A Most Ordinary Passing of A Most Extraordinary Writer

John Le Carré, giving a speech at the German Embassy in London [Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic]

I don’t remember when I first read John Le Carré – sometime in the late 70s or early 80s, probably after watching the BBC miniseries of his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when it was shown on PBS. The genre was ostensibly a spy thriller, but it was not like other spy thrillers then in circulation.

Consider the central character of George Smiley, whom Le Carré introduces like this:

Mr. George Smiley was not naturally equipped for hurrying in the rain, least of all at dead of night. . . Small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting and extremely wet. His overcoat, which had a hint of widowhood about it, was of that black, loose weave which is designed to retain moisture. Either the sleeves were too long or his arms too short for, . . . when he wore his mackintosh, the cuffs all but concealed the fingers. For reasons of vanity he wore no hat, believing rightly that hats made him ridiculous. “Like an egg cosy,” his beautiful wife had remarked not long before the last occasion on which she left him, and her criticism as so often had endured. Therefore the rain had formed in fat, unbanishable drops on the thick lenses of his spectacles, forcing him alternately to lower or throw back his head as he scuttled along the pavement which skirted the blackened arcades of Victoria Station.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but George Smiley is not James Bond, Jack Ryan, or Jason Bourne.

To my great delight, Le Carré wrote characters who are so delightfully ordinary, grappling with concerns and issues equally ordinary, even while dealing with concerns and issues that were extraordinary in the extreme. Yes, he wrote of the secret world of spies and the not-so-secret world in which they do their spying, but there were shades of gray all over the place, making his writing much more engaging than folks like Fleming or Clancy. Le Carré’s novels, set in the cold war and post-cold war world, explored loyalty and betrayal, failure and success, enemies and allies (and associates who are neither), and human frailty and strength, and I loved the way he made me explore those very same things.

John Le Carré passed away last night from pneumonia at age 89 – a most ordinary passing of a most extraordinary writer.

One of the things that grabbed me initially in his writing is the utter absence of over-the-top James Bond-ish spy gadgets that appear at just the right moment to rescue the hero or the mission. Similarly, his novels are not filled with physically strong and athletic heroes like Jason Bourne, but ordinary folks with bad backs, heart problems, and old injuries that slow them down. Most of all, the stories explore notions of empire (lost ones, struggling ones, and ones looking to emerge) and individuals, unafraid to ask difficult questions about one’s own nation or self, and face the flaws that emerge with the answers.

Another thing that drew me in was the manner in which he described the world of government. I had just finished serving as an intern at the State Department, and the world of Tinker, Tailor rang true. Yes, the government of which he wrote was English, not American, and most of the people in the stories were in the secret services, not the diplomatic service, but nevertheless, the way he described them fit my limited but at that time very fresh experiences in DC. Here were government employees who had to worry about their budgets, who had to negotiate (or fight) bureaucratic battles with other departments, who had to wrestle with how much (or how little) to tell their bosses or their allies, and who had to deal with the Ordinary Stuff of life while also dealing with Very Important Stuff at work.

But most of all, Le Carré was a great storyteller. One indication, from his obituary at The Guardian: “The world of “ferrets” and “lamplighters”, “wranglers” and “pavement artists” was so convincingly drawn that his former colleagues at MI5 and MI6 began to adopt Le Carré’s invented jargon as their own.” When the spies themselves are so drawn in to the story you are telling about spies, you’re doing it right.

Le Carré is also indirectly responsible for drawing me to Emptywheel, many years ago.

In Tinker, Tailor, Le Carré spins a tale of the unmasking of a Russian mole embedded in the higher reaches of the British secret service known as “The Circus.” The Honourable Schoolboy is the sequel, in which Smiley and his colleagues have to deal with the aftermath of all the security breaches exposed in the earlier book. Near the opening, Smiley gathers the remains of the Circus leadership, and after displaying in excruciating detail the extent of the damage done to the Circus, Smiley points to the way forward:

The premise, said Smiley, when they had resettled, was that Haydon [the mole] had done nothing against the Circus that was not directed, and that direction came from one man personally: Karla [head of the Russian secret service].

The premise was that in briefing Haydon, Karla was exposing gaps in Moscow Centre’s knowledge; that in ordering Haydon to suppress certain intelligence that came the Circus’ way, in ordering him to downgrade or distort it, to deride it, or even to deny it circulation altogether, Karla was indicating which secrets he did not want revealed.

