Cornwell, David (John Moore) 1931- (John le Carre)
CORNWELL, David (John Moore) 1931-
(John le Carre)
Born October 19, 1931, in Poole, Dorsetshire, England; son of Ronald Thomas Archibald and Olive (Glassy) Cornwell; married Alison Ann Veronica Sharp, November 27, 1954 (divorced, 1971); married Valerie Jane Eustace, 1972; children: (first marriage) Simon, Stephen, Timothy; (second marriage) Nicholas. Education: Attended Bern University, Switzerland, 1948-49; Lincoln College, Oxford, B.A. (with honors), 1956.
Home—London, England, and Cornwall, England. Agent—Bruce Hunter, David Higham Ltd., 5-8 Lower John St., Golden Sq., London W1R 4HA, England.
Writer. Millfield Junior School, Glastonbury, Somerset, England, teacher, 1954-55; Eton College, Buckinghamshire, England, tutor, 1956-58; British Foreign Office, second secretary in Bonn, West Germany (now Germany), 1960-63, consul in Hamburg, West Germany (now Germany), 1963-64. Military service: British Army Intelligence Corps, beginning 1949.
Gold Dagger, Crime Writers Association, 1963, Somerset Maugham Award, 1964, and Edgar Allan Poe Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1965, all for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1977, and Gold Dagger award, 1978, both for The Honourable Schoolboy; Gold Dagger award, 1980; honorary fellow, Lincoln College, Oxford, 1984; Grand Master Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1986; Malparte prize, 1987; Diamond Dagger award, Crime Writers Association, 1988; honorary doctorates, University of Exeter, 1990, University of St. Andrews, 1996, University of Southampton, 1997, and University of Bath, 1998.
NOVELS; UNDER PSEUDONYM JOHN LE CARRE
Call for the Dead, Gollancz (London, England), 1960, published as The Deadly Affair, Penguin (New York, NY), 1966.
A Murder of Quality, Gollancz (London, England), 1962.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (also see below), Gollancz (London, England), 1963, Coward, McCann (New York, NY), 1964.
The Incongruous Spy: Two Novels of Suspense (contains Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality), Walker (London, England), 1964.
The Looking Glass War (also see below), Coward, McCann (New York, NY), 1965.
A Small Town in Germany (also see below), Coward, McCann (New York, NY), 1968.
The Naive and Sentimental Lover, Knopf (New York, NY), 1971.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Knopf (New York, NY), 1974.
The Honourable Schoolboy, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
Smiley's People, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
The Quest for Karla (contains Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People), Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.
Three Complete Novels (contains The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, A Small Town in Germany, and The Looking Glass War), Avenel Books (New York, NY), 1983.
The Little Drummer Girl, Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
A Perfect Spy, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
The Russia House, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
The Secret Pilgrim, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
The Night Manager, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
Our Game, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
John Le Carre: Three Complete Novels (includes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People), Wings (Avenel, NY), 1995.
The Tailor of Panama (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Single & Single, Scribner (New York, NY), 1999.
The Constant Gardener, Scribner (New York, NY), 2001.
Absolute Friends, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2003.
OTHER; UNDER PSEUDONYM JOHN LE CARRE
Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn (teleplay), produced on Stage 66, American Broadcasting Corp., 1966.
(With John Hopkins) Smiley's People (teleplay; based on his novel), British Broadcasting Corp., 1982.
The Clandestine Muse, Seluzicki (Portland, OR), 1986.
(With Gareth H. Davies) Vanishing England, Salem House, 1987.
The Tailor of Panama (screenplay; based on his novel), Columbia Pictures, 2001.
Contributor to periodicals, including Saturday Evening Post. Cornwell's books have been translated into thirty languages.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was filmed by Paramount, 1965; Call for the Dead was filmed as The Deadly Affair by Columbia, 1967; The Looking Glass War was filmed by Columbia, 1970; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was filmed for television by the BBC, 1980; The Little Drummer Girl was filmed by Warner Brothers; A Perfect Spy was a seven-hour BBC-TV series and was shown on public television's Masterpiece Theatre; a film version of The Russia House, written by Tom Stoppard, directed by Fred Schepisi, and starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, was released in 1990; A Murder of Quality was produced for television by the BBC, 1991. Many of Cornwell's novels have been produced as audio cassettes.
