Review of Select John LeCarré Novels
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
The Honorable Schoolboy
A Legacy of Spies
Agent Running in the Field
The four of 26 novels by John LeCarré named above form a group that span the career of this inventive and insightful author. They were evidently not designed to be bedtime reading; unless they were meant to have sentences and even chapters read over and over and gone back to in order to refresh the memory of people on the verge of unconsciousness. Having situations clearly in mind is absolutely necessary for the next part of the story to make any sense. Read as sleep aids the stories lose continuity and become no more than bedtime distractions. The skillful development of the tension inherent in distrust, the careful placement of suspicion and artful disclosure of small nuanced observations of significance or merely atmospheric provide the reader with many challenges and much to be appreciated. Anyone who has not seen the movies and is not conversant with the recurring characters (George Smiley and Peter Guillam) and the geography of London and the south of England might be put off by the assumption that their background is well known. The cast of characters in this version of MI6 is far from James Bond. These are English characters based unapologetically in England presenting Americans with an engaging and somewhat demeaning perspective as “the cousins.” It is difficult to keep characters straight when part of the organizational structure of Britain’s spy agency MI6 was purposely obtuse. The characters of the “Circus” require attention to detail that puts the reader squarely in its high-level meetings and discussions. Body language, quick glances, past dealings, competitive feelings, suspicion, envy, admiration all have been woven into fascinating scenes recognizable by anyone who has participated in meetings within any organization.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a compelling and archetypical spy novel dealing with the cat and mouse relationship of MI6 and East Germany at the height of the Cold War. Double agents, clandestine meetings, and the other tropes of spy craft are deftly used to move the plot with twists and turns that justify the time and effort required to understand the story. The tension within it is raised for those with memories of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the repressiveness of the communist governments of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union
The Honorable Schoolboy is a much longer tale set mainly in Hong Kong and the countries of Southeast Asia as the Vietnam War was drawing to its depressing end. While George Smiley and Peter Guillam directed from the safety of the Circus in London, the characters on the ground are cynical, self-interested observers, and always in peril. For those who experienced the seemingly unending fighting in Southeast Asia, the recall of its futility and misery can find it expressed in these pages. Hong Kong is still at the interface of the West and the East. It was particularly so as a British Crown Colony and listening post while China in the 1970s was an opaque society. The clues to what the Chinese were thinking came to the West from reading posted notices, from refugees from the mainland and from spies. Smuggling, intrigue, and the quest to meaningfully penetrate the secret avenues to power were well set in the warm, humid, overcrowded and thug infested city. This setting contrasts with the rural and depressed landscape served by jaded pilots flying rattletrap airplanes in service of the drug and arms trade where people did not really know who or why they were fighting.
It’s an engaging yarn that can be absorbing, taking the imagination out of our world and into one that has been sketched for us for many years by many observers. It is not a world of James Bond’s casinos in Monte Carlo. Working class London, upscale condos in the tropical heat of Hong Kong and the bars of the Kowloon side make some less than plausible events seem possible.
Legacy of Spies was written to tie up loose ends and close the book on the LeCarré characters. It should be read only after getting an appreciation for “tubby, bespectacled, permanently worried George Smiley” and company he kept. With this in mind, the story is a good one told by Smiley’s associate Peter Guillam in the course of a defense of the events chronicled in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The characters and the effects on those around them generated unintended and surprising consequences that play out in the twists and turns of examination of documents, interviews and contemporaneous events brought to light to defend the “company” in a lawsuit brought by the children of principal characters killed in the service of MI6.
Agent Running in the Field was published in 2019 and may well be the last spy novel that LeCarré produces. The novel contains the double agents, ambiguous and clandestine meetings and international intrigue of earlier work with generous references to previous situations. It begins with what seem to be innocent badminton matches but you know that they and the characters will not turn out to be without devious inspiration. Badminton is much more that a pleasant lawn game. Played seriously it is hard to imagine the level of sportsmanship required for the competitive spirits to be dissipated by a couple of pints at the bar. The metaphor comparing the game to spy-craft is engaging. Along the way the Englishman’s references to Brexit, Trump, and Putin put a contemporary cast on the story that is easily understood and appreciated regardless of political philosophy.
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