A Legacy of Spies

Title:                      A Legacy of Spies

Author:                 John le Carré

Le Carré, John (2017). A Legacy of Spies: A Novel. New York, New York: Viking

LCCN:    2017032695

PR6062.E33 L44 2017


  • “The undisputed master returns with a riveting new book–his first Smiley novel in more than twenty-five years Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is living out his old age on the family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, and involved such characters as Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, George Smiley and Peter Guillam himself, are to be scrutinized by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications. Interweaving past with present so that each may tell its own intense story, John le Carre has spun a single plot as ingenious and thrilling as the two predecessors on which it looks back:The Spy Who Came in from the ColdandTinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In a story resonating with tension, humor and moral ambivalence, le Carre and his narrator Peter Guillam present the reader with a legacy of unforgettable characters old and new”– Provided by publisher.

Date Updated:  October 19, 2017

Review by Dwight Garner[1]

John le Carré’s new novel is a throwback, a coda to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold[2] (1963), his best-known book. It rehashes decisions made in the coldest years of the Cold War. Among this book’s pleasures is a reminder that adults were once in charge of the destiny of the free world.

This is le Carré’s 24th novel. He is 85. If his long-ago first book, Call for the Dead[3] (1961), reads at times like juvenilia, our fear is that this one will be senilia, a book necessarily composed with an older man’s diminished mnemonic power.

The good news about A Legacy of Spies is that it delivers a writer in full. Le Carré’s prose remains brisk and lapidary. His wit is intact and rolls as if on casters. He is as profitably interested as ever in values, especially the places where loyalty, patriotism and affection rub together and fray. He wears his gravitas lightly.

This button-down writer even indulges in a bit of showmanship. Le Carré hauls out his greatest creation, the Yoda-like spymaster George Smiley, for a cameo appearance, as if he were taking a ‘60s-era Lamborghini long kept in the garage—Smiley’s last appearance was 27 years ago, in The Secret Pilgrim[4]—for a jaunty Sunday spin.

Never mind that Smiley must be well over 100 by now. He’s a type; one of those ashen Englishmen, like the poet Philip Larkin, who seem to be permanently 60 years old. Like Keith Richards and cockroaches, Smiley will be alive after an apocalypse.

A drawback of crime and spy novels, for this reader, is that they turn you into a tough-guy manqué. They make you feel you should learn a chokehold and begin carrying a shiv, in case vigilante justice needs meting out in the dairy aisle.

Le Carré’s novels have their share of rough justice: murders, torture scenes, bad accidents. But his characters play rugby only when chess has failed them. Le Carré is interested in leverage of every sort. It’s a typical moment, in A Legacy of Spies, when a thin man debates how best to use a thick man’s weight against him.

Le Carré has written that an early draft of his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy[5] (his books have been blessed with memorable titles) began with this mental image: “a solitary and embittered man living alone on a Cornish cliff, staring up at a single black car as it wove down the hillside towards him.”

Move the setting to the south coast of Brittany, subtract a bit of the bitterness, and you have the start of the action in A Legacy of Spies. His protagonist is Peter Guillam, a longtime protégé of Smiley’s in the British Secret Service, a.k.a. the Circus, and long retired.

Guillam is white-haired now. He has hearing aids. He is hauled back to London to explain some of his long-ago actions, intelligence operations in which people close to him died, perhaps unnecessarily. The children of some of le Carré’s best-known characters have grown up and demand justice.

Guillam is forced to recall ancient events in interviews that recall interrogations, and to read newly found documents that bring the past rushing uncomfortably back.

The first page sets this novel’s disbelieving and Lear-like tone: “I am driven in age and bewilderment to set down, at whatever cost, the light and dark sides of my involvement in the affair.”

There is chaos in the present as well as in the past. Guillam is stalked by a deranged and grieving man. “I have a sense of fighting to the last man,” he tells us, “and the last man is me.”

Guillam carries dual passports; he is half-French and half-English. He is familiar to le Carré’s readers. Indeed, he played in a role in le Carré’s first novel.

A more salient thing about him is that he’s a sexy beast. (Benedict Cumberbatch, in a recent movie, played Guillam as a young man.[6]) He is perhaps too sexy. Nearly every woman he comes into contact with, past and present, is leggy and wants to wrestle him into bed.

There’s a distant oink of male chauvinism in this tweedy novel, one that goes beyond establishing the sexual atmosphere of swinging ‘60s-era Britain.

At his farmhouse in Brittany, the elderly Guillam lives with Catherine, a much younger woman, and her 9-year-old daughter. Catherine has always been there; her parents and grandparents were tenants on the property.

We’re told by Guillam that “I have regarded her as my ward” after the death of her father, and “I watched her grow from infancy.” That Guillam sleeps with her after being in loco parentis isn’t just unlikely but a bit too Woody Allen for my tastes.

Le Carré is not of my generation but I have read him for long enough to understand how, for many readers, his characters are old friends—part of their mental furniture. There’s something moving about seeing him revive them so effortlessly, to see that the old magic still holds.

He thinks internationally but feels domestically. In an upside-down time, he appeals to comprehension rather than instinct. I might as well say it: to read this simmering novel is to come in from the cold.

