Archive for John le Carre

Book review – A Delicate Truth

A Delicate Truth (2013) is another of John le Carre’s standalone novels (as opposed to his George Smiley series), and firmly within the spy firmament for which he is so well known. This time round we follow in the footsteps of a young, ambitious foreign office official, Toby Bell. Bell is private secretary to a morally ambiguous FO minister, who’s particularly friendly with a defence contractor. The minister is embroiled in a botched mission in Gibraltar, involving our friend the defence contractor, which Bell only becomes aware of through a former diplomat, Sir ‘Kit’ Probyn. Probyn was on the ground during the operation and informs Bell that innocents were killed and that a cover-up is in play, leading to the death of others involved in the operation. Bell therefore finds himself at the centre of things and needs to decide whether to remain loyal to his minister or to blow the whistle.

Numerous reviews of this book suggest that this is Le Carre’s first true post-Cold War novel. I can’t really comment on that, having read a fair few but not all of Le Carre’s works. What is interesting however is that this novel feels the closest to reality. The Gibraltar operation isn’t a million miles off the notorious 1988 SAS operation, Flavius, which resulted in the supposedly unlawful deaths of three IRA members. The close relationship between a minister and defence contractor also finds art imitating life. Liam Fox MP resigned as defence secretary in 2011 following allegations his friend, a lobbyist, had inappropriate access via Fox to departmental meetings, and thus falling foul of the ministerial code. Lastly, the suicide of Dr David Kelley (whose death led to the Hutton Inquiry) also appears to be reflected in the book.

Ironically, the largest event in UK spying history (that we know of anyway!), the outing of the so-called Cambridge Five, including Kim Philby, as Russian spies, doesn’t have a parallel within A Delicate Truth. Spying within the upper echelons of the UK’s secret service has been a theme throughout le Carre’s novels, especially the Smiley series and he’s clearly made a conscious decision to keep the high-level skulduggery to a minimum, focussing on a relatively junior member of staff stuck between a rock and a hard place.

One of the things I most enjoy about le Carre’s novels is the high-level skulduggery, so it’s fair to say that I was a little disappointed, finding the subject of the book to be a little pedestrian compared to the full-on spy novels I’m accustomed to. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book, which has plenty to offer in terms of thrills, twists and turns, and at just over 300 pages is a pretty quick read. Recommended.

Book review – A Legacy of Spies

I reviewed John Le Carre’s The Spy who came in from the Cold back in March.  When reading it I hadn’t realised that Le Carre had already returned, 55 years later, to the events in ‘the Spy’ with the publication of his 2017 novel A Legacy of Spies.  ‘Legacy’ centres on the character of Peter Guillam, who, if memory serves, was a peripheral (at best) character in the Spy.  Guillam is now living in Brittany, enjoying his retirement, when he’s summoned back to London (you never leave the service!) to go over some old case files, involving Alec Leamas, the chief protagonist of the Spy, which are causing the secret service – a.k.a. ‘The Circus’ – some bother.

The story of the Spy is told in a clever way, mainly via the debriefing of a supposed defector.  Legacy is equally clever in terms of its storytelling, using the present time, flashback, and official and unofficial reports dating from the era of the Spy.  Through these means were are brought into the events leading up to and including those that unfold in the Spy, putting us both in the chair of scheming, spymaster Smiley, and on the ground with Leamas and Guillam as they play their respective roles in Smiley’s schemes.

The means by which the story is told also allows for multi-dimensional perspectives on events, which sometimes leave you wondering what the truth is.  Those who know the Karla trilogy or have seen the movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will know that some within the Circus suspected it of being infiltrated by a Soviet agent.  This mood of distrust pervades Legacy and in so doing, Le Carre not only binds Legacy to the Spy, but also with the Karla Trilogy making it a weightier and elaborate affair than it might otherwise have been.

If you’ve read the Spy then Legacy is a must read.  If you’ve not read the Spy, read it.  Then read Legacy.  Both are fairly short books (Legacy clocking in at around 265 pages) so reading them back-to-back wouldn’t be too much of an ordeal. Quite the opposite, in fact.  I don’t think one needs to read the Karla Trilogy to enjoy Spy and Legacy but it would certainly make for a more rewarding reading experience.

Book review – The Spy who came in from the Cold

The Spy who came in from the Cold (let’s just call it ‘the Spy’) was John le Carré’s third novel.  Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Spy is very much a product of its time (though with recent events unfolding that assertion may be called into question).  Published in 1963, the Cold War was entering a new phase, a year in which the US agreed to set up a hotline with the USSR, and JFK delivered his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.

I’m familiar with the Spy, having seen the 1965 movie, starring Richard Burton, on a handful of occasions.  I was reticent therefore about reading the book.  I generally prefer to read the book before I see the movie.  While wary of knowing the plot, and having Richard Burton’s face imprinted on my vision of the central character of Alec Leamas, I thought it worth reading.  The Spy has classic status in spy fiction and at just over 200 pages in length it was never going to be a huge investment of my time.

Image result for spy who came in from the cold book

On the death of one of his agents, Alec Leamas, our spy, returns to London from Berlin.  While tired of a life in the shadows, Leamas isn’t quite ready for seeing out his career behind a desk.  He is persuaded by Control to be the final thrust in a plot to destabilise East German Intelligence through his playing the role of defector and false intelligence provider.

It’s a fairly bleak book.  You can almost feel the London drizzle on your face and the sound of tyres on wet roads. If a book could be in black and white, it’s this one.  But that’s high praise.  The character of Leamas is nicely drawn even if some of the other characters around him aren’t quite as realistic nor the relationships forged.  Perhaps this is a consequence of Spy being a fairly short book with quite a plot to get through.

The Spy has plenty to keep you engaged, and enough atmosphere to shake the proverbial stick at.  There’s a great twist as well which makes you realise and appreciate, in a Count of Monte Cristo way, how well put together and constructed the book and plot is.  Spy is highly recommended, as is the movie.  Just try and do it in that order!