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John le Carré Viewed from the Spy World


Arts and Humanities Research Fellow Alan Burton, unfurls a newly declassified document revealing intruiging new perspectives on the British Intelligence Service and how it saw the fiction of John le Carré. The blog was originally published on Writers in Intelligence

For the last hundred years and more, our British spies have conducted a distraught and sometimes hilarious love-hate affair with their obstreperous novelists. (John le Carré)  A newly declassified document released to the public in May 2021 offers tantalising fresh insights into the relationship of the spy world to the fiction of John le Carré. Novels such as Call for the Dead (1961), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) drew immediate comment in terms of their perceived realism. This is a quality that contrasted sharply with the traditional type of spy adventure and derived in part from a studied ordinariness of character and environment, and the sense that such carefully crafted tales offered at the very least a glimpse into the secret world of intelligence. A newspaper review of the inaugural Call for the Dead, for example, as well as praising the sophisticated writing and cryptic style, made comment on the ‘unheroic hero’, judged that ‘the people and their behaviour are credible’, and concluded: ‘one really believes in the skilfully drawn atmosphere of the Service’ (Birmingham Post, 4 July 1961). 

From an early date, there was a suspicion among reviewers that le Carré was more than the innocuous civil servant at the Foreign Office that he professed to be. The Soviet critic V. Voinov was the first to accuse the author of actually having served British intelligence. Seemingly, le Carré had sent copies of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Looking Glass War (1965) to countries behind the Iron Curtain to see if he could elicit some response. It came in the form of a review in Literaturnaya Gazeta of 14 July 1965 (a weekly cultural newspaper published in Moscow), and it was there, among many observations, comments and charges, that Voinov maintained that the novelist had been a secret agent. It was an assertion which, surprisingly, was not immediately pounced upon, and something that others failed to make directly for another couple of decades. 

Le Carré has reported on tense confrontations with serving officers who furiously challenged him about his insulting portrayal of the intelligence services. In an article ‘Don’t be beastly to your Secret Service’ the novelist tells of a diplomatic function at which he was buttonholed by a former MI6 colleague who proceeded to yell insults at the author. ‘You bastard Cornwell, you utter bastard’ he fumed.  Le Carré was conscious that intelligence and security professionals were unable to answer back and that by the very nature of the secret world successes went unheralded. However, he still felt that in some stories he had painted British Intelligence as a more competent organisation than the one he had known. After all, Control’s undertaking in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, although morally reprehensible, is a stunning operational success and once ironically referred to by a senior secret service officer as ‘the only bloody double-agent operation that ever worked’.   One of the most widely reported comments from within the spy world on the realism of le Carré’s writing came from the notorious defector Kim Philby, in a letter to the wife he left behind in Beirut. He confessed to admiring the sophistication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold after ‘all that James Bond idiocy’, but had to admit that ‘the whole lot, from beginning to end, is basically implausible - at any rate to anyone who has any real knowledge of the business’ (emphasis added). Another wartime spy, Hugh Trevor-Roper, thence elevated to the commanding heights of Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, also had some things to say about le Carré around this time in 1968, a year which witnessed the appearance of a spate of books on Philby. In particular, Trevor-Roper took issue with the novelist’s comments in his forward to Page, Leitch and Knightley’s Philby: The Spy Who Betrayed a Generation. In his typical cutting style, he complained of le Carré’s ‘rich, flatulent puff’. He also dismisses as amateur sociology the author’s generalisations about the Secret Service as a microcosm of society. By implication, le Carré’s thinking is certainly not of the kind one would expect from anyone who has any real knowledge of the business. 