The novels of David Cornwell, written under the pseudonym John le Carre, depict the clandestine world of cold war espionage as a morally ambiguous realm where treachery, deceit, fear, and betrayal are the norm. The atmosphere in a le Carre novel, wrote a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, is one of "grubby realism and moral squalor, the frazzled, fatigued sensitivity of decent men obliged to betray or kill others no worse than themselves." Cornwell has used his fiction to dramatize what he sees as the moral bankruptcy of the cold war. In an open letter published in Encounter, Cornwell wrote: "There is no victory and no virtue in the cold war, only a condition of human illness and a political misery." Leonard Downie, Jr. quoted Cornwell in a Washington Post article as saying, "We are in the process of doing things in defense of our society which may very well produce a society which is not worth defending." It is this paradox, and the moral ambiguity which accompanies it, that informs Cornwell's espionage novels and makes them, many critics believe, among the finest works of their genre. Cornwell's novels are believed by some critics to have raised the entire espionage genre to a more respectable and serious level of literature. Joseph McClellan wrote in the Washington Post Book World, "The espionage novel has become a characteristic expression of our time … and John le Carre is one of the handful of writers who have made it so." George Grella stated in the New Republic, "More than any other writer, [le Carre] has established the spy as an appropriate figure and espionage as an appropriate activity for our time, providing both symbol and metaphor to explain contemporary history."
Speaking of the relationship between his life and writings to Fred Hauptfuhrer of People, Cornwell revealed: "If I write knowledgeably about gothic conspiracies, it's because I had knowledge of them from earliest childhood." In several published interviews, le Carre has spoken of his personal life and how the business dealings and political ambitions of his father colored his own views of the world. Because his father often found himself in legal or financial trouble due to his sometimes questionable business deals, the family found itself, le Carre told Miriam Gross of the Chicago Tribune Magazine, "often living in the style of millionaire paupers.… And so we arrived in educated, middle-class society feeling almost like spies, knowing that we had no social hinterland, that we had a great deal to conceal and a lot of pretending to do." In an interview with Melvyn Bragg in the New York Times Book Review, Cornwell stated: "From early on, I was extremely secretive and began to think that I was, so to speak, born into occupied territory." He told Newsweek that "there is a correlation, I suppose, between the secret life of my father and the secret life I entered at a formative age." Cornwell fictionalized his relationship with his father in the 1986 novel A Perfect Spy.
Cornwell was one of Ronald and Olive Cornwell's two sons. His father owned racehorses, declared bankruptcy on a few occasions, and was once jailed for insurance fraud. When the author was five, his mother, Olive, left the family when she became involved with one of her husband's associates. Both David and his brother, Tony, who were quite close as children, lived with their grandparents for a time. Cornwell was sent to a rigorous boarding school in England, which he disliked, and was then allowed to go to Switzerland, where he entered the University of Berne at the age of sixteen. When he did his National Service, he was sent to join the British Army Intelligence Corps because of his language skills.
Only in later years was Cornwell more forthcoming about this part of his life. He admitted to working for "M.I." ("military intelligence," also known as "the Service") off and on from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. While still with the British Army, Cornwell was posted to Vienna, Austria, which remained occupied by British, American, and Soviet forces in the decade following World War II. The arrangement made Vienna an epicenter that concealed the clashing ideologies of cold war politics, and in his work there Cornwell became acquainted with the men and women who would provide the basis for his fictional characters. After his military stint ended, Cornwell joined M.I.5, Britain's domestic intelligence-gathering service agency, an association he denied for several years after he became a best-selling author.
Cornwell married in 1954, and ostensibly left the service to teach school in Glastonbury. He began degree studies at Oxford University, and here allegedly infiltrated left-leaning political groups on campus on behalf of M.I.5. He quit once again, and became assistant master at Eton College in 1956, but disliked it heartily, in a repeat of his own experience at another of England's famed public schools. He attempted to support himself and a growing family by becoming a freelance illustrator, but once again returned to M.I.5 in London. He was transferred to M.I.6, the foreign intelligence service, in 1960, and was sent overseas. His cover was a job as an embassy secretary or political consul, in places such as Bonn and Hamburg.
