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If Ian Fleming has been denigrated as a mere thriller writer, John le Carré has suffered a subtly different fate. He is widely credited with having taken the ­traditional English spy thriller and raised it to the level of literary fiction: a medium in which serious issues could be addressed in a sophisticated way. The trouble is that, by that benchmark, he falls short, and by some distance.

The issues with which he has grappled could hardly be more serious: they concern not just the sort of Britain we want to live in, but the sort of world we want to live in. But his dissection of that world, particularly in recent novels, can scarcely be called sophisticated. The plotlines have a cartoonish simplicity, with Uncle Sam cast as the villain, Britain as the duplicitous stooge and multinational companies as the Devil incarnate.

To the millions who fell under the spell of the young le Carré — a true master of his ­genre, able to write brilliantly about the Cold War from the vantage point of someone who had worked for the British embassy in Germany — his decline into a tendentious propagandist has been a sorry spectacle.

From a writer once known for his fine phrase-making plop the sort of agitprop ­clichés you hear in sixth-form debating ­societies. The Constant Gardener, we are told, concerns “the evil dealings of one of the world’s most prestigious pharmaceutical companies”. It is painful to see such an ­intelligent man launching such wild haymakers at his enemies.

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Lez Watson
April 6th, 2013
4:04 PM
Note to 'Karla'. If you'd read the TRILOGY in reverse order, you might not have been captured by Britain's greatest spymaster.

Anonymous
June 21st, 2012
1:06 PM
John le Carré is not anti-American. He is just anti-corruption (be in the US, UK, or elswhere), and very critical of the way the "war on terror" has been manipulated for private gain. I'll grant he is pessimistic and very angry, but anger, ethically and democratically directed, is a great driver of progress and change.

Adam
February 21st, 2012
8:02 AM
I agree with your choice of his best books - all the ones with 'Spy' in the title - even if his later work has tailed off. After all, the guy is now in his ninth decade. What writer wouldn't be happy to have one novel remembered in fifty years, let alone three? I think you underrate him as a wit and a prose stylist too, for instance in novels like The Russia House and The Tailor of Panama. He is synonymous with the seedy glamour of the spy world, and George Smiley is a character to put alongside Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, if not Sherlock Holmes.

Robert
November 21st, 2008
6:11 PM
"but if one finds in book after book a strong disagreement with the attitudes, views the author expects the reader to share with the protagonist, the reader really loses interest. Instead, the reader's silently thinking, "No, quite wrong yet again" about the author's conscience embodied in the protagonist's mind." I think that is very well put. I have enjoyed Le Carre but I do find he has that off-putting characteristic of some writers (indeed, some people generally) of appearing to assume agreement on the part of his reader with opinions the author hardly tries to disguise. Over the years Le Carre's anti-US standpoint has come to resemble that of Bill Hayden in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. At least then, there was the sense that le Carre was presenting Hayden as a traitor, whatever the nuances of his discontent. Nowadays Hayden seems closer to le Carre's own authorial standpoint.

Thomas R. Dean
November 16th, 2008
2:11 PM
I wanted to add my agreement to Anonymous' point about "A Small Town in Germany" - it's one of the best political novels I've ever read. Also wonderful works are A Murder of Quality, Call for the Dead. What dismayed me about LeCarre long ago was that his squeamishness about tactics - and the occasional loss of someone's life in the decades-long Cold War led him strongly to doubt that there was any difference (at least any difference worth struggling for) between western civilization and the totalitarian. This blindness sadly afflicts so many of his novels - of those I've read, perhaps none more than A Perfect Spy. I think his prose continues to read awfully well, the characterizatoin is excellent - but if one finds in book after book a strong disagreement with the attitudes, views the author expects the reader to share with the protagonist, the reader really loses interest. Instead, the reader's silently thinking, "No, quite wrong yet again" about the author's conscience embodied in the protagonist's mind.

Karla
November 14th, 2008
7:11 PM
I wish I didn't read this. I just finished "Tinker, Tailor" a few weeks back, and started The Honourable Schoolboy. I didn't know anything about him, until you mentioned he was extremely anti-American, now. I never really sensed anti-Americanism, in Tinker-Tailor. It just seemed like the usual competition between "cousins." Now, I'll have trouble enjoying the rest of the trilogy....

Anonymous
November 4th, 2008
6:11 AM
I regard very highly his "A Small Town in Germany" which seems to be hardly ever mentioned in articles about Le Carre. I always thought it a small masterpiece.

Bill Barnes
October 31st, 2008
3:10 PM
Good points. The later books are far too generously reviewed. Did anyone notice that, for example, every white character in The Mission Song is ultimately a vile racist; almost every black character impossibly holy?

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