The recent release into the public domain of a previously classified document of the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) once again confirms the interest of the spy world in the espionage stories of John le Carré. Dating from early in 1964, it is an internal document of the Domestic Intelligence Division of the FBI. Under the heading of ‘Book Reviews’, it simply reveals that the Research Section (designated Research - Satellite Section) was appraising the Soviet Section of the Bureau of the publication of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Research informs the Soviet Section that, ‘This book has come to the attention of the Research - Satellite Section. Without review, a spot check indicates the book relates, or may relate to the responsibilities of the following section’. Attached to the form is a photostat of the review of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold published in the New York Times of 10 January 1964. Perhaps a little disappointingly, Soviet Section records on the document, ‘Book review not required by this Section or Division’. Handwritten on the bottom of the form is the comment: ‘Book previously reviewed by Miss Harriet Trotter(?). Of little or no interest to Soviet Section’.

As is well-known, the FBI had a tradition of monitoring writers, usually those suspected of having subversive associations. This was the case with John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg, each of which have files in the Bureau’s online archive. Some authors came to attention simply through expressing interest in visiting a conference or festival in a proscribed territory, as was the case with science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury who was suspected of planning a visit to Cuba in 1968; or through lending their name to a suspect organisation, as happened with Truman Capote when he showed support for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in 1963.

The material compiled by the FBI on John le Carré (David Cornwell) clearly derives from other reasons and there is no indication that the author or his novel are under suspicion of subversion. The document itself reveals little of its possible intention. For some reason, the Research Section was inclined to inform the Soviet Section about a new-style espionage novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which details a cold-blooded, Byzantine operation by British Intelligence to discredit an antagonist and protect its double agent in East German counter-intelligence. Perhaps the Research Section felt that the Soviet Section should take note of the realism in the story and the possibility that the feckless British - post-atom spies, Burgess, Maclean and Philby - are failing once again and some operational secrets or thinking are potentially being leaked to the East? Conversely, is the FBI less worried about what might be lost to the Soviets and more interested in what can be learned about British Intelligence? A clue perhaps lies in the review in the New York Times appended to the document, in the passages which identifies the author as a British civil servant, possibly an agent of security or intelligence, one with ‘the ability to imagine the most devilish conspiracies and a thorough respect for practical details’, and in the musings of Control about the rights and wrongs of secret intelligence. Does the story reveal in some way the ‘mind’ of British Intelligence in its dealings with the Eastern threat and therefore is something of which the Soviet Section should take note? 

Other documents in the online archive of the FBI also involve literary activity and throw some light on the suspicions and activities of the investigators. A series of papers relate to Ian Fleming, specifically the production of the movie Goldfinger in 1964. At issue was the intended reference to the FBI in the storyline against which the Bureau determined to ‘vigorously resist any mention’. It was observed that Fleming’s stories were ‘generally filled with sex and bizarre situations’ and, it was concluded, were ‘not the type where we would want any mention of the FBI’. Also pertinent to the Bureau’s attitude, it appears, was the participation in the production of the American Richard Maibaum, a writer of left-leanings and about whom the FBI showed some anxiety.

Fleming was also referred to in FBI documents dated November 1962, which dealt with the British publication The Quiet Canadian by H. Montgomery Hyde, a biography of William Stephenson the British spymaster in New York during World War Two. On the release of the study, Fleming wrote an appreciation of Stephenson in the Sunday Times magazine, a figure he had known during the war through his own role in naval intelligence, and this has been forwarded from the Bureau’s London Office to FBI HQ. As with le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold the document is headed ‘Book Review’. Comments on the sheets reveal something of the Bureau’s general purposes in such activities. The advice from London is for the Central Research Section to obtain a copy of Hyde’s book ‘and review for any other information which might be of interest to us’, a view subsequently endorsed at Research back in the States. It was also recorded at head office that Fleming’s article ‘may be of some historic significance and could serve as a worthwhile reference’. From this, it appears that the FBI reviewed published material that bore relation to intelligence, information to be filed away for potential future use. It could be that the FBI’s interest in le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold merely conformed to this practice, that, in its uncharacteristic realism, the novel provided some perspective on the world of intelligence. The experts in the Soviet Section concluded that, in its case, it was not of interest, but the motion was gone through and the potential investigated.