Review by Jefferson Flanders[7]

When John Le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold[8] was published in 1963 to wide-spread acclaim, it represented a dramatic shift in tone for espionage thrillers, a clear departure from the derring-do of Ian Fleming’s rakish super agent, James Bond. Instead, Le Carré (the pen-name of David Cornwell, a former British intelligence officer) offered a darker vision, of Western intelligence agencies that skirted moral and ethical lines in their struggle against their Soviet and East Bloc adversaries. The protagonist of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Alec Leamas, is far from glamorous: an aging MI6 agent, haunted by his failures in life, inserted into East Germany on a risky mission. Both Leamas, and his hapless lover, Liz Gold, are treated as disposable chess pieces in the spy game. The novel became an international best seller and was praised by critics and authors; Graham Greene called it the best spy story he had ever read.

Now, five decades later, A Legacy of Spies revisits Alec Leamas’ botched mission and examines the moral choices made by the top British spymasters, including George Smiley (the hero of a series of Le Carré’s books). Le Carré has made some intriguing choices in crafting the novel, employing Peter Guillam, a supporting character in the Smiley series, to recount the story. We don’t encounter Smiley until the very end of A Legacy of Spies.

[1] Dwight Garner, “George Smiley and Other Old Friends Return in John le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies,” in New York Times (August 28, 2017). A version of this review appears in print on August 29, 2017, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: “The Cold War Heats Up Again.”

[2] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

[3] Le Carré, John [pseud. for David John More Cornwall] (1962, 2102). Call for the Dead. New York : Penguin Books

[4] Le Carré, John (1991, 2008). The Secret Pilgrim. New York: Ballantine Books

[5] Le Carré, John (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London: Hodder and Stoughton

[6] See Review: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ the quintessential spy tale at CNN entertainment.

[7] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2017/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2017/

[8] See Ref. 2 above


Knight’s Black Agent

Title:                      Knight’s Black Agent

Author:                 John Bingham

Bingham, John (1975). Knight’s Black Agent. London: Gollancz

LCCN:    76366178

PZ4.C588 Ni10

Date Posted:      May 10, 2017

A veteran MI5 officer (actually Le Carrè’s mentor and model for George Smiley) reveals a case history. Bingham is a prolific author of books on agents.

A Most Wanted Man

Title:                      A Most Wanted Man

Author:                  John Le Carré

Le Carré, John (2008). A Most Wanted Man. New York: Scribner

LCCN:    2008030704

PR6062.E33 M67 2008


  • A half-starved young Russian man claiming to be a devout Muslim, an idealistic young German civil rights lawyer, and a sixty-year-old scion of a failing British bank based in Hamburg form an unlikely alliance as the rival spies of Germany, England and America scent a sure kill in the “War on Terror,” and converge upon the innocents.


Date Updated:  April 11, 2017

Review by Julian Symons[1]

Few things are staler than a spy story with last week’s background. John le Carré, when planning his new book, had to devise a strategy for writing about a society in which, as one of his characters reflects, there is “no more Russian bear to fight, no more Reds under the bed at home.” Now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, and Mr. le Carré’s superspy Karla with it, what can replace them? The writer’s answer is to blend international arms dealers and the bosses of drug cartels into a single individual, make him a lazy-voiced, arrogant, stylish Englishman named Richard Onslow Roper, and give him the persuasiveness of Mephistopheles. The result is a brilliant performance, executed with an exuberance, a richness of detail and a narrative drive that have been absent from Mr. le Carré’s writing for a decade.

The Persian Gulf war, with its immense possibilities for arms dealing, is the background of The Night Manager, but at the heart of the story is Roper, reinforced by his entourage and his arguments in defense of his activities. Does he help to establish dictatorships? “Armed power’s what keeps the peace,” he replies, while “unarmed power doesn’t last five minutes.” Is the responsibility for death and starvation in Africa and South America to be laid at his door? Not so. “Who are the killers, then?” he asks. “It’s not the chaps who make the guns! It’s the chaps who don’t open the larder doors!”

Swept along in Roper’s wake, as he moves around by plane and helicopter from luxury yacht to luxury hotel to his fantasy palace made real in the Caribbean, is a sleazy and sinister group of acolytes headed by the extravagantly homosexual and deadly clever Major Corkoran. Opposed to Roper is Jonathan Pine, first encountered as night manager of Zurich’s Hotel Meister Palace, but with a past that includes undercover work in Northern Ireland. Pine is backed by one of those underfinanced oddball secret agencies met in other le Carré books. This one is run by the well-named Leonard Burr from dingy offices in London’s Victoria Street and supported by a Whitehall mandarin named Rex Goodhew, whose puritan conscience makes him implacably opposed to Roper, whom he sees as the embodiment of all drug-dealing and arms-selling evil. A bigger British agency devoted to “Pure Intelligence” (which means gathering information, but most often refraining from using it for fear of disturbing the status quo) cooperates with the “American Cousins” in keeping a watchful eye on Burr.

Pine’s character is built up with great care. The opening 50 pages, which show him as a super-flunky at the Zurich hotel, disturbed by Roper and overwhelmed by the beauty of Roper’s English mistress, Jed, are written with a deliberate panache designed both to emphasize Roper’s high style and to show us that Pine is in retreat from tragedy and violence in his own life. He had tried to protect the mistress of an Arab colleague of Roper’s, but she was quite casually killed. In the Meister Palace, Pine is really hiding from himself and the effect of his own actions. Locked one day by accident in the hotel’s wine cellar with no prospect of being found, he decides that if he is saved he will “abandon his morbid quest for order and treat himself to a little chaos.”

