David Cornwell, who wrote under his famous name John le Carré for six decades and died on December 12 at the age of 89, came from a long tradition of British writers who were also spies. However, unlike others in this tradition, his books transcend their spy novel genre. Like espionage itself, they are about human frailty – moral ambiguity, intrigue, nuance, doubt, and cowardice. And for the same reason, Le Carré’s fiction had the rare difference of having a noticeable impact on its subject – the intelligence world.
Although he only worked for the British Secret Service for a few years, Le Carré in low-level positions – Le Carré was the only writer who served in both MI5 (British domestic security service) and MI6 (foreign secret service) – shaped his entire experience subsequent career as a writer. He wrote his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961), a small masterpiece, while commuting to the London headquarters of MI5 by train – which certainly made it the best novel ever written on a train – despite being too this time switched to MI6 was released. At that time, both services were kept very secret, far more than they are today. The British government did not even publicly disclose the existence of its intelligence services at the time. Le Carré was not allowed to mention either service at all and instead merged them into a single fictional institution: the circus.
This book introduced readers to George Smiley, Le Carré’s most famous character. Although brilliantly written, Smiley’s first introduction to the novel gave no indication that he would become the greatest believable fictional spy of all time. Le Carré’s first description of Smiley – short, bold, calm, unattractive, with “really bad clothes” that looks like a “bullfrog in a Southwest” marrying an amazingly beautiful woman by the title – was the opposite of Ian Fleming’s James Bond and then dominated the realm of espionage fiction. From that novel on, Le Carré brought a gray drudgery into the world of espionage that readers – including many intelligence officers – could identify with.
MI6 immediately had, and has, a complex and difficult relationship with Smiley. Le Carré’s novels were read so widely that they defined the public perception of MI6. Your readers have been and will be forgiven that betrayal was a defining feature of MI6 and, according to Smiley, its officers. The reality is different. Released British intelligence records show the high level of trust among his officers – responsible for keeping Britain’s most sensitive secrets.
Le Carré drew inspiration from some of the greatest true espionage stories of the Cold War in his novels. And they actually involved devastating betrayal. The betrayal and damage that Kim Philby, a senior KGB agent in MI6, inflicted on British intelligence is in one of his most famous novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), and in the career of Magnus Pym, the protagonist, too see A Perfect Spy (1986). The Cold Weather Spy was released the same year Philby moved to the Soviet Union in 1963, where he joined his Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.
The case of Oleg Penkovsky, a CIA and MI6 agent deep in Soviet military intelligence, provided Le Carré with inspiration for The Russia House (1989). Penkovsky’s spying on Soviet missiles helped US President John F. Kennedy solve the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Based on Penkovsky, the novel describes a Soviet nuclear physicist, Yakov, who tries to provide the West with secrets about the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The real British businessman MI6 contacted Penkovsky with, Greville Wynne, is Le Carré’s inspiration for Bartholomew “Barley” Blair. Sean Connery, who stepped out of his James Bond character, memorably played Blair in the 1990 film from Le Carré’s novel.
Meanwhile, Le Carré’s matronly character Connie Sachs was inspired by Milicent Bagot, an expert in true counter-espionage described in the history of MI5. Le Carré later recalled the writer Ben Macintyre that Bagot “always wore a hat inside and never missed a rehearsal of the Bach Choir”. Le Carré seems to have satirically avenged himself on Bagot, who gave new intelligence recruits like him a difficult time. He portrayed Sachs, the alter ego of the celibate Bagot who was cared for at home by her aging nanny, as an alcoholic.
British intelligence made good use of their secrecy to create mysticism – and, as Le Carré would quickly point out, to cover up unpleasant truths. In the meantime, Le Carré used his career to add authenticity and credibility to his novels. At a time when little was officially said about these services, his books offered the public a fictional education about them. As a result, people in post-war Britain understood more fiction than fact about the country’s secret state.