“So we can take back-bearings, can’t we, darling?” murmured Connie Sachs [the ancient head of the Russian desk at the Circus], whose speed of uptake put her, as usual, a good length ahead of the field.

“That’s right, Con. That’s exactly what we can do,” said Smiley gravely. “We can take the back-bearings.” He resumed his lecture, leaving Guillam [another senior spook], for one, more mystified than before.

By minutely charting Haydon’s path of destruction (his pug marks, as Smiley called them); by exhaustively recording his selection of files; by reassembling — after aching weeks of research, if necessary — the intelligence culled in good faith by Circus outstations, and balancing it, in every detail, against the intelligence distributed by Haydon to the Circus’s customers in the Whitehall market-place, it would be possible to take back-bearings (as Connie so rightly called them), and establish Haydon’s, and therefore Karla’s, point of departure. Said Smiley.

Once a correct back-bearing had been taken, surprising doors of opportunity would open, and the Circus, against all likelihood, would be in a position to go over to the initiative — or, as Smiley put it, “to act, and not merely to react.”

Call me crazy, but isn’t that a perfect description of what Marcy does here at Emptywheel, supported by other frontpagers and the EW commentariat? Read the documents, read between the lines of the documents, compare these documents with those documents, look at what is said and what is not said, build the timelines, and pretty soon you’ll see what someone doesn’t want you to see.

After years of being enthralled by Le Carré, how could I not get drawn in to this place?

*raising a glass*

To a most extraordinary writer, at his most ordinary passing.


52 replies
  1. dakine01 says:

    I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold when I was 13 or 14. Pre Clancy of course but I had already read all the Fleming Bond books as well as a few Alistair MacLean by then.

    I do remember it was a good read & think maybe I should pick it up again.

  2. subtropolis says:

    I’ve enjoyed so many of his books. I lost interest in the antics of James Bond while still in my early teens. Having lived in West Germany, and seen close up the trappings of the Cold War in Europe — and, perhaps, being a cerebral loner by nature — I gravitated towards the real thing, rather than comic book action adventure. John le Carré’s novels were among the very little “spy” fiction that I bothered with. And, oh, was it superb.

    You touched on one aspect of his most famous character that I thought was a genius touch: the painful memory of Smiley’s wife having left him. Is not any Intelligence service forever struggling with having been cuckolded?

    Sad that we won’t see the like of him again. He was shaped by an extraordinary era and, in turn, shaped so much of our understanding of it.

      • Tim Cline says:

        Same here. Add to it that I was a CompLit major!

        At one point I embarked on a quest to read everything he wrote. I think I have a solid bookshelf full of his works. Have reread the Karla trilogy many times.

  3. Paul Houser says:

    One of the aspects I valued most about Le Carre’s work over the years was the often ambiguous or sometimes tragic endings as compared to the tidy endings of most fiction.

  4. Nehoa says:

    Peterr: Thank you for the post. Passing of a giant. Think I have read all of his books, except maybe one or two. Learned more from his fiction than many college classes.
    Thinking about what movie could be developed from MW’s work. So many choices!

        • Peterr says:

          In the Guardian obit referenced in the post, they have this nugget:

          Smiley is only a minor figure in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold [Le Carre’s breakthrough novel, well before Tinker, Tailor], but this story of a mission to confront East German intelligence is filled with his world-weary cynicism. According to Alec Leamas, the fiftysomething agent who is sent to East Berlin, spies are just “a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives”. Graham Greene hailed it as “the best spy story I have ever read.”

  5. I Never Lie and am Always Right says:

    Le Carre was in a class by himself. I just started re-reading his books a short time ago, after a long hiatus. Luckily, I have them all. Started with The Night Manager. What a joy to read.

    Len Deighton is still alive. He’s not as good as Le Carre, but still is very good.

  6. Dmbeaster says:

    He was one of the giants of prose. Read his work slowly, deliciously, for every word. And expect a brutal expose’ of the human condition – not a feel good action story.

    His stories were masterful. One thing I will point out as a major revelation in reading his work was his basic point that spooks are at their core criminals, but sanctioned because they commit their crimes for the State, and hopefully for a good reason. After all, what do field spooks do? Burgle, bug, wiretap, lie, deceive, blackmail, seduce, and ultimately murder. Hopefully, for a justifiable reason.