Pine is enlisted by Burr, given a new identity and a background of drug-running and apparent murder. Burr then arranges a mock kidnapping of Roper’s son, Daniel, from which Pine is to save the boy. In the event, Pine, seeing the frightened child, loses his cool and breaks the arm of one of Burr’s agents. He is then badly beaten by another, and becomes the temporary favorite of a grateful Roper.

This is Operation Limpet. Pine is to be the limpet bomb that will cling to and finally destroy Roper.

Put down so simply, such plotting may sound like the ordinary material of an espionage adventure. That is not at all the effect. For an outline inevitably ignores brilliant set pieces, like the arrival of Roper’s party at Hunter’s Island in the Caribbean, before the failed kidnapping. There the gigantic Mama Low is preparing a meal for the party; Pine, renamed Lamont and hired as a cook, is preparing his famous stuffed mussels. Nor can it convey the subtleties of Pine’s interrogations by the suspicious Major Corkoran when Pine is recuperating after the beating that was not in the script.

Nor can any plot outline take in the long description of what is justly seen as a madhouse in the Panama jungle, where weapons are demonstrated in the presence of potential buyers and Roper’s friends and agents are gathered, Frenchmen and Germans and an Israeli, men who have “fought every dirty war from Cuba to Salvador to Guatemala to Nicaragua.” The story is built up with the relentless simplicity of Victorian narrative, but it is elaborated and enriched with what are often terrifying gargoyles.

Roper and his crew are not the only villains. Mr. le Carré’s distaste for the intelligence agency game and its most enthusiastic practitioners has never been shown more clearly than in his depiction of the Pure Intelligence outfit in London and its counterparts in Washington. Both groups are chiefly concerned with discomfiting and outwitting rivals, and are ready to dispose of their own agents when they pose awkward questions.

One scene shows the master manipulator Goodhew threatened with ruin or death by a committee man he has always thought an amiable cipher, unless Goodhew abandons support for Operation Limpet. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ed Prescott breaks the news to Joe Strelski, an American drug-enforcement agent, who is another Limpet supporter, that Pine must be left to his fate, abandoned in Roper’s hands. This scene is written with a controlled savagery rare in Mr. le Carré’s work. Isn’t Roper inextricably linked with dope-running and illegal arms sales, Strelski asks? Prescott smiles ruefully as he says that can’t be proved, and Strelski responds with heavyweight irony: “Don’t change, Ed. America needs you as you are. . . . Keep fixing things for us. The decent citizen knows too much already, Ed. Any more knowledge could seriously endanger his health.”

Mr. le Carré is a finely ambitious writer, concerned with producing stories that can be considered on the same plane as Conrad’s Under Western Eyes or the best of Graham Greene and Robert Louis Stevenson. His finest books, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold[2] and The Little Drummer Girl [3] show that in the architectonics of writing—the construction, shaping and pacing of a plot—he has no superiors and few equals among living novelists. The framework of Spy could serve as a model for any novelist concerned with old-fashioned matters like a closely plotted narrative, although it is true that in some of Mr. le Carré’s other books Conradian complexity too often obscures the story line.

Is The Night Manager up to the best of John le Carré? The equivocal answer has to be: yes, but only where it concerns the worlds of Roper and the London and Washington agencies. Their activities are handled with total assurance and an evident and infectious enjoyment. Elsewhere, however, Mr. le Carré sometimes surrenders to the inescapably sensational nature of the espionage thriller, and also to a romanticism about women that leads to the creation of a pipe-dream fantasy rather than a character in Jed, Roper’s mistress.

But the saddest aspect of The Night Manager is the surrender to conventional thrillerdom of the upbeat ending, tacked on to a book that cries out for a tragic one. Perhaps Mr. le Carré bent before his publisher’s demand for a hero who might beat enormous odds; perhaps the artistic miscalculation was his own. Whatever the reason, the result is a highly implausible conclusion, damaging our belief in what for almost all the way has been a splendidly exciting, finely told story. T. S. Eliot said in praise of Wilkie Collins’ thrillers that in those Victorian days the best novels were thrilling. A book like this one, masterly in its conception and in most of its execution, confirms that they can still be thrilling today.

Reviewed by John Kavanagh and James Burridge[4]

The Night Manager—the Miniseries

Directed by Susanne Bier, based on a John le Carré novel

BBC, 2016, six 6o-minute episodes.

Eight of John le Carte’s espionage novels have been made into movies and four into BBC miniseries; Tinker, Tailor[5] was done as both. The ninth film, Our Kind of Traitor[6], opened in July 2016. The Night Manager is based on le Carré’s eponymous novel.

The story is about Jonathan Pine, a young British man who offers to infiltrate the entourage of an infamous British arms trader, Richard Roper, “the worst man in the world.” In describing this double-agent operation, le Carré reverses and neatly compresses the classic recruitment cycle and reduces it to the essentials—engagement, enticement, and entrapment. This is perhaps the most elaborate dangle ever concocted, even longer than that of Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold[7]. It is a textbook on building a legend to backstop a dangle.