The mystery cultivated and written about Le Carré by the secret services has resulted in misleading depictions of British secret services in novels, films and television series. Le Carré’s novels lack a balanced sense of the successes of the British secret service – how its services protected the country’s national security and stole secrets from its opponents. Penkovsky’s true story is about bravery, with MI6 and CIA sharing valuable information from Soviet intelligence. It’s also a tragedy: the KGB captured Penkovsky and executed him as a warning to others who might betray the Soviet Union. Le Carré never wrote a novel about Oleg Gordievsky, a hugely successful agent recruited by MI6 who ran in the KGB and then managed to get to Britain from the Soviet Union.
Readers, viewers, and reviewers believed the spy who came in from the cold was the “real thing” because Le Carré wrote both realistically and brilliantly. Both the novel and the film, Le Carré later wrote, were “pure fiction from beginning to end”:
However, this was not the view of the world press, which decided with one voice that the book was not only authentic but some kind of revelatory message from the other side, so all I had to do was sit tight and watch a kind of frozen one Awe as it climbed and got stuck on the bestseller list as pundits after pundits touted it as the real thing.
While Le Carré’s novels were fiction, their lines with the real world of espionage sometimes blurred. Unlike other spy writers such as Graham Greene (a wartime MI6 officer), Le Carré’s letter went into the secret services itself. He popularized the term “mole” in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to describe a long-term enemy agent who dug himself into an intelligence agency. While “mole” is the noun that Le Carré introduced into the vernacular of professional intelligence, it first appears in the first chapter of Call for the Dead, which does not mean a penetration agent, but as Smiley’s nickname. Only later did it take on its other meaning thanks to le Carré.
Le Carre is responsible for another language that has become the secret service language on both sides of the Atlantic – “honey trap”, “scalphunter”, “lamp spotlight”, to name a few. Within the CIA, the team that was later responsible for hunting down Soviet agents during the Cold War was referred to as the “Russia House”. And while life mimicked art, high-ranking CIA officers chased their own Karlas, Smiley’s Soviet intelligence enemy.
Le Carré’s books also reached across the iron wall; It is no coincidence that his death was honored by the Russian embassy in London: “Although he was on the other side of the Iron Curtain, he knew and understood Russia – and is admired by millions of Russian readers.” The last chief of the Soviet Foreign intelligence service and the first chief of the post-Soviet service of Russia, Yevgeny Primakov, was a great admirer of Le Carré. While visiting London in 1997 as Foreign Minister for President Boris Yeltsin, Primakov asked the Russian Ambassador to invite le Carré to lunch: “I really enjoyed talking to this outstanding man. … I was particularly pleased about a copy of his recently published Smiley’s People with the author’s inscription: “Evgeny Maximovich Primakov with my sincere, warm wishes and in the hope that we will live in a much better world than the one described here. «Primakov said to Le Carré:» I identify with George Smiley. «
Successive heads of MI6 – formerly known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – did not. Sir Maurice Oldfield, who ran from 1973 to 1978, told Sir Alec Guinness, who played Smiley in the acclaimed 1979 TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: “It’s young David [Cornwell] thus making it all the more difficult for the service to recruit decent officers and sources. You read his books and are disturbed. “Sir Richard Dearlove, Chef 1999-2004, said of a literary festival in Cliveden, UK in 2019:
We all really enjoyed reading the smiley books. … However, he’s so caustic about MI6 that most professional SIS officers get pretty angry with him. Intelligence organizations are based on trust between colleagues. … His books are all about treason.
The world of British intelligence today is different from that of Le Carré, who joined six decades ago. You came from the cold. MI6 now has a transparent recruiting process, and its current and retired bosses have public profiles – even tweets. The news of Le Carré’s death resulted in a tribute to the current head of MI6, Richard Moore, who offered his condolences to everyone at River House – the fictional name Le Carré gave to MI6’s London headquarters on the river. Moore praised Le Carrés “impressive and brilliant novels”.
However, Moore’s earlier, very first, tweet as head of MI6 revealed his complicated relationship with the author: he urged potential smileys not to apply for the service.