I read my first John Le Carré novel in 1964, but the feeling of that book, a classic spy thriller of the Cold War period, still lingers today — it was that good. That book was, of course, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it perfectly captured the state of mind of the Cold War and the 60s.
Many of Le Carré’s books include a character named George Smiley, a secret agent working for MI6, the British overseas intelligence agency. This character had quite the opposite style of James Bond — he was middle-aged, quiet, intelligent, with strong moral conviction and a deep commitment to country. The character was portrayed brilliantly by Sir Alec Guinness in numerous films, although other actors portrayed him, as well.
Here’s an excellent description of George Smiley from a fun web site which offers a guide to Smiley’s London, complete with maps and photos:
Le Carré’s “secret world” is often seen through the eyes of his improbable protagonist, George Smiley. Short, fat, bespectacled, soft-spoken and unassuming, Smiley seems a most unlikely spy. But he has a keenly analytical mind, a prodigious memory and a lifelong dedication to his country’s intelligence service.
In the two years before Le Carré wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he wrote two murder mysteries with the main investigator being George Smiley, who had temporarily left his secret service job. In those early books, Le Carré was experimenting with some of the themes that would help solidify the character of George Smiley as the secret service agent who embodies “the key virtues of intelligence work” in the later books.
George Smiley was simply doing a favour for an old friend. Miss Brimley had received a letter from a worried woman reader: ‘I’m not mad. And I know my husband is trying to kill me.’ The writer of the letter was one Stella Rode, wife to an assistant master at Carne School, Dorset, and by the time it arrived, she was dead. Smiley went there to listen, take sherry, ask questions and think. And thus uncover, layer upon layer, the complexities, skeletons and hatreds that comprised this little English institution.
It was a good mystery, a fast read, and it was so interesting to see the beginnings of a fictional character that has become an icon. John Le Carré is a wonderfully intelligent writer, and he has a new book coming out later this month, which I would definitely like to read. Fall is a perfect time to read Le Carré, so treat yourself to one or all of his novels!