There was a time when John le Carré mattered, really mattered—back when he seemed a major talent and one of the best observers of our time: the man who had turned genre fiction into literature.
It started when he produced The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963, built to the 1974 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and reached a crescendo with Smiley’s People (1979). The films helped, of course: the popular Richard Burton movie that Hollywood made from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965, the James Mason movie that director Sidney Lumet adapted from Call for the Dead in 1966. The widely acclaimed seven-part television miniseries of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for that matter, which the BBC released in 1979, with Alec Guinness playing le Carré’s quiet spymaster, George Smiley. But mostly it was the books—all those volumes from le Carré. The Looking Glass War (1965), A Small Town in Germany (1968), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977): For decades, you could find them on library shelves and used-book tables—dog-eared paperbacks, faded book-club editions—and to pick one up was to fall deep into the strangely placid waters of its agitated plot.
I was going to say that readers may have forgotten just how good le Carré’s writing was; but even as the years went by, le Carré never lost his writing talent. Indeed, in many of the later novels, from Single & Single (1999) to A Most Wanted Man (2008), prose was really all he seemed to have left. If anything, in a book like The Constant Gardener (2001), the writing had become even more careful, more delicate, more precious. Too precious, in fact. Somehow, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, each new volume felt a little less substantial, a little less incisive, a little less important, until—at this book, or that—you dropped off the le Carré express: not so much disliking him as ceasing much to notice him.
In the early books, however, the unhurried precision of that prose, the slow movement through those Cold War plots, made each new publication a mandatory read. He gave a wonderfully languid quality to the adventure tales of his spy fiction, as though Henry James had decided to rewrite Ian Fleming—Daisy Miller wandering into Casino Royale and having a rather tawdry little affair with James Bond.
Tawdry, in fact, has the authentic le Carré ring to it. A word of class distinction, just a little dated, and capturing in the prose what all the best le Carré seemed to be about: that moment when the classic British manner of affected amateurism and indolence fell over into genuine exhaustion—a spiritual, social, and even physical ennui that pervaded everything. Bit by bit, the old colonies had fallen away, till old England just didn’t count for much, le Carré was telling us, and the struggle against the Soviets was fought, in the final decades, only through a kind of inertia. A dull stone rolling slowly down the tail end of a slope. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold showed us a Cold War so much more vile than previous fiction had taught us to expect. The Looking Glass War, a spy profession so much more incompetent. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, an England so much more corrupt.
Right at the moment he came along, espionage fiction needed someone like John le Carré. (His real name was David Cornwell. He had to use a pen name—“John the Square” in French—because he was still working for the British secret services when the first novels appeared.) By the early 1960s, the genre had grown somehow both enormously popular and enormously dull, the lift the Cold War had given spy novels hardening into formula and cliché. Yes, there had been spies in popular fiction before fears of the Soviet Union began to dominate the category. Back in 1907, Joseph Conrad used the genre to explore the murderous psychology of leftist terrorists, but Germany remained the central worry through most of the era. And of those books, Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903) remains almost worth reading. E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Great Impersonation (1920) is better than the universal dismissal of its author would lead you to suspect, as, for that matter, is John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).