The life and legacy of a literary master | HT Editorial
John le Carre’s most famous Cold War spy, the dull and dreary George Smiley, was the exact opposite of Ian Fleming’s dashing spy, James Bond. But, the ordinariness of le Carre’s greatest character, Smiley, who he modelled on a colleague in MI5 where he worked running an espionage operation during the Cold War, caught the imagination of millions and established le Carre as a storyteller extraordinaire of the spy genre. Smiley took on an East German agent in le Carre’s debut novel, Call for the Dead, which was followed by A Murder of Quality. By then, le Carre had few, if any peers, in this particular world of thrillers.
His literary legacy will endure. Many argue that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the greatest spy novel of all time. The masterpieces never stopped. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and The Honourable Schoolboy have all passed into the realm of classics. The foundations for many of his great works was the battle between the lofty concept of western freedom — the practice of which was often murkier than proclaimed — and that of life behind the Iron Curtain.
When the Cold War ended, many asked — what next for le Carre? But he refused to be corralled by his own legend. He took on other themes such as big pharma in The Constant Gardener, the arms industry in The Night Manager and terrorism in A Most Wanted Man. He never ceased to be astonished by how his books came to be regarded as authentic documentation of espionage during the Cold War. A remarkably reticent man, he once said of his craft, “Out of the secret world I once knew, I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit.”