am thinking of the Russia House here).

  5. […] the writer John Le Carré passed away in December 2020, I ended my little tribute to him with the […]

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