Cornwell began writing espionage fiction during this time, and the nature of his M.I. job required him to use a pen name. From the outset, reviewers assumed that the intimate knowledge he displayed of the workings of the British government's espionage bureaucracy could only have come from someone with first-hand experience. "Cornwell's contribution to the fiction of espionage," wrote Anthony Burgess in the New York Times Book Review, "has its roots in the truth of how a spy system works.… The people who run Intelligence totally lack glamour, their service is short of money, [and] they are up against the crassness of politicians. Their men in the field are frightened, make blunders, grow sick of a trade in which the opposed sides too often seem to interpenetrate and wear the same face." Geoffrey Stokes, writing in the Village Voice, claimed that in Cornwell's novels, "bureaucracy [is] transformed into poetry." "John le Carre," the pseudonym the author chose, was partly taken from the French term for "the square." "I've told so many lies about where I got the name from," Downie quoted Cornwell as explaining, "but I really don't remember. The one time I did the celebrity circuit in America, I was reduced to inventing the fiction that I'd been riding on a bus to the foreign office and abstracted the name from a shoeshop. But that was simply because I couldn't convince anybody it came from nowhere."
Although the source for his pseudonym is now forgotten, the initial inspiration for Cornwell's fiction is easily found. It comes from the sensational disclosures in the 1950s that several high-ranking members of the British Secret Service and Foreign Office were actually Soviet agents. These deep-penetration agents, called "moles," had infiltrated the British espionage establishment during World War II and had, over a period of years, risen to extremely sensitive positions. Of the several spies discovered, the most highly placed was Kim Philby, a man generally acknowledged to be the greatest traitor in British history. Philby had been in charge of British counter-intelligence against the Soviet Union while secretly working for the Soviets, and was responsible for betraying hundreds of British agents and sending them to their deaths. These real-life espionage revelations caught the interest of the British reading public, and such books as Ian Fleming's "James Bond" spy series became best-sellers. Cornwell, too, because of his own intelligence work, was intrigued and disturbed by the discovery of traitors in the British Secret Service. Grella stated that Cornwell has an "obsession with the relationship between love and betrayal" and has consistently explored this theme in all of his fiction.
Cornwell wrote his first two novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, while working for the British Foreign Office, first in London and then in Bonn. At that time the German capital was a center for intelligence operations. Cornwell told Gross, "You couldn't have been [in Germany] at that period without being aware of the shadow of an enormous intelligence apparatus." Cornwell introduced George Smiley, an intelligence agent featured in many of his later novels, in Call for the Dead. Smiley is an "improbable spy master," wrote Richard W. Noland in Clues. "Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad," Noland quoted from Call for the Dead. Though physically unimposing, Smiley is a brilliant espionage agent who has served in the British Secret Service for more than thirty years. In Call for the Dead, Smiley investigates the suicide of a Foreign Office clerk who had just been given a security clearance. In A Murder of Quality he tracks down the murderer of a schoolmaster's wife.
It was not until the publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963 that Cornwell's work attracted widespread critical and popular acclaim. An immediate worldwide best-seller—the book has sold over twenty million copies since it first appeared—The Spy Who Came in from the Cold enabled Cornwell to leave his position with the Foreign Office to write full time. He told Nicholas Wapshott of the London Times: "I had said to my accountant, if my assets reach 20,000 pounds, would you let me know? … When he told me I had reached that amount, with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, it was a great relief.…I gave in my resignation." The novel tells the story of Alec Leamas, a fifty-year-old British intelligence agent who wishes to retire from active duty and "come in from the cold," as he describes it. He is persuaded to take on one last assignment before leaving the Secret Service: a pretended defection behind the Iron Curtain to give false information to the East Germans implicating one of their high-ranking intelligence officers as a British agent. It is thought that the officer will then be imprisoned, thereby removing him from effective espionage work against the British. Leamas's real mission, and the treachery of his superiors, only gradually becomes clear to him as the plot unfolds.
