• Brent

JOHN LE CARRÉ: An Appreciation



What a miserable end to such a rubbish year. After all the suffering caused by the coronavirus, the restrictions on life and liberty, and the grotesque number of deaths, comes the latest: that of a literary hero, John le Carré.

2020 had already taken away two icons of my youth: the beautiful Diana Rigg and the charismatic Sean Connery. Now someone else from that generation, someone whom I discovered a year or two later, someone who also allowed me to follow my imagination into a world apart from my own.

A fan of mysteries, thrillers and spy stories, in film, on television or in print, I came across The Spy Who Came in from the Cold while searching for something a little deeper than Ian Fleming and The Man from UNCLE. At first I was daunted by the demands the writer was putting on the reader: nothing was as it seemed, there was duplicity and lying and smoke and mirrors at every turn. But how I was rewarded by the effort! It was a proper novel: entertaining, yes, but serious too, politically engaged and brilliantly written and plotted - as valid as anything I was being encouraged to read for English Literature A Level.

The BBC serialisation of Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy appeared on television at about the same time. People grumbled about it being grim and unfathomable. It was a challenge, granted, but as the plotline slowly revealed itself it became a weekly treasure of story-telling, wonderful acting and electrifying suspense. As far away from Bond as could be imagined, suddenly George Smiley was the spy we loved.

And so to the books: the rest of that majestic Karla trilogy, backtracking for the early works, then onwards, buying each one in hard back as they appeared through the eighties, nineties, into this century. Each book anticipated like a treat, a promise of a great read whatever the subject, each a delight. And each one chiming with a political world view I shared.

The more fiction I have tried to write in recent years, the more I appreciate Le Carré’s skill with a novel’s structure, its pace, the way it opens up; how it challenges the reader and yet carries him/her along at the same time. He is a master of dialogue and not only the clipped sarcasm of the English establishment. He is a master of suspense, of drama, and of pathos.

It is hard to pick a favourite. Anything with Smiley in is up there with the best. Absolute Friends is a brilliant exposé of post-Cold War relationships. And A Perfect Spy is probably his masterpiece.

Le Carré passed away as he approached his nineties. All through the last ten years I have wondered if there was one more story in him; we were rewarded with four. And now, sadly, that marvellous sequence has ended. The agent will no longer run in the field but at least we will always have those books. We can revisit them (I surely will), immerse ourselves in that pithy prose and remind ourselves of the towering figure that English writing lost yesterday.

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