I have of late become totally obsessed with the spy novels of John le Carré.
I started with his classic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a paragon of the genre, then went straight into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—wanting to finish it before checking out the latest film adaptation starring Gary Oldman. That book was so riveting that I don’t think I’ll be able to stop at least until I finish the entire “Karla Trilogy,” and as such I am now well into The Honourable Schoolboy and have Smiley’s People waiting in the wings.
The thing that so fascinates me about these books—aside from the mere fact of their high literary quality—is this: I think we’ve all gotten used to the notion that a “spy thriller” is what we get from James Bond or Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. To wit, a contiguous sequence of action set-pieces; squealing tires and machine gun staccato and elaborate fisticuffs and a massive explosion at the end. But le Carré uses almost none of these tropes. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is bookended with brief moments of violence, but that’s it for “action” as we’ve come to expect.
His actors aren’t supermen, nor indestructible forces of nature; they’re real people, human, fallible, prone to doubts and fears and errors. The stakes are high, so they tread carefully—and when a colleague dies, they feel the loss deeply. They don’t steel their jaws and move on in vengeful stoicism; they cry.
What happens in these novels is, for the most part, people sitting in rooms talking. Or walking together and talking. Or just… thinking about things. Much of the action takes place off-stage, while we learn of it through someone (usually George Smiley) sitting at a desk and reading the pages of an agent dossier or case report.
And yet—it’s all so gripping. There’s tension on every page, and the build-up to the climax (albeit often a quiet, sitting-in-rooms-talking kind of climax) keeps the pages turning. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is almost a mystery novel, rather than a spy novel, as Smiley gathers the clues that allow him to expose the mole within the Circus. As a protagonist, he’s closer to Jane Marple than James Bond. When, toward the end of the novel, he carries a gun, it’s almost shocking. You don’t want him to have to be so uncouth as to have to arm himself, let alone squeeze the trigger. But you root for him all the way nevertheless.
On top of that, there’s the fact that the author himself worked for the British intelligence services for many years. The sense of reality contained in his tales is so deep that I have to remind myself that these books are not historical non-fiction; that George Smiley didn’t really exist; that MI6 was not infiltrated by Soviet moles in the 1970s and very nearly brought to its knees (at least, so far as we know).
And it’s clear to me that the real world of spycraft is much more like the world of le Carré and George Smiley, all research and information-gathering and thinking, than it is like James Bond or Jason Bourne. And that makes these novels all the more interesting and exciting.