Pine arrives dramatically in Roper’s life, saving Roper’s son from violent kidnappers in a meticulously staged ruse. Pine credibly risks life and limb (he is actually seriously injured), and Roper feels obligated to see to his care and recovery. Roper is a complete sociopath, but he is generous and loyal to those he trusts. Roper has survived thus far by trusting his instincts, and he carefully vets Pine–or Pine’s legend, as it turns out. He is drawn to Pine’s narrative–on the run from a criminal past and unwilling to acknowledge, much less share, his aspirations. Roper senses a native cleverness and ease in Pine, and, having successfully vetted him, brings him into the arms business. The dangle is grasped, and Pine manages to discredit Roper’s former number two and take his place. Roper’s eventual downfall is due in part to his genuine affection for Pine, whom he sees as a younger version of himself.

The intelligence back story is even more complex than le Carré’s usual “Good Brits versus Bad Brits and their evil CIA allies” storyline. Both Britain and the United States have established new agencies–hybrid law enforcement/intelligence agencies. Naturally they are despised and opposed by CIA and MI6 and therefore become allies. (The US organization is the “American Enforcement Agency.”) In case we miss the point that the US enforcement officers are uncultured cowboys, a senior US officer briefs the highest levels of British intelligence wearing a polo shirt. In this tale, the Bad Brits are really bad. Well beyond their usual eagerness to sacrifice the British national interest by currying favor with CIA, these Brits are criminals—completely in bed with Roper. And COS London–a virtual clone of the beautiful and treacherous COS Berlin in A Most Wanted Man[8] – is part of the conspiracy.

The politics of The Night Manager are fairly subdued. There is a brief reference to the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s abandoning the nascent democracies of the Arab Spring, and Pine (a veteran of the Second Gulf War) vaguely alludes to war crimes he witnessed. The biggest departure from the le Cané template is the happy ending–Roper and his allies go to prison, and Pine ends up with Roper’s beautiful mistress (events that would never happen in a le Carré novel). The fact that the villains are criminals depoliticizes the story–there are no pressing moral issues or ambiguities here.

All in all, the program is well worth watching—exotic locales, beautifully filmed; good acting; minimal political posturing; and a compelling plot. Those who insist on absolute accuracy will find plenty to criticize, but the lapses can be easily overlooked. Le Carré recently described the complete loss of creative control he endured in the making of this program, and it shows in lapses from verisimilitude,[9] which include live satellite videos feeds at the push of a button on the desk of every analyst, an American infantry battalion with unilateral freedom of action at the Turkish-Syrian border (all it took was one phone call from the cowboy in the polo shirt), and export licenses listing “Sarin Gas” as part of a shipment. And when the bad Brits put Pine’s case officer out of business and even confiscate her office furniture and computers, she still has the money and documentation to mount an operation in Cairo.

[1] Symons, Julian, “Our Man in Zurich,” New York Times (June 27, 1993), downloaded May 16, 2016

[2] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

[3] Le Carré, John (2004). The Little Drummer Girl. New York: Scribner

[4] John Kavanagh and James Burridge, in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, pp. 131-132). James Burridge is a retired NSA officer now serving as a CIA contract historian. John Kavanagh is a retired CIA operations officer. The two are frequent and award-winning contributors and have contributed previous articles to Intelligencer. Reprinted from Studies in Intelligence, (60, 3, September 2016).

[5] Le Carré, John (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London: Hodder and Stoughton

[6] Le Carré, John (2010, 2016). Our Kind of Traitor. New York, New York : Penguin Books

[7] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

[8] Le Carré, John (2008). A Most Wanted Man. New York: Scribner

[9] John le Carre, “John le Carré on The Night Manager on TV: They’ve Totally Changed My Book—But it Works,” The Guardian (February 20, 2016), downloaded April 11, 2017


Absolute Friends

Title:                      Absolute Friends

Author:                 John Le Carré

Le Carré, John (2004). Absolute Friends. London: Hodder & Stoughton

LCCN:    2004381441

PR6062.E33 A65 2004


Date Posted:      April 6, 2017

Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani[1]

Absolute Friends, John le Carré’s ham-handed and didactic new novel, is really three very different books.

It is an old-fashioned bildungsroman, tracing the sentimental and moral education of a typical le Carré hero as he is drawn into the shadowy world of espionage during the Cold War and an even murkier world of terrorists and political operatives in the new millennium.

It is also a far-fetched action-adventure-thriller with nerve-racking cat-and-mouse games with double agents, a frightening reconnaissance mission and a bloody shootout with SWAT teams and special forces. And last and most disappointing, it is a clumsy, hectoring, conspiracy-minded message-novel meant to drive home the argument that American imperialism poses a grave danger to the new world order.

The plot has been constructed to illustrate this message, and it not only feels hastily jerry-built but ridiculously contrived as well. Whereas Mr. le Carré’s Smiley novels were famous for their nuanced depiction of the ambiguities of the Cold War and their demythologizing of the grubby world of spying, this latest novel suffers from large heapings of sentimentality and naïveté.

It is simplistic where his earlier novels were sophisticated; dogmatic where those books were skeptical. Paradoxically enough, it also purveys the same sort of black and white moralism that Mr. le Carré’s nemesis, the Bush administration, is so fond of, and it does so not by persuasively dramatizing the author’s convictions but by bashing the reader over the head with dubious assertions and even more dubious scenarios.

The one persuasive (if highly familiar) element in Absolute Friends is Mr. le Carré’s psychological portrait of Ted Mundy, another of his “perfect spies,” a man whose ad hoc family life and craving for acceptance have made him a perfect candidate for the world of espionage.

