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Someone who dislikes the John Le Carre Cold War novels

A regular commenter and occasional writer for Samizdata, Paul Marks, has recently, over at the Counting Cats blog, taken aim at the output of John Le Carre and in particular, the George Smiley character that got one of its most famous outings in the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy novel (now a film starring Gary Oldman). I remember watching the old TV series starring the late, very great Alec Guinness. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the series a lot and how it showed George Smiley, with a few associates, track down the identity of the mole inside UK intelligence. (If you don’t want to know who the mole is, Paul Marks’ item gives him away immediately, which is a naughty thing to do without a warning).

Of course, the role of spies, the nature of spying and the Cold War confrontations in which they were involved produced an interesting genre of work that continues to appeal even now that some of the issues have changed. I always felt that Le Carre tried a bit too hard to show how he wasn’t a vulgar entertainer such as Ian Fleming, say, or for that matter, John Buchan. And I imagine he positively disdains such thriller writers as Vince Flynn, Tom Clancy or Brad Thor. (These are more overtly about action rather than spying, anyway).

For me, my favourite spy stories of all time are as follows:

From Russia with Love (Ian Fleming)
Journey into Fear (Eric Ambler)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John Le Carre);
The Ipcress File (Len Deighton)
Under Western Eyes (Joseph Conrad).

The “Hook, Line and Sinker” trilogy by Len Deighton is also wonderful, by the way. And anything by Eric Ambler is good.

22 comments to Someone who dislikes the John Le Carre Cold War novels

  • Mark G

    I have a feeling that the fact I like the more paranoid, solipsistic Quiller novels by Adam Hall says something unflattering about me.

    Looking forward to the TTSS film though.

  • Paul Marks

    Hard to describe why one dislikes the plot of a book without “giving away” the plot of that book.

    Nor is “Tinker, Taylor” really a “who-done-it” anyway – it is a period “atmosphere” and “human relationships” work.

    For the record I think the George Smiley character “works” – and thus the television series “worked” to.

    Works as in – “is an interesting character”.

    What does not work is the plot – that does not work because the author (John Le Carre) does not really give a toss about the real matters at stake during the Cold War (clue – they are STILL at stake). Indeed in that he accepts the education system doctrines against business and in favour of “social justice” Mr Le Carre has more in common with the other side than he does with the principles of the West.

    Some of his characaters are interesting (most are not – including the baddie, who is a cardboard cutout).

    But as for ideas (principles) – Le Carre does not write about them (because he can not – as, see above, he is more in sympathy with the ideas of the other side).

    There you are J.P – I did not mention the name of the bad guy.

    After all there are so many cardboard cutouts in the books that saying he is a cardboard cutout does not really narrow the field very much.

  • Pub Editor

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold doesn’t make the list?

  • I intensely disliked the movie versions of both The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Ipcress File.

    I’d agree with JP on From Russia With Love and Journey Into Fear. I don’t know if you can really call it a spy story, but I also quite like The 39 Steps.

  • Free

    No Frederick Forsyth? He is the master imo.

  • phwest

    Deighton’s Game, Set & Match triology (also good – same main character) was made into a mini-series with Ian Holm as Bernard Samsom which I quite liked, although apparently it is not available anywhere because Deighton didn’t like the casting and has declined to release it.

  • Westerlyman

    Adam Hall every time for me. Quiller is a masterpiece of a character. Under his real name, Elleston Trevor, he wrote such as The Flight of the Phoenix. He had a way of developing the characters which I feel, in common with Paul Marks, Le Carre lacks. Le Carre seems to have a skill at developing atmosphere though. Tinker, tailor seems so claustrophobic in its feeling of British public school. (not a very comfortable feeling).

  • pete

    I can’t see the appeal of the ‘ spy thriller’ genre.

    Either you were involved with spying, in which case why would you bother watching TV or cinema stories about it?

    Or you weren’t, so how do you know any of the intruige is true or not and why does it matter to you anyway?

  • bloke in spain

    Hi Paul.
    Looks like we continue our discussion over here because again I find myself defending the work of an author I don’t very much like as a person.
    Carbon cut-out characters – Which ones?
    In the story, Le Carre keeps us away from the three suspects (other than Smiley of course) because that’s what the plot line requires. Smiley’s pursuing his investigation as an outsider. Strictly unofficial. The interview with Toby Esterhase is obviously a hostile one conducted between two people who don’t care each other a great deal. The one with Sam Collins is more genial but Collins like Esterhase has been fired from the service. They’re both in very precarious positions. No longer part of the Circus but still vulnerable to pressures because of their past involvement. To them Smiley’s a threat as much as anything else.
    The other characters? Mendel as the ex-copper with his neat suburban home so divorced from the Town & Country lifestyle of the establishment players. Fawn the babysitter furious because Smiley loses him with such ease on one of his perambulations. Gillaume with his divided loyalties. Even the scene at Lacon’s country house, the conversation interrupted by the daughters fall from her pony.
    What Le Carre isn’t inclined to do is write from inside his characters heads so you judge them by their words & actions rather than their thoughts. I don’t think he can handle the latter. Naive & Sentimental Lover was an attempt & that certainly didn’t work for me.
    If you want Le Carre on public school education try A Murder of Quality. It’s not exactly a catalogue of praise. I can’t remember anything in Tinker Taylor that touches on the world of business or in any of the other books in the trilogy. He explores the incestuous relationship between politicians, the Civil Service & business in later Circus novels but I can’t say I find his views unjustified. The revolving doors that connect all three are a problem today. Ministers who slide into cushy jobs at the companies they were awarding contracts to a short time before. Politicised civil servants. Just the name Blair (not Barley, the ex PM) gives the material for an entire novel.
    As for Le Carre’s position on the cold war, read the passage in Smiley’s people in which Smiley tries to subvert Karla in an Indian jail.
    I can’t see Le Carre as being pro communist although I can find tenuous grounds for suspicion. He’s that other, much nastier thing. An establishment socialist. Not the Tory establishment but the BBC/Guardian/Common Purpose axised establishment that’s killing the UK.