Cornwell's pessimism about East-West relations is clearly evident in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, where both sides in the cold war conflict are depicted as amoral and murderous. Noland, describing the situation as related in Spy, observed, "The bureaucracies of East and West wage the Cold War by one simple rule—operational convenience.… In the name of operational convenience and alliances of expediency, any and all human values—including love and life itself—are expendable." A Times Literary Supplement critic wrote that Cornwell puts forth the ideas that "the spy is generally a weak man, the tool of bureaucrats who are neither scrupulous nor particularly efficient, and that there is nothing to choose between 'us' and 'them' in an ethical sense." This is underlined when Leamas and his girlfriend are pitted against the intelligence agencies of both Britain and East Germany, "the two apparently opposed organizations on one side and helpless human beings … on the other," Julian Symons wrote in Mortal Consequences: A History from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. Symons called The Spy Who Came in from the Cold the best of Cornwell's novels because "the story is most bitterly and clearly told, the lesson of human degradation involved in spying most faithfully read."
Many of the qualities in Cornwell's writing that are most praised by critics were first displayed in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. One of these is an authenticity and realism not usually found in espionage fiction. Anthony Boucher commented in the New York Times Book Review, "Here is a book a light year removed from the sometimes entertaining trivia which have (in the guise of spy novels) cluttered the publishers' lists." A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement believed that, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, "the technicalities of [spy] network organization carry a stamp of authenticity seldom found in stories of this nature," although the critic decried the "basically sensational" subject matter.
To make his work seem as authentic as possible, Cornwell introduces a number of slang terms peculiar to the espionage underworld. Words like "mole," borrowed from the Soviet KGB, and "circus," a nickname for the British Secret Service, are used throughout the book. Some of these terms are actual espionage jargon, but many were invented by Cornwell himself. Cornwell told Gross, "I thought it very important to give the reader the illusion of entering the secret world, and to that end I invented jargon that would be graphic and at the same time mysterious. Some people find it irritating. I rather like it." Cornwell, Downie reported, "borrowed 'mole' from the KGB and is pleased that it has quickly become part of the real spy language of the West."
The critical praise heaped on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold has continued with each succeeding espionage novel Cornwell has published. The Looking Glass War, for example, was described by Hughes as "a superb spy story, unflawed, a bitter, cruel, dispassionate—yet passionate—study of an unimportant piece of espionage and the unimportant little men who are involved in it." A group of British agents mount an operation into East Germany that is doomed to failure under present political conditions, a fact which the agents refuse to see. Symons argued in the New Review that in both The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Looking Glass War betrayal is the primary theme. In the first, an agent is betrayed in order to further the career of a more highly placed agent. In the second, an entire operation is abandoned and the people involved in it are left to die. It is possible, Symons wrote, "to see espionage activities as brave and patriotic … and yet to view them also as basically disgusting, outrages to the human personality. From such a point of view these two books seem to say an ultimate word about the nature of spying."
Cornwell draws heavily upon his time at the British Foreign Office in writing A Small Town in Germany, a novel set in Bonn, West Germany. The novel relates the story of a British diplomat who disappears with very sensitive documents which may damage Britain's chances of joining the Common Market. Speaking of the novel in a Nation review, John Gliedman stated that Cornwell "has long been a master of the essential machinery of the spy and detective novel. He has also shown himself to be a sensitive observer of character and manner, within the limits of the genre. But nothing which has come before quite prepares us for the literary distinction of this effort—the quality of its prose, the complexity of its construction, the cunning of some of its dialogue.… A Small Town in Germany is that rarest of all things in contemporary fiction—good art which is also popular art." Robert Ostermann, writing in National Observer, agreed that A Small Town in Germany is better than Cornwell's previous fiction. He called it "broader in scope and more confidently crafted; tuned with exquisite fineness to the sliding nuances of its characters; shot through with the physical presence of Bonn … and conveyed in a tough, precise prose that matches the novel's mordant tone down to the smallest metaphor."
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy begins a loosely connected trilogy in which George Smiley is pitted against the Russian master spy "Karla." Writing in Newsweek, Alexis Gelber and Edward Behr reported that "with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley, [Cornwell] hit his stride." Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a fictionalized treatment of the Kim Philby spy case in which Smiley goes after a Soviet mole in British intelligence, a mole placed and directed by Karla. The novel's structure "derives from the action of Smiley's search," wrote Noland, adding that Smiley "must pursue his man through the maze of official documents." Knowing the mole must be a highly placed agent, Smiley goes back through the records of intelligence operations, seeking a pattern of failure which might be attributed to the machinations of a particular agent. His investigation finally becomes, Noland believed, "a moral search … a quest for some kind of truth about England."