Born on the Indian subcontinent to a British colonial family—his mother died immediately after his birth—Mundy always feels like an outsider, filled with loathing for Britain’s imperial past yet eager to belong to something larger than himself. His sense of identity is tentative at best: he has had a succession of careers as a would-be artist, would-be teacher, would-be radical but always remains something of a pretender at heart.

Although not particularly political by nature, Mundy is drawn into a circle of radicals in the 1960s, largely through chance encounters with people he falls under the sway of: a German teacher who takes an interest in him; a “polyglot Hungarian spitfire” named Ilse who initiates him into the mysteries of sex and antiwar politics; a woman named Judith who stokes his anti-establishment fervor; and above all his “absolute friend,” an impassioned utopian anarchist named Sasha.

Throughout the years “Mundy plays Boswell to Sasha’s Johnson and Sancho Panza to his Quixote.” Much like Tim and Larry in Mr. le Carré’s 1995 novel Our Game,[2] Mundy and Sasha are an odd couple—a pragmatist and a romantic, a lost soul and ardent dreamer. And much like Tim and Larry, they both end up becoming spies. Mundy regards Sasha as “his secret sharer,” his mentor and alter ego.

Though it’s easy enough to understand how the insecure Mundy could fall under the spell of a charming visionary, Sasha is such a pompous windbag (of proportions that make even the chattiest of Philip Roth’s characters seem downright laconic) that the reader quickly begins to tire of his long spiels—about the corrupting materialism of the imperialistic West, about the sanitization of Germany’s Nazi past, about factional disputes within the left, about his hatred for his own father.

Mr. le Carré has never been particularly adept at portraying idealists. Recall the difficulties he had with the humanitarian scientist in The Russia House[3] and the saintly Tessa in The Constant Gardener.[4] And Sasha always remains more of a garrulous idea of a character than a credible human being.

There are similar problems with the plot of Absolute Friends. While Mr. le Carré uses his intimate knowledge of spies and spycraft to infuse the adventures of Mundy and Sasha during the Cold War with suspense and verisimilitude, the story grows increasingly preposterous as they enter the post-Cold-War era. The narrative begins to lurch awkwardly from one set piece to another, mechanically underscoring themes that the author has addressed with far greater finesse in earlier novels: betrayal of a friend versus betrayal of a cause, filial anger and resentment as Freudian motivations for political convictions and reversals, identity as both a process and a performance art.

To make matters worse, many of the people in the later sections of the book no longer converse but simply trade angry political screeds: “It was an old Colonial oil war dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty,” one character says of the Iraq war, “and it was launched by a clique of war-hungry Judeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America’s post-9/11 psychopathy.”

We are asked to believe that after 10 years of being out of touch with Sasha, Mundy would endanger his happy new life in Germany with his Turkish lover and her son for the sake of taking part in Sasha’s latest cockamamie scheme. We are asked to believe that Mundy—who was once a spy, trained in counterintelligence—would buy into an absurd proposition from a sinister billionaire named Dimitri, who spouts anti-American polemics and plans to establish a “Counter-University” to build an “ever-growing army of renegades.” And we are asked to believe that these developments all feed into a noisy and violent conflagration serving American neoimperialist ends.

That Absolute Friends ends up being such a thoroughly implausible performance is less a sign that John le Carré, as often charged, has been unable to adapt his fiction to the post-Cold-War world. Rather, it’s a sign that he has not chosen in this volume to use his rich and myriad gifts as a writer in the service of storytelling but has instead elected to deliver a blustering and ungainly editorial that turns his characters into a ventriloquist’s sheepish puppets.

[1] Michiko Kakutani, “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Adding Reality’s Worries to a Thriller,” New York Times (January 7, 2004), downloaded April 5, 2017

[2] Le Carré, John (1995). Our Game: A Novel: New York: Knopf : Distributed by Random House

[3] Le Carré, John(1989).The Russia House. New York: Knopf

[4] Le Carré, John (2001). The Constant Gardener: A Novel. New York: Scribner

Our Game

Title:                      Our Game

Author:                  John Le Carré

Le Carré, John (1995). Our Game: A Novel: New York: Knopf : Distributed by Random House

LCCN:    95002666

PR6062.E33 O97 1995b


Date Posted:      April 6, 2017

Reviewed by Michael Scammell[1]

In 1939 George Orwell wrote a celebrated article called “Boys’ Weeklies,” in which he analyzed the stories that were most popular in publications like Gem, Magnet, Wizard, Hotspur, Champion, and Triumph, and speculated about their influence on British adolescents. These magazines, he discovered, devoted an inordinate amount of space to stories about the adventures of rich boys in England’s public schools, as well as to more predictable tales of derring-do by dashing military figures, secret servicemen, detectives, explorers and the like. Moreover, he found that the ethos of the public schools was carried over into many of the action tales more or less intact.

Orwell was writing about the 1930s, but most of those “comics,” as they were misleadingly called, survived virtually unchanged into the 40s, when John le Carré and I were growing up in England, and I vividly remember the shock of recognition I experienced when reading Orwell’s article. It was with a similar feeling that I read Our Game and realized anew not only the kinship between the espionage novel and the adventure stories of the boys’ weeklies but also the manner in which Mr. le Carré uses so many of the old conventions.