    For anti establishment you can’t beat Deighton.
    Incidentally, there was no Harry Palmer. He’s a creation of the films. The character in the earlier Deighton novels never has a name of his own. You can’t even be sure it’s the same character although there’s a similarity of behaviour. His main preoccupation seems to be getting his expenses claims settled. The spying he does as a sideline.
    The ten Sampson novels are fascinating because the story line ends at the same time as the fall of communism itself. Worth reading the prequel, Winter, which covers the rise of Hitler & is one of the few novels I’ve read that treat the Nazi movement as containing real people with understandable behaviour, not as stock villains. Deighton’s SS/GB is another one.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold” annoys and amuses me with its stylish cynicism and moral relativism. The only character in the entire book who doesn’t exist in a fog of self-loathing is a seventeen year-old East German border guard who appears (and is murdered by an escaping British agent) in a single paragraph. The killing so incenses the nearby East German villagers that a hue-and-cry is sent up to catch the agent.

    Of course, we all know, post-unification, how much the East German people treasured their border guards.

    Purest Sixties tosh.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Quiller, Quiller, QUILLER! There ARE no others…Quiller abides alone (as I’m sure is his preference) in his own world of grit and ice. –Oh, I suppose once in awhile Ferris might be allowed to come by and strangle a few mice.

    George Segal??? Please! Ridiculous. Quiller is a man who does not, NEED not, speak nor smile, which makes Steve McQueen perfect for the part.

    So, we have our Class Genius, Adam Hall–a.k.a. “Elleston Trevor” among many other monikers–who gets the “A” for this quarter. It would have been Frederick Forsyth’s, had Mr. Hall not elected to turn in his exams, but…as it is, Mr. Forsyth gets B+, and I’m jolly glad to welcome him to my Permanent Shelf.

    (That’s only for the books, of course. In the movies, I’d go for Mr. Forsyth, then Mr. Deighton…James Bond is fun, but a different genre. The Top Two have SERIOUS spies.)

    And everybody else pretty much rassles amongst themselves for the D’s and F’s. Which is not to say that observing them as they do so isn’t most entertaining!

  • Hey, I liked this vintage 1960s Berlin as seen on screen in The Quiller Memorandum!

    Not that the movie is great; I just like the look of a lot of vintage 1960s movies. Interestingly, I hate the Boomers’ trying to set latter-day movies and TV shows back in their salad days. It looks phony, and we don’t need to fight their political battles again.

  • I think Le Carré makes a very clear distinction between East and West. In the West good people get sacked or passed over. In the East they get killed.

  • Adrian Ramsey

    I prefer John Gardener’s “Boysie Oakes” novels: great James Bond spoofs, and it’s a pity that Gardener ended up writing official Bond stories.

    However, nothing beats Adam Diment’s “Philip McAlpine” books for a glimpse into the madcap, drug-fuelled, and utterly politically incorrect maelstrom of the Sixties, with some absolutely bonkers espionage skullduggery thrown in for good measure.

  • Stephen Willmer

    Anyone interested in something underrated and slightly sui generis could do worse than Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Mortdecai Trilogy, kind of a cross between James Bond and Bertie Wooster.

  • John K

    Incidentally, there was no Harry Palmer. He’s a creation of the films. The character in the earlier Deighton novels never has a name of his own. You can’t even be sure it’s the same character although there’s a similarity of behaviour. His main preoccupation seems to be getting his expenses claims settled. The spying he does as a sideline.

    Indeed. I enjoyed the movie of The Ipcress File, but hated the novel when I gave it a try. Maybe if I had read the novel first I would have had a different reaction. But I do love the seedy glamour of the film, Harry’s shabby flat, the secret service front company in series of run down offices, it’s all so atmospheric. Funeral in Berlin was also enjoyable, but I found Billion Dollar Brain quite ridiculous. Obviously any Harry Palmer movie made in the 1990s does not count.

    The movie of the Quller Memorandum is a good way to get a feel of 1960s Berlin, with an ex-Nazi lurking round every corner, but the plot itself is rather stupid.

  • Rich Rostrom

    How about Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim?

    It is very much about spies and counterspies.

  • the other rob

    Since we seem to have moved on to recommendations, may I put in a word for Declare, by Tim Powers?

    It’s similar, in some ways, to Charlie Stross’ Laundry novels, without the humour.

  • Paul Marks

    bloke in Spain.

    Cardboard cutout characters – to an extent just about all of them (bar George Smiley who “works” – is interesting).

    However, I have been told that the film adds a crude anti Americanism that the original book did not really have.

    That may reflect how John Le Carre (who was deeply involved in the film) has “come out” over the years.

  • Paul Marks

    By the way I actually liked the films “The Ipcress File” and “From Russia with Love”.

    Not because they were anything like security or intelligence work – but because they were escapist entertainment (although the bad guy in The Iprcess File is very much what a leftist’s dream of a traitor would be like – and nothing like what real traitors are like).

    Methinks that the film of “Tinker, Tailor” will not be escapist entertainment – I will avoid it.

  • Bowood

    I recently enjoyed Robert Littell’s “The Amateur”, and look forward to trying another of his books.