As in previous novels, Cornwell examines the ramifications of betrayal, but this time in greater depth. The mole Smiley uncovers has not only betrayed his country and friends, but has seduced Smiley's wife as well. The critic for the Times Literary Supplement saw a "moral dilemma" at the center of the book: "Smiley gets his man. In doing so he removes from another man his last illusions about friendship, loyalty and love, and he himself is left drained in much the same way. It is a sombre and tragic theme, memorably presented." Similarly, Richard Locke wrote in the New York Times Book Review of the "interlocking themes of sexual and political betrayal" to be found in the book. Writing in Clues, Holly Beth King saw a deeper significance to the novel's title, which is derived from a children's nursery rhyme, a "whole intricately woven set of relationships between adults and children, between innocence and disillusionment, between loyalty and betrayal that gives the novel's title a deeper resonance."
Although the complexity of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was praised by many critics, Pearl K. Bell opined in the New Leader that "it is myopic and unjust to link Cornwell with high art." Bell believed that a more correct evaluation of le Carre will place him as "a master craftsman of ingeniously plotted suspense, weaving astoundingly intricate fantasies of discovery, stealth, surprise, duplicity, and final exposure." Similarly, Locke found that "le Carre belongs to the select company of such spy and detective story writers as Arthur Conan Doyle and Graham Greene in England, and Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald in America. There are those who read crime and espionage books for the plot and those who read them for the atmosphere.… Cornwell's books … offer plenty for both kinds of readers." Bell concluded that le Carre is "unarguably the most brilliantly imaginative practitioner of the [espionage] genre today." Writing in Newsweek, Peter S. Prescott defined what he felt sets le Carre's espionage fiction apart from many other works in the genre: "Le Carre's work is above all plausible, rooted not in extravagant fantasies of the cold war but in the realities of the bureaucratic rivalry summoned up through vapors of nostalgia and bitterness, in understated pessimism, in images of attenuation and grinding down." In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Stokes argued, "Smiley is merely the protagonist; bureaucracy itself is the hero.…Without the structure bureaucracy imposes on the random accumulation of facts that assail us on a daily basis, there is indeed only 'perpetual chaos.'"
Smiley's running battle with Karla continues in The Honourable Schoolboy, a novel set in Hong Kong, where British intelligence is investigating a prosperous businessman who seems to be working for the Soviets. Several critics point out a similarity between le Carre's novel and Joseph Conrad's novel Lord Jim. The character of Jerry Westerby, a British intelligence officer and friend of Smiley, is very similar to that of Conrad's character Jim. Noland stated, "Le Carre obviously has Conrad's romantic protagonist in mind in his portrait of Westerby and in many of the events of the story." According to David Ansen in Newsweek, this "huge and hugely engrossing new thriller … keeps opening out, like a Conrad adventure, into ever-widening pools of moral and emotional complexity."
Again concerned with one of Karla's moles, this one working inside Communist China, The Honourable Schoolboy traces Smiley's diligent efforts to discover and capture the agent for the West. As in previous le Carre novels, The Honourable Schoolboy depicts an agent, this time Westerby, who is at odds with the amorality of espionage work and who, because of his belief in human values, loses his life in the course of an espionage operation. "The point, surely, is that such romantic heroism is not very useful in the world of Cold War espionage," wrote Noland. "It is difficult not to overpraise [The Honourable Schoolboy]," Mollie Panter-Downes wrote in her New Yorker review. Although finding the novel too long, the plot "essentially thin," and le Carre's "fondness for stylistic mocking" awkward, Panter-Downes nonetheless praised The Honourable Schoolboy. "It has a compelling pace," she stated, "a depth beyond its genre, a feeling for even the least of its characters, a horrifying vision of the doomed and embattled Southeast Asian left in the wake of the Vietnam War, and a dozen set pieces—following, fleeing, interrogating—that are awesomely fine."