John le Carré’s England in Our Game is that familiar land that is governed a bit like a giant public school, with the senior boys (in Whitehall, the upper echelons of the civil service and especially the secret service) keeping an iron grip on the junior boys and trying to make sure that nothing gets in the way of their running the show. The twist comes when one of the top boys gets blackballed or resigns from the ruling club in a huff. According to the old conventions, such a man would have been a bounder or a cad, but Mr. le Carré’s trick is to make him the hero—with the understanding, of course, that it is the outcast who is the genuine man of honor.

The insider who goes outside in Our Game is also the novel’s narrator—a former Treasury official and secret spymaster named Timothy Cranmer, who has retired to his 17th-century mansion in southwest England after being pensioned off at the end of the Cold War. Cranmer is from public school, so he knows how to furnish a house with Queen Anne antiques, can recognize a ‘55 Cheval Blanc when he tastes it and naturally appreciates an Oxford college that has the decency to use good silver. He has also picked himself a sexy young mistress, Emma, of the right type: boarding school, musical education in Vienna, rich friends in Paris — even though she has kicked around a bit before arriving in Cranmer’s drawing room.

The novel opens when Cranmer is visited late one Sunday night by two of the most improbable policemen (to judge by their Dickensian diction) in the history of English fiction. They insolently inform this mandarin that a friend of his, Larry Pettifer, has disappeared, under suspicious circumstances, from his lodgings in a provincial university town, and want to know if Cranmer has seen him lately.

Cranmer is appalled, because Pettifer is a former double agent who had penetrated the K.G.B. under his guidance before also being pensioned off. The two had met at (where else?) public school, where the older Cranmer took Pettifer under his wing to protect him from the usual bullying. They converged again at Oxford, and Cranmer recruited, trained and ran him for 25 years before their forced retirement. But the more immediate problem for Cranmer is that Pettifer has recently run off with the entrancing young Emma, and Cranmer doesn’t know where the two of them are.

Having established that his former secret service employers are not responsible, and that the police know nothing of his—or Pettifer’s—espionage activities, Cranmer sets out to find Pettifer and, with luck, recover his mistress. He also hopes to rescue Pettifer from whatever scrape he has got himself into, since he feels guilty for manipulating him into spying in the first place.

Cranmer eventually learns that with the help of some still-unknown accomplices, Pettifer has been involved in embezzling upwards of $50 million from the Russian Government. Worse still, Cranmer is suspected of being his accomplice and is therefore himself a sort of fugitive. He doesn’t believe for a moment that Pettifer stole the money. He may be a drunkard, womanizer, liar and disloyal friend, but he is a quixotic, Byronic figure with a heart of gold and a complete disregard for material comforts (Orwell would have recognized him). He is also a political romantic and a lover of hopeless causes.

It is this last trait that offers Cranmer the clue he needs, and he sets out to unravel the mystery with the help of chums in high places. He discovers that Pettifer has been involved in some mysterious import-export business having something to do with the Caucasus. He also recalls that Pettifer’s K.G.B. control in London, Konstantin Checheyev, was a native of the Ingushetia region, who has since, like Pettifer (and Cranmer), been put out to pasture. Checheyev has now gone freelance and has enlisted Pettifer, who sees himself as a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia, to run guns and ammunition to Ingushetia to help it oppose its Russian oppressors.

As an adventure novel in the British tradition of John Buchan and Eric Ambler, Our Game is moderately successful. But Mr. le Carré has also tried to endow the book with psychological subtlety and political relevance. Pettifer is represented as a sort of sub-Dostoyevskian doppelganger of the repressed Cranmer, while Mr. le Carré’s sympathy for the people of the Caucasus is expressed in a way that is clearly meant to invoke contempt for the excesses of a brutal Russia, operating with the tacit support of a perfidious Britain and an indifferent America.

Yet these larger ambitions seem ineffectual. Pettifer may be intended as a sort of heterosexual Guy Burgess, but he lacks depth and psychological interest, as do some of the book’s other characters. And the political content is introduced by stopping the action from time to time for a character to deliver a brief lecture on Caucasian history and the sins of the superpowers.

Orwell noted that at its best, boys’ adventure literature has a strong narrative drive and considerable suspense. The problem with the fancier aspirations of Our Game is that not only do they not work on their own terms, but they also get in the way of these simpler virtues. Mr. le Carré’s great strength is that he is a master plotter. His premise of intelligence agents running amok since the end of the Cold War is totally plausible, and the way he links his major characters through their professional roles is ingenious. After taking forever to get there, the reader comes across some 40 pages that are as taut and thrilling as any adventure story I have ever read. They just happen to consist of continuous narrative —with no tricky flashbacks, very little psychologizing and no political lectures—and they provide a momentum that lifts almost the entire last third of the novel. If only the first 200 pages were like that, former readers of Hotspur and Triumph (including this one) would be enthralled.

“Why Me?”

“I am not given to panic, but that night I came as near to it as I had ever come. Which of us were they pursuing—Larry or me? Or both of us? How much did they know of Emma? Why had Checheyev visited Larry in Bath and when, when, when? Those policemen weren’t looking for some fringe academic who had gone walkabout for a few days. They were on a trail, smelling blood, hunting someone who appealed to their most aggressive instincts.”