    • Nord Dakota says:

      I’m just about done with The Honourable Schoolboy at the moment–turned up while helping an older couple I know sort out some books. I don’t remember what the first LeCarre novel I read was, I found it in a thrift store (where I often find new authors) after a spell of reading Frederick Forsyth. In more recent years, I appreciated what he did with post-Cold War spy fiction–more and more often centered on people who were NOT spies. The painful endings are very painful, but what strikes me most about LeCarre’s works is how deeply humane they are.

      Have to admit sometimes I have some trouble with plot because the writing is so often elliptical–like how often the Smiley books launch with what people thought after what they thought happened happened.

      Also, the photo of him on the back cover of one of his books–I think he was 80 when it was taken–LeCarre was an exceedingly lovely looking 80 year old.

  7. N.E. Brigand says:

    I never noticed the reference to Smiley’s “ill-fitting” suit in that early passage before. I suppose that means it was made in London, given that when Haydon, in his final conversation with Smiley, says that “Moscow tailors are unspeakable,” we read that Smiley’s “opinion of London tailors was no better.” A nice little bookending touch, that.

    (Something else I just noticed: in the next paragraph, there’s a reference to a “sailor friend” of Haydon’s. Given the nursery rhyme from which the book takes its title, that has to be deliberate.)

    Great point about Ms. Wheeler’s work!

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      I would put Smiley’s view of London tailors down to his sometimes poor judgment – clothes, Ann – and his frugality. Le Carre gave Smiley the veneer of a certain kind of London gentleman, who had the wealth to attend public school and Oxbridge, and to live in a row house in Chelsea, but was happiest whinging about the price of a postage stamp. Thankfully, he also gave Smiley courage, a brain, and a now old-fashioned sense of public service.

      And how like Bill Haydon to worry about the clothes he would wear in Moscow, while ignoring why he would be there. Jim Prideaux did himself, Haydon, and the world a favor by saving him the trouble of finding a new tailor.

      One of le Carre’s gifts was to portray his extraordinary world of spies as a gnarled tree growing from the roots of an ordinary world of declining empire and the mandarins clinging to its wreckage. Normal people might be caught up in it, but their wants and needs and feelings played no part in it, except to be fodder for the machinery, like Tommies going over the trench top.

      Le Carre was equally acquainted with – and more dismissive of – the shiny glass towers in the London Docklands, monuments to cannibalistic bankers and property developers and corporate titans, whose wealth came from an underworld of corruption – money laundering, illicit arms dealing and the drug trade – as much as from an overworld of business. No wonder he sought a quantum of solace in his clifftop home in Cornwall.

  8. Observiter says:

    Thank you, Peterr, for writing the article. I learned of his death through it/you. Coincidentally, I’m in the midst of reading “Agent Running in the Field” (2019). It is about a 47 year old man/spy, named Nat, towards the end of his career with British Secret Intelligence Services. Nat has one last opportunity. Le Carre’s work is more intellectual, detail-oriented than the common blockbuster. There’s an incredible richness and wit, and focus on the details of his characters, surroundings and plot. I love his sense of humor and occasional allusion to the state of affairs of the world. I’m also in the midst of reading Le Carre’s memoir called “The Pigeon Tunnel” (2016). Most interestingly, he served briefly in British Intelligence during the Cold War, which definitely attracted my attention early on. Thanks again, Peterr.

  9. Legonaut says:

    Mrs. Lego looked up from her laptop last night with an “Oh, no!” Expecting the worst, she indeed told me that someone dear to us had passed – John LeCarre.

    Going over our shelves of his books and DVDs of adaptations of his work (as much as I like Gary Oldman, Alec Guinness’ Smiley was truer to the books; extra cameo of Patrick Stewart as Karla at the end!), I haven’t felt the loss of an author as much since Terry Pratchett. I grew up on the glamor and savoir faire of Bond, Bourne, and the rest — but knew better than to believe any of it. LeCarre made that world believable, with its squalor, tawdriness, and immensely flawed people. By the end, you feel that it’s only through drudgery & luck that anything is accomplished at all, and then only fleetingly.

    Thanks for the post, Peterr. And a second on Marcy”s back-bearings — invaluable!

  10. joel fisher says:

    For those of you who have “only” read LeCarré, I have some good news: listen to his audiobooks as read by the author. It’s as if there were a whole new book. In addition to his other skills, LeCarré was an expert narrator.