Not all critics were as impressed with the novel. Louis Finger, writing in the New Statesman, believed that "the things that are wrong with le Carre, at the level of seriousness he no doubt feels he's aimed for here, totally debilitate the book's appeal as a run-of-the-mill espionage yarn." Responding to critics who classify le Carre's work as literature, Clive James in the New York Review of Books stated that "raising le Carre to the plane of literature has helped rob him of his more enviable role as a popular writer who could take you unawares."
Cornwell brings his trilogy to a close with Smiley's People, the last confrontation between George Smiley and master spy Karla. No longer content to thwart Karla's agents, Smiley works in this novel to force Karla himself to defect to the West. This operation is done off the record because the British Secret Service, due to political pressure, cannot engage in an offensive intelligence operation. It becomes instead a personal mission involving the retired Smiley and the friends and espionage contacts he has gathered over the years. "Smiley and his people," Noland stated, "carry it out by personal choice and commitment, not for the British (or American) establishment. The whole operation is a victory for personal human loyalty and skill."
Despite the success of the operation, there is an ambiguity about it which brings into question the morality of espionage. "Smiley and his people are fighting for decency," wrote Michael Wood in the New York Times Book Review, "but there is more blood on their hands than they or anyone else care to contemplate." Julian Moynihan clarified this in the New Republic: "We know that Smiley has ruined many lives, some innocent, in his tenacious pursuit of Karla.…and we just don't believe that the dirty tricks of one side are OK because they were ordered up by a decent little English guy with a disarming name." "If this is the end of the Smiley stories … it is an appropriately ambiguous conclusion to a series that has dealt splendidly in ambiguities from the beginning," concluded Joseph McClellan in the Washington Post Book World.
In Smiley's People, Tom Buckley stated in Quest/80, "Le Carre has done what no sensible person would have thought possible. He has written a novel at least as good as, and in some respects better than, his masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." Jonathan Yardley agreed in the Washington Post, calling it "the best of the le Carre's novels." Yardley went on to evaluate le Carre's achievement as a writer by stating that he "has produced a body of work that is notable for technical brilliance, depth, and consistency of themes, and absolute verisimilitude."
In The Little Drummer Girl Cornwell turns to a different world arena for his setting: the Middle East refugee camps of the Palestinians. Anatole Broyard in the New York Times said, "It is as if Mr. le Carre has had enough of British politics, as if he feels that neither Britain nor the Soviet Union is at the hot center of things anymore." Cornwell had originally planned to write a Smiley story set in the Middle East, but could not find a convincing plot for his character. Because the espionage activity in this novel is of an active and open variety, there is more action in The Little Drummer Girl than is usual for a le Carre novel. There is also a female protagonist, le Carre's first, who is recruited by the Israelis to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist group and set up its leader for assassination. "The Israelis triumph in the novel," William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote in the National Review, "even as they do in life. But Mr. le Carre is careful to even up the moral odds.… He permits the Palestinian point to be made with rare and convincing eloquence." Writing in Esquire, Martin Cruz Smith gave the opinion that The Little Drummer Girl is "the most balanced novel about Jews and Arabs, outrage for outrage and tear for tear, I've read." Gelber and Behr wrote, "Without condoning terrorism, the book makes the reasons for it understandable—perhaps the first popular novel to do so."
Because of his insistence on looking at both sides in the Middle East conflict as having valid reasons for waging war, many critics believed Cornwell succeeded in accurately presenting the situation in its complexity. It is through the character of Charlie, an actress recruited by the Israelis for the mission, that le Carre presents the arguments of both the Arabs and Jews. Charlie is first converted to the Israeli position by Israeli Intelligence and then, in order to play the part of a Palestinian sympathizer convincingly, she is indoctrinated in the Palestinian position. "In the course of the story," Hope Hale Davis stated in the New Leader, "we have a chance, with Charlie, to become passionately partisan on one side and then the other, and also—with less risk to the psyche than Charlie suffers—both sides at once." According to Mark Abley, writing in Maclean's, le Carre "is resigned to the fact that neither side will be pleased by his controversial new novel." This is because le Carre portrays both sides as amoral killers, much the way he portrays both sides in the cold war. Cornwell told Newsweek: "There was no way of telling the story attractively unless one accepted certain premises—that terrible things were being done to the Jews. I began with the traditional Jewish hero looking for a Palestinian 'baddie.' Once into the narrative, the reader, I believed, would be prepared to consider more ambiguous moral preoccupations."