“Yet who did they think he was—Larry, my Larry, our Larry? What had he done? This talk of money, Russians, deals, Checheyev, me, socialism, me again. . . . How could Larry be anything except what we had made him: a directionless English middle-class revolutionary, a permanent dissident, a dabbler, a dreamer, a habitual rejecter; a ruthless, shiftless, philandering, wasted, semicreative failure, too clever not to demolish an argument, too mulish to settle for a flawed one?”

“And who did they think I was—this solitary retired civil servant, speaking his foreign languages to himself, making wine and playing the good Samaritan in his desirable Somerset vineyard? You should keep a dog indeed! Why should they assume, just because I was alone, that I was incomplete? Why pursue me, merely because they couldn’t get their hands on Larry or Checheyev? And Emma—my fragile, or not so fragile, departed mistress of Honeybrook: how long before she too is in their sights?”

— From Our Game.

[1] Michael Scammell, “Still Out in the Cold,” New York Times (March 26, 1995), downloaded April 6, 2017

The Secret Pilgrim

Title:                      The Secret Pilgrim

Author:                  John le Carré

Le Carré, John (1991, 2008). The Secret Pilgrim. New York: Ballantine Books

LCCN:    2008274244

PR6062.E33 S43 2008

Date Posted:      April 5, 2017

Review by William Boyd[1]

This fine novel takes the form of a reverie-memoir, a series of reflections on a long life in the espionage business recalled by a surnameless man called Ned. Readers of John le Carré will have encountered Ned before—in The Russia House[2]—and The Secret Pilgrim consists largely of his reminiscences of his career as a British spy during the 40-odd years of the Cold War. Now on the verge of retirement, Ned is running Sarratt, the training school for new recruits to British intelligence. He invites the legendary George Smiley to address the impending graduates and, after dinner, the night is whiled away as the next generation of spies picks the brains of a past master. As Smiley responds to their questions, allusions and remarks that he makes trigger Ned’s recollections about his own past.

Thus the novel is an intriguing amalgam of meditation, fictive autobiography and numerous spy stories. In fact, there are seven key episodes in Ned’s life that he relates to us, all of which take place in familiar le Carré locations—Hamburg, Munich, London, Beirut, the Far East—and which also chart the historical course of espionage through the second half of the 20th century.

There are successes and failures, frustrations and revelations. Ned’s best friend and fellow student in his first posting as a spy inadvertently and clumsily exposes an entire network and runs for cover. Ned tracks him down and—equally inadvertently—leads Smiley to the guilty man. Ned beds the concupiscent girlfriend of one of his key agents in Hamburg, the better to interrogate her. In Warsaw, a Polish spymaster turns double agent. In Bangkok, a spy cracks up. And so on. The stories rehearse familiar le Carré tropes with no loss of skill and atmosphere and no diminution of pleasure as we re-encounter figures from previous novels—the great, inscrutable Smiley, flashy Toby Esterhase and, the coolest of traitors, Bill Haydon.

As we revisit the murky corners of the Cold War, so too there emerges a conspectus and resume of Mr. le Carré’s enduring and vivid fictional version of it: the Circus, Moscow Centre, the lamplighters, the sandbaggers, the embittered dons, the seedy emigres, the compromised values of fundamentally honorable men in a fundamentally dishonorable profession. The many ingredients are skillfully marshaled: story elides into story; flashback and flash-forward, reminiscence, analysis and prognosis are lucidly and elegantly controlled. Indeed, The Secret Pilgrim is, technically, Mr. le Carré’s most magisterial accomplishment.

Ned’s narrative voice, too, is finely modulated. It is wry and sagacious, cynical and worldly, yet its privileged perspective on the past still allows Ned’s youthful zeal and enthusiasm, his hot triumphs and potent disappointments, their full vigorous expression. Ned also shares with his author a brand of romanticism that is unashamedly overt and that extends further than affairs of the heart. We tend to think of the le Carré world as gray and hard-boiled, a domain of sordid betrayals and a kind of dogged middle-class, well-educated ruthlessness, but there has always been a whiff of romance in the atmosphere, however polluted. It accommodates elegant, intelligent women and decent chaps, as well as high ideals and genuine convictions. It’s a strain that, in The Secret Pilgrim, breaks out here and there in almost indecent lushness:

“I have no picture of our leavetaking, so I expect it was too painful and my memory has rejected it. . . . I remember the salt of her tears and the smell of her hair as I hurried through the night wind, and the black clouds writhing round the moon and the thump of the sea as I skirted the rocky bay.”

The world of Mr. le Carré’s novels may seem sui generis, but it is at moments like this that we catch strong echoes of its literary precursors—Joseph Conrad, John Buchan and P. C. Wren.

There is a valedictory tone in this book that is not wholly caused by Ned’s approaching retirement. The Cold War is over, the old enemies have been replaced by glasnost and perestroika, and for Mr. le Carré himself it must have been a bizarre experience to see the raw material of his art disintegrate over the last few years. But the spies, we can be sure, will never be made redundant. At the end of the novel, decent, honorable Ned encounters a particularly nasty specimen of the new antagonists—an utterly cynical and amoral British millionaire entrepreneur and arms dealer, and a knight, to boot. He is a perfect embodiment of the so-called market forces dogma of the Thatcher years in its most brutish form. “Now we had defeated Communism, we were going to have to set about defeating capitalism,” Ned reflects. One senses a new foe emerging, new battles for the Circus to fight.


