Spy-turned-novelist John le Carre adapts to changing times

  • Author John Le Carre, real name David Cornwell, is a master of the spy genre.

    Author John Le Carre, real name David Cornwell, is a master of the spy genre. Associated Press

  • Author John Le Carre, real name David Cornwell, is a master of the spy genre.

    Author John Le Carre, real name David Cornwell, is a master of the spy genre. Associated Press

Published9/25/2008 12:06 AM

The spying game is not what it used to be.

That is a matter of regret for John le Carre, eminent novelist and former spy, who has done more than almost any other writer to forge our idea of how the game is played. Ian Fleming's James Bond may be more famous, but le Carre's universe has the ring of truth. His secret agents exist in a world of stalemate, moral compromise, ambiguity and betrayal.


That's again the terrain of his 21st novel, "A Most Wanted Man," but in some ways the landscape has changed. The end of the Cold War changed things. The Sept. 11 attacks changed them again, revealing a frightening new menace and adding a glossary of chilling new terms - "war on terror," "extraordinary rendition" - to our common language.

"I have no nostalgia for the Cold War," says le Carre, who worked for British intelligence in Germany in the 1960s, when tensions with the Soviet Union were at their chilliest. "I think I have nostalgia for the hope that existed during the Cold War that when it ended we would redesign the world. We never did that."

"A Most Wanted Man" is set firmly in our jittery post-9/11 world. Le Carre locates the action in Hamburg, the German port city where several of the 9/11 hijackers planned their attacks. Its central character is Issa, an enigmatic half-Chechen refugee who appears in Hamburg sporting a long black coat, muddy motives and a claim to a mysterious fortune.

To Annabel Richter, an idealistic young human rights lawyer who takes up his case, Issa is a challenge. To the German, British and American spies who hone in on him, he is a possible asset and a potential threat.

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Since his breakthrough book, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," in 1963, le Carre has become one of Britain's most successful writers. Many of his books - most recently "The Constant Gardener" - have been turned into films. His books may be categorized as thrillers, but they are reviewed as serious novels.

Nan Graham, editor-in-chief at le Carre's U.S. publisher, Scribner, says he transcends genres. "As a storyteller, he's simply one of the best we have," she said.

Le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell, lives with his wife Jane in a house high above the rugged coast of southwest England, and in a large home in one of London's leafiest nooks. Sitting amid the book-lined walls and solid wooden furniture of his London house, he looks the picture of middle-class contentment, a white-haired 76-year-old wearing a hearing aid and a gray sleeveless sweater.

But he is not mellowing into old age. His conversation, like his writing, fizzes with moral outrage.

The enemy in his new book is not just terrorism, but also the treachery and betrayal of supposed allies. Le Carre's German spies are caught between their own goals and the demands of impatient American colleagues, depicted as willing to cut a few ethical corners in the cause of neutralizing a perceived threat.


Le Carre can see the criticism coming.

"I don't expect a terribly warm reception in the United States," he says. "I'm not anti-American. But I'm certainly anti the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld disaster of the last eight years." Like many liberal Europeans, he feels that the United States has been "hijacked."

America has claimed the right "to seize any citizen of any country whom it deems offensive to it," he says. "America has licensed torture. In the end, I ask the same question that I've been asking through a whole lot of books: How much of this stuff can we do to ourselves in protection of our democracy and remain a democracy worth protecting?"

The book has more personal concerns. The three central characters - Issa, Annabel and Tommy Brue, a careworn British banker - have fathers who cast long shadows their offspring struggle to shake off.

The intersection of psychology and ideology, politics and the personal, is prime le Carre territory. His own father, a charming con man and fraudster, helped propel him into storytelling and spying, two creative forms of deception.

Le Carre has been a full-time writer for more than four decades, and kept silent for years about his time as a spy. These days he's more willing to discuss it, although he says he never became more than a "very lowly" operative. His career in espionage was ended by the British double agent Kim Philby, who exposed him and dozens of other British agents to the Soviets.

Le Carre comes from a generation of spies that was shocked by the way intelligence was manipulated to make the case for war in Iraq, through the British government's infamous "dodgy dossier" and other exaggerated claims about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

"In my day - in the spook world - we saw ourselves almost as people with a priestly calling to tell the truth," he said. "We didn't shape it or mold it. We were there, we thought, to speak truth to power. I never had any sense of the stories being twisted to suit the political requirements."

Like his books, le Carre is a mix of unblinking realism and hopeful humanism. His characters struggle valiantly to do the right thing. They usually fail.

"I think there is a great deal of human affection in this book," he says. "But I don't think there's much optimism."

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