Keen enthusiasts of the conspiracy thriller will recognise in the scenario of the FBI’s Research - Satellite Section conducting book reviews something akin to the plot of James Grady’s classic Six Days of the Condor (1970, filmed as Three Days of the Condor in 1975 starring Robert Redford). In that story, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer works for a branch of one of the Agency’s smaller departments, The American Literary Historical Society. The function of the Society is to keep track of all espionage and related acts recorded in literature: ‘In other words the Department reads spy thrillers and murder mysteries’. With the Research - Satellite Section of the FBI we seem to have the real world equivalent of Grady’s fictional American Literary Historical Society.

The reviewer at the FBI who dismissed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as being of ‘little or no interest’ to the Soviet Section was in a sense echoing the stated view of the author himself. In later interviews le Carré was at pains to stress that a complex mission like the one depicted in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was unlikely to be put into operation, never mind to succeed, ‘because I don’t believe that it’s ever possible to operate such a clean conspiracy, where all the pieces fit together’. The legendary spymaster Allen Dulles, Head of the CIA at the time of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, was also unconvinced by The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, believing that le Carré’s subsequent novel The Looking Glass War, with its false hopes, faded dreams and internecine rivalries, was more akin to the real world of espionage.

Just at the time that the Domestic Intelligence Division of the FBI was taking a look at The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1964, a meeting was taking place which brought together two leading figures from the spy world and from spy fiction. At one point during the convivial meeting the conversation turned to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold:

IAN FLEMING: Well, you have had some books that went too far. We spoke of one earlier … But we've had a very interesting book published in England which I see is now on sale here, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It's a very, very fine spy story. 

ALLEN DULLES: I've read it. I got an advance copy of it. (Playfully) But I thought somebody was invading your field a little bit. You're having some competition there, aren't you?

FLEMING: I don't object to that. Because first of all, I admire this book very much. It’s very well written. But of course, the only trouble about this is, it’s taking the ‘mickey’ out of the spy business. 

DULLES (Laughing): Explain that a little bit. I'd like to get you to explain that. 

FLEMING: Well, none of us wants to do it. I mean, none of us professional writers about spies want this to happen. We want the romance—at least I do; I’m talking for myself—I want the romance and the fun and the fantasy to go on. If you reduced the whole thing to police daywork or ordinary secret-service daywork, it would bore the reader to tears. 

DULLES: Well, I didn't think this did. 

FLEMING: No, no. It didn't. It was well done. But what he does to the spy story is to take the fun out of it. This is a serious, a most depressing, book. I mean, it's a book that one reads with great respect, but it isn't a book I would take on an airplane journey. Because it wouldn’t take my mind off the airplane. It might even increase my fears and nervousness …   

It is doubtful that Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was ever publicly berated by members of the intelligence community. After all, in his popular stories ‘the romance and the fun and the fantasy’ simply go on and on, and they were therefore unlikely to trouble the image of hard-pressed professionals. In the case of John le Carré, though, with his realistic stories about espionage set in the context of contemporary European politics, the response, as we have seen, could be quite different. Back at that aforementioned diplomatic function, le Carré had had to face down an irate former colleague squared up ‘in the hunched position of a man about to let fly’. ‘Heartless, aren’t we? Heartless incompetents’ the man had seethed. ‘Thanks a million!’. The author has admitted that, ‘In less fiery tones the same approach has been made to me repeatedly over the last five decades’. It is perhaps unsurprising that the honest frustration and despair in the writing of le Carré elicited an equally honest response from ‘hurt men and women who consider they are doing a necessary job’. For readers as well as the wider population, the novelist’s systematic de-glamorisation of orthodox spy fiction and the construction of a more credible environment and characterisation for espionage could be appreciated as a public service for the British, encouraging a more sincere and legitimate facing-up to painful postwar political realities. However, attitudes change. More recently, a former Canadian intelligence officer, adopting an ‘operational’ rather than literary critique, has offered that ‘The mentality of le Carré’s spies and counter-spies is as honest a representation of espionage as is to be found in fiction’. Those uninitiated in the ways and means of espionage should be thankful for this.