Toby Esterhase came down to Sarratt to give us his celebrated talk on the arts of clandestine surveillance. . . . And I heard myself trailing Smiley’s name. . . . “Oh look here, my God, Ned!” Toby cried in his incurably Hungarian English. . . . “You mean you haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?” I asked patiently.

“My dear fellow, George is chairing the Fishing Rights Committee. . . .”

“Perhaps you’d tell me . . . what the Fishing Rights Committee is,” I suggested.

“Ned, you know what? I think I get nervous. Maybe they took you off the list.” . . .

He told me anyway, as I knew he would, and I duly acted astonished, which gave him an even greater sense of his importance. And there is a part of me that remains astonished to this day. The Fishing Rights Committee, Toby explained for the benefit of the unblessed, was an informal working party made up of officers from Moscow Centre and the Circus. Its job, said Toby—who I really believe had lost any capacity to be surprised—was to identify intelligence targets of interest to both services and thrash out a system of sharing. “The idea actually, Ned, was to target the world’s trouble spots,” he said with an air of maddening superiority. — “I think they fix first the Middle East.”

From The Secret Pilgrim.


LONDON — George Smiley, Toby Esterhase and all the rest of the familiar pantheon of John le Carré spies have been “definitely put to rest” in The Secret Pilgrim, according to David Cornwell, the 59-year-old author who invented them all under his famous pseudonym.

“I was heartily sick of the Cold War and seriously concerned about how I’d get any more juice out of it,” he confessed in an interview in his office in Hampstead, England. He wouldn’t say what the subject of his next book—which he planned to start working on at the beginning of January—would be, but said he had no fear that the espionage genre was in danger of dying out.

“Anybody writing now will have to work a little harder and think a little harder, but the world’s his oyster,” he said, pointing out the rise of hard-line opposition to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the resignation of Eduard A. Shevardnadze as Foreign Minister in the Soviet Union, the crisis in the Persian Gulf, industrial espionage and the struggle against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as just a few of the pearls now cast before aspiring novelists.

“To say the spy writer has had his toys taken away from him is ridiculous,” he said. Worrying as intensely as Smiley or the legendary Connie Sachs did about their babies, Mr. le Carré frets over his own now: how the movie made from his last novel, The Russia House, is being received is one major recent preoccupation, and the screenplay he wrote for his early novel A Murder of Quality[3] is another.

The Secret Pilgrim, he acknowledges, is a summation of how futile and wasteful 40 years of Cold War espionage really were. In the end, it was not spies but Mr. Gorbachev and the ordinary people of Eastern Europe who laid Stalinism low.

Where things go from here is no clearer to this master of the secret world than to the rest of us. “It would be absolutely tragic,” he said, “if the vision of the two superpowers finally making common cause to solve all the great problems of the world had to crumble, just as we really need it.”

But if he had been President, he says, he wouldn’t have handled the Persian Gulf crisis any differently from the way George Bush has. “The United States doesn’t realize it’s the only superpower,” Mr. le Carré said. “We had that position in the last days of our empire, but the United States is genuinely more high-minded about its responsibilities.”

Comments by Craig R. Whitney

[1] William Boyd, “Oh, What a Lovely Cold War,” New York Times (January 6, 1991), downloaded April 5, 2017. William Boyd’s novels include An Ice-Cream War, A Good Man in Africa and The New Confessions.

[2] Le Carré, John(1989).The Russia House. New York: Knopf

[3] Le Carré, John (1962, 2012). A Murder of Quality. New York: Penguin Books,

The Paper Thunderbolt

Title:                      The Paper Thunderbolt

Author:                  Michael Innes

Innes, Michael (1951) [pseud. for John Innes MacKintosh Stewart]. The Paper Thunderbolt. New York: Dodd, Mead

LCCN:    51013659

PZ3.S85166 Pap


Date Posted:      January 20, 2017

Review by ealovitt[1]

Sir John Appleby, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police [London] shows up only every now and then in The Paper Thunderbolt to tidy up the plot or rescue his sister, Jane from various predicaments. The main narrator is Albert Routh, a seedy little conman who cheats housewives out of shillings and pence. When he takes a turn on his two-stroke motorcycle toward the sleepy village of Milton Porcorum, he never dreams that by nightfall he will be the most hunted man in England.

Jane and her fiancé, Geoffrey are both students at Oxford when Geoffrey goes missing. A professor of Art History also discovers that his fiancée and her child have vanished, and a posh asylum for alcoholics near Milton Porcorum seems to be involved with the misplaced fiancés. Conman Albert Routh is temporarily incarcerated at the asylum, which is also a center for biological research, and he escapes with a piece of paper that is the only copy of a mysterious formula.

Now the hunt begins.

This book has some of the best chase sequences in all of Innes, including the surreal climax in the vast subterranean stacks of the Bodleian Library by night. It also has some of his wickedest villains who want nothing less than to induce the lions of humanity to lie down with its lambs. They of course, will remain its only lions.

Note: the alternate title for this Appleby mystery is Operation Pax.

For more on Innes and his works see The Secret Vanguard[2]

[1] Ealovitt, “Appleby as ‘deux ex machina’, Amazon, downloaded January 20, 2017

[2] Innes, Michael (1941) [pseud. for John Innes MacKintosh Stewart]. The Secret Vanguard. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company