  11. icelanterns says:

    Great look back on Democracy Now w/ Le Carre. “The things that are done in the name of the shareholder, to me, are as terrifying as the things that, dare I say it, are done in the name of God”

  12. Bay State Librul says:

    Great job, a huge chunk of cool, calm, and collected reminders of fictional masterpieces.
    Now, can you nudge Emptywheel to ditto, with a non-fiction, full bodied, expose of
    the last four rat-infested years. Do I dare say RICO?

  13. mospeck says:

    Goodbye spy who came in from the cold. Read you when I was 13.
    What a great sad novel about the spooks and their games within games.
    But the KGB is not what it used to be.
    Now it appears to be full of incompetent boobs who leave tells all over the place, a gang who can’t properly poison someone. Tremendous investigative journalism by Bellingcat. Jan 21 it’s time for Old Joe to follow Alexey’s advice
    and disconnect russia from the civilized world.


  14. quebecois says:

    I started to read books in english in 76, I was 17 years old. A really crappy translation of Tolkien made me see the light.

    Started on Le Carré because my dad warmly suggested it in 82. Loved the sarcasm and irony, loved the humanity of his personnages.

    Next spring, I’ll revisit what was read and gladly will devour what he’s written since the mid-eighties

  15. Robot17 says:

    Sad. My favorite non-fiction writer. I happen to be reading Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsythe, another excellent book from the time period Smiley inhabits. All though it’s a great book in its own right, I couldn’t help but think how much better the Smiley books are and then I heard about Le Carre’s passing. His books are what made me interested in the politics of the time. I can’t even read them without picturing Alec Guinness as Smiley. The BBC shows of TTSS and Smiley’s People are unbelievable.

  16. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Reposting from an earlier thread:

    “From the NYT, a compendium for those less familiar with le Carre’s work. He was a great novelist. His themes were deception and its consequences, bureaucratic and familial.

    “Ian Fleming’s Bond lived in a two-dimensional whirl of wealth, assurance, and toxic masculinity. He never lost, but those close to him often lost everything. Le Carre’s characters – whether green or grizzled, ambitious or tapped out – live in fear, not knowing what lie, broken promise, or double cross might upend their lives.

    “In le Carre’s world, though, there could be hope. [But]… you [had] to learn… to trust yourself or the right someone, regardless of consequences. Even then, you needed to learn fast not to take the word of a banker, a drugs company, or a government; not to board a private plane with assurances of a safe flight to a new home; and not to cross a wooded London park at nightfall, hoping to meet an old colleague and not a shy couple under an umbrella.

    “Alec Leamas, the Spy Who Came in from the Cold, made le Carre famous. George Smiley – his brilliant, tattered alter-ego – made le Carre’s literary fortune. He returned to Smiley and his people often, even after he exposed Bill Haydon and defeated Karla. Le Carre moved on to the sunlit uplands of imperfect spies, bureaucratic knife-throwers, and corporate corrupters. That world was closer to home, and more threatening for it.

    “David Cornwell wishes he were home in Cornwall. Le Carre, though, paces the library at Smiley’s club, working on another first draft. Smiley sits listlessly in the club dining room – half-listening to Oliver Lacon whinge about his wife leaving him for her pesky riding instructor – wondering who Ann is with tonight. Peter Guillam sits impatiently, his XK rumbling at idle, having been sent for Smiley once more. Toby Esterhase keeps watch.”


  17. CHETAN R MURTHY says:


    Thank you for this lovely eulogy for that master, John Le Carre. I think you’ve really well-captured what Marcy and all of you do, and that also is a lovely tribute to the man and his art: that it can serve as such an apt description for real life.

  18. Chetnolian says:

    Thanks for starting this thread Peterr.

    It would be a shame to concentrate too much on George Smiley. Le Carre created such a catalogue of wonderful, flawed characters. My personal favourite is Barley Blair, the jazz loving, rather bibulous, publisher ,accidentally enmeshed in espionage towards the end of the Soviet Union, in “The Russia House”.

    That novel also introduced me to the concept of the “perhaps bag” the carrier bag which Le Carre asserted, probably correctly, that all Russians carried all the time in case they saw something for sale that would be gone tomorrow. In these days of environmental consciousness with the end of plastic bags, I still think of the linen bag I carefully keep in my car for when I buy an unexpected item as my perhaps bag.

    Le Carre gets that far inside the head, I find. There are other examples.

    The thought of not having another Le Carre to read is almost as upsetting as it was for me when Iain Banks died and I could not look forward to another splendidly odd novel. If you’ve never heard of Iain Banks, find “Dead Air”.

