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Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Shill: Le Carre reveals MI6 Cold War assassinations

August 31, 2010

John Le Carre: The Spy Who Stepped Into the Limelight.

John Le Carre, not only the most important espionage writer ever, but also a former spy himself (MI5! MI6!), reveals that British intelligence carried out assassinations during the Cold War. Alas, something about these revelations carries that distinctive odor of cynical opportunism.

Let’s consult the eyes-only supersecret literary journalist list of pending publications: Could it be the esteemed Mr. Le Carre has a new book coming out and might feel the need to remind the world who he is and why he matters?  Dagnabit, where’s that decoder ring when I need it? Ah, here it is…

Aha! Indeed he does: Our Kind of Traitor hits the book stores October 12, but it’s already been given a starred review by Publishers Weekly: “Those readers who have found post–cold war le Carré too cerebral will have much to cheer about with this Russian mafia spy thriller.”

Is it just me, or is there the ring of faint praise in that line? Maybe that’s why Le Carre spilled the beans about British spy killers in the London Sunday Telegraph this past weekend. I mean, first off: Why now?

Le Carre, who worked for MI5 and MI6 in the ’50s and ’60s, until his novelizing career took off with The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, surely knew all along that Britain was in the assassination business. I doubt he smacked his forehead in the shower on Saturday morning, and said, “Oh, yeah, now I remember!”

I mean, we all knew! James Bond has a license to kill, for Pete’s sake! (Although after age 65 he has to get it renewed every year.)

Oops, sorry. Forgot it’s bad manners to mention Bond in the presence of Le Carre, who is so much deeper, with moral ambiguity and a ponderous, confusing narrative style to prove he’s a literary sort, and not a hack entertainer like that Ian Fleming fellow.

”Certainly we did some very bad things,” Le Carre tells the Telegraph in one of the most under reported stories I’ve seen lately. “We did a lot of direct action. Assassinations. Although I was never involved.”

Oh, of course not, John: Perish the thought. Or maybe…assassinate the thought?

Actually, though, the story isn’t so much under reported as caught in the whipsaw of evolving media. The items containing Le Carre’s assassination revelations that can be found on the Internet are derived from a longer profile in Seven, the Sunday Telegraph‘s Sunday magazine.

That profile, however, hides snuggly behind a pay wall. For 99 cents you can buy a read here. But my sense of duty demanded I read so you don’t have to:

And…it’s a humanizing profile of what appears to be a decent man. Even if he did used to be a spy. Even if he does have a book to sell.

Even if his literary reputation is a bit overrated.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2010 12:20 pm

    I haven’t much liked the last few books but Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People are among my favorite all-time spy novels. If he’s returning to Russia, I’m so there. (Thank you for saving me the 99 cents!)


    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 31, 2010 2:38 pm

      My pleasure, Nancy: I live but to serve.

      I’ve always thought of Le Carre as one of those novelists who mistakenly associate narrative denseness with literary quality. But I admit I have read nothing before The Little Drummer Girl, which remains my favorite. The Russia House? The Tailor of Panama? The Constant Gardner? All pretentious literary voguing. I mean, if you’re going to write a thriller, write a thriller, for Pete’s sake. Maughum knew that, so did Graham Greene.

  2. Sean permalink
    August 31, 2010 4:20 pm

    Plus he’s going mano a mano with a new Russian mob thriller by Martin Cruz Smith. He might be one-upping the “mere authors” (sniff) by reminding people he actually did things he wrote about – except, like you said, the killing. Nasty business, that.

    ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ really was densely worded and plotted (it’s the only LeCarre I’ve read), but kind of like code. Once I got the hang of it, it turned out to be a fun read. It also become a really good British miniseries with Alec Guiness. LeCarre may be one of those novelists who’s effectively a screenwriter. Richard Burton played a first-rate washed-up spy in ‘… Cold.’

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 31, 2010 9:35 pm

      Thanks for the mention of Martin Cruz Smith. His novel Polar Star is a personal favorite.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    August 31, 2010 8:31 pm

    You doubt if he smacked his forhead. That’s so funny.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 31, 2010 9:35 pm

      Why, thank ye, ma’am.

  4. August 31, 2010 8:59 pm

    I just never caught on with Le Carre’s style, Chauncey. Probably my bad. I wanted to like him, but wasn’t able to finish the 2 novels I tried to read. That was many years ago. Maybe I’m ready for him now that I’m older? Sometimes that happens. Couldn’t read James Joyce when I was in my 20’s. Now I love the guy. Go figure.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 31, 2010 9:38 pm

      No, I don’t think that’s it — and I’m not saying that only because I share your feeling. But if you do give him a chance, I suggest Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, or Little Drummer Girl. Please let us know if age has made Mr. Cornwell more congenial.

  5. August 31, 2010 9:12 pm

    PS – you mention Graham Greene. Now there is one of the masters of the 20th century in my humble opinion. THE HEART OF THE MATTER, THE THIRD MAN, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, THE POWER AND THE GLORY, THE QUIET AMERICAN – I’d give anything to be able to write books like that. Did you know that every birthday from his late teens to his later years he played Russian Roulette? One spin and pull the trigger just to find out if he should go on living. Ain’t that wild?

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    August 31, 2010 10:01 pm

    I endorse all those, and add: Our Man in Havana, The Comedians, and the Honorary Consul. But the best, in my view, is The Third Man and Our Man in Havana. The very sly and sophisticated humor in these novels underscores the moral ambiguity — or, in the case of Harry Lime, evil of a suave and confident sort. But it is Holly Martins’ bumbling British decency that casts Harry’s wickedness in sharp relief.

    By the way, both The Third Man and Our Man in Havana were made into superlative movies, both, not coincidentally, directed by Carol Reed, who also directed The Fallen Idol, from a Graham Greene short story, which was nominated for an Oscar.

  7. rachel permalink
    September 1, 2010 8:07 am

    I can’t seem to stomach Joyce either, Duff. (except Dubliners). Are you telling me I will learn to love “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”?

    Thank you for a very amusing blog, Chauncey Mabe. I particularly liked the bit about him having to renew his license to kill.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 1, 2010 10:13 am

      Thanks, I had fun with it, too. As for Joyce, I once read a book on how to read through the major volumes of the Western Canon, beginning with the Greeks (or maybe the Sumerians, can’t remember), and when it got to Joyce, the author, a professor at some university or other, said: “Life is to short to read Ulysses.”

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