John LeCarre gave us an alternative to the glitzy hi-jinks of James Bond in 1963 with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and followed up in 1974 with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Otherwise, the spy novel would surely have continued in the rut of dare-devil hero versus the Bad Guy(s) with the formulaic certainty, quite comforting after all, that good would triumph over evil after a tour of some of the more hedonistic watering holes of the jet set.
LeCarre’s places were almost always dingy by comparison, except perhaps for the embassy parties in The Constant Gardener; and instead of superheroes in five star restaurants and hotels, he took us into the world of spy craft, deception, interrogation, and into the minds of the spies. In one Eastern European country, “surveillance was not usually a problem, for the security forces knew next to nothing about watching streets.” Back in London, Smiley drove past the “unlovable fascades of the Edgeware … the sky was black with waiting rain, and all that remained of the sun was a lingering redness on the tarmac."
With all the power in his writing and his interest in the motivation of his characters, LeCarre reinvented the spy thriller as psychological novel. “It is a habit in all of us,” he noted, “to make our cover stories our assumed personae, at least parallel with the reality.” Therefore a good spymaster should take more seriously the opposition’s cover stories. Similarly, the interrogator must beware the almost automatic urge to project himself into the life of a man who does not speak.
When Smiley finally uncovers the mole in the Circus, “he saw with painful clarity an ambitious man born to the big canvas… for whom the reality was a poor island with scarcely a voice that would carry.” The mole’s initial betrayals were at first limited to “directly advance the Russian cause over the American.” It was the realization, after Britain’s failure to assert itself at the Suez Canal, that its situation was inane that led him to become a mole working unreservedly for the Russians.
The literary and geopolitical landscapes have changed since he wrote. There is still the temptation to write about covert operations as opposed to the gathering and analysis of intelligence. But writers today do not pause and savor words as fussily as LeCarre did. There are new enemies and battles to be fought but alas the same jingoism (to be avoided we hope by the better writers).
Above all, in the twilight of the bipolar world (divided between East and West, the Iron Curtain, or as it was once asserted between the inheritors of Latin Christianity and the epigones of Greek Orthodoxy) there is the challenge to write of geopolitics and intelligence in this new world without the artistic device of a Manichaean battle between good and evil. Would that he were still here to show us how.