  19. Valley girl says:

    If I recall correctly it was earlofhuntingdon who posted this link here back in the early days of The Steele Dossier. It would be impossible for me to find his original comment, alas. but I finally remembered I had emailed the link to someone, after trying fruitlessly to find the article via google.

    I found it fascinating then, and now, upon rereading.

    Spies Like Us: A Conversation With John le Carré and Ben Macintyre


    • Valley girl says:

      A quote from the above, for bmaz. “Le Carré, who over a 56-year career has virtually single-handedly elevated spy novels from genre fiction into works of high literature…”

      And thank you Peterr for an excellent post.

  20. Christopher Blanchard says:

    A thought which I think fits in.

    In 1975 I was a (civilian) furniture mover for the British army in West Berlin and I went to one of the best gigs I have ever seen. That was Jethro Tull, in some amphitheater which is likely now destroyed – that doesn’t matter. What made the thing work, and astounding, was that the gig started with very loud sirens and with circling searchlights – that is very loud, and very bright lights, across the dark sky and around the bowl. This was in a city with forty thousand Russian tanks just outside, and twenty minutes away from conquering us, any time they chose.

    That audience, mostly Berliners, few Americans, few British and French, most similar age to mine (which was 18), screamed, as one might, and it was one of the best gigs I was ever at, by far.

    The world Le Carre described there was home to me for a few months – one tenement I lived in was the last on the edge of the wasteland, so I could walk out of my front arch and see the Wall, without interruptions.

    And I have been a British Civil Servant.

    I do, for all that, put Alan Furst a fraction ahead of Le Carre (start with Night Soldiers or Dark Star, his later books, like Le Carre’s, get a little mushier). What is true from both of them is that we can never get away; we live in ‘spy thrillers’, that is life, and what matters is whether we pay attention and respond.

    • bmaz says:

      I saw Tull in either 1977 or 1978. It did not have the Berlin backdrop, but was insanely good. And in that setting, it must have been darn near surreal. Wow.

  21. MattyG says:

    Ahhh… what crummy news. LeCarre was master of his craft, and Smiley the most vivid and enduring spook of all literature. RIP

  22. Geoguy says:

    Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviewed John Le Carre on Nov. 25, 2010. The transcript is available and is titled “British Novelist John le Carré on the Iraq War, Corporate Power, the Exploitation of Africa and His New Novel, “Our Kind of Traitor” This post is a wonderful tribute.

  23. Molly Pitcher says:

    Interesting timing that Trump announced Barr’s departure at the same moment California put Biden over the top in the Electoral College vote. What a venal, petty little man Trump is.

    Now the race is on to see how much damage can be done before the inauguration. The scene has been set with the multiple hackings of the various departments of the government and Trump kneecapping all of those departments by clearing out the professionals and installing his stooges.

    And correction for initial comment, it is Rosen, not Rosenstein

  24. vvv says:

    FWIW, and to inspire those others who find themselves sometime persons of excess, I just ordered the first 6 Le Carre’s (to re-read), and the two Guinness series DVD’s (which I have never seen).

    Hey, it’s a covidemic!

  25. emptywheel says:


    I’m tardy coming to the thread–been down my own rabbit holes. Thanks for the beautiful tribute and the kind words.

  26. Wayne says:

    I’ve read Le Carre off and on since my high school days, appreciating it all the way but mostly when the books fell my way, not as part of a concerted search. Having lived in West Germany, and having lived on the fringes of other aspects of the Cold War described in his books, I think I have a new goal.

    With retirement coming up next year, my answer to “What will you do with your time?” might just include reading the complete works of John Le Carre. That is, of course, between fulfilling requests from my better half.

  27. Alan Willard says:

    “Fresh Air with Teri Gross” broadcast two interviews with Le Carre on Monday night. He was very open about his upbringing and his father, describing what it was like to be his surrogate, fobbing off bill collectors, promising payments(“it’s in the post”), covering for him daily. He was mentored in deception and mendacity. She asked him how he overcame that bent start and he said he gradually learned to be a better person. I think his books show he achieved that by confronting himself, accepting his reality and rejecting behaviours that lead to tragedy. His books helped me by validating my feelings of confusion and distrust of my parents, although I didn’t really understand very much at the time. I recognized the feeling of searching for answers that had to be puzzled out and were never clear, but the reality was always there, waiting like a scab to be picked.

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