Some reviewers view Cornwell as an apologist for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and The Little Drummer Girl as lacking the moral ambiguity that characterized his earlier books. "Here, one might have thought, is an ideal subject for moral ambiguity," David Pryce-Jones wrote in the New Republic. "Le Carre finds it clear-cut. To him, the Palestinians are good, the Israelis bad." In their review of the book for Chronicles of Culture, Rael Jean Isaac and Erich Isaac acknowledged that le Carre does introduce the kind of moral ambiguities and correspondences between adversaries that he uses in other novels, "but these suggestions of ambiguity and correspondence are deceptive, for le Carre sets Israel up as the villain of this novel.… Le Carre employs meretricious techniques to make Israel appear guilty of the vicious practices that the PLO has made famous."
In his novels since The Little Drummer Girl, Cornwell spins plots that reflect the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the end of the cold war, and the continued violence in the Middle East, while also continuing to portray flawed protagonists caught up in sinister circumstances. In The Russia House, which is set in a decaying Soviet Union, an aging publisher is recruited by British Intelligence to secure a top-secret manuscript from a Soviet engineer. After falling in love with the engineer's former girlfriend, however, the publisher must use his wits to keep himself and the woman alive while British and American spies pursue national interests not concerned with such individual freedoms. The Night Manager, on the other hand, leaves behind cold war settings altogether, as a hotel manager in Switzerland struggles against international arms dealers who are funded by wealthy British businessmen. Our Game, which is set in the warring republics of the former Soviet Union—Ossetia, Ingushetia, and Chechnya—features a troubled central character caught up in sociopolitical forces beyond his control, and Absolute Friends follows two spies and their involvement in the Iraq war in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist bombings in the United States. Noting in particular the author's inclusion of politics in Absolute Friends, Entertainment Weekly contributor Mark Harris explained that le Carre's subject matter has always been the battle between "human frailty and geopolitical dogma." Praising the author for penning "coolheaded spy fiction at the height of the Cold War and then redefining the genre after it ended," Harris added that Cornwell's anger at the U.S. involvement in the Iraq war is embedded in a story "told with bracing vigor and clarity; his people are vibrantly alive; his understanding of the world has rarely been keener."
Harris's claim that Cornwell redefined the spy novel following the end of the cold war is substantiated by the imaginative plots the author has devised since the early 1990s, many of which move the intrigue from battling nation states to "the depredations of international arms merchants and the impact of predatory drug manufacturers on the Third World," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. In The Tailor of Panama, published in 1996, Cornwell explores his characteristic terrain of spy games and intrigue, but this time against the unusual tropical backdrop of Panama. Harry Pendel, a clothes tailor to the powerful and wealthy of Panama, is coerced into spying for British Intelligence in the midst of a plot to undo the Panama Treaty that will give control of the Panama Canal back to Panama in 1999. Although he does his duty by supplying information to his British recruiter, Pendel finds his life and the lives of his family in jeopardy, in part because of the falsehoods he makes up to embellish his information. Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praised Cornwell's refined storytelling prowess and his "colorful and deft" depiction of Panama. Kakutani, however, averred that the author is less successful in creating a plausible story line. Times Literary Supplement reviewer Frederic Raphael concurred, remarking that le Carre "does not seem to finish his button-holes, or fashion his concealed pockets, with quite the old finesse." Still, Kakutani noted, "the result is a riotous, readable novel."
Cornwell's Single and Single, has been compared by some reviewers to A Perfect Spy because both feature a conflicted father-son relationship that have echoes in the author's personal life. Cornwell's father, who died in the mid-1970s, attempted to enrich himself through his son's notoriety. He called himself "Ron le Carre," and was able to obtain lavish dinners and hotel suites on the strength of the name. He often asked his son for money, and once tried to estimate the sum total, with interest, had all of Cornwell's private-school tuition money been invested instead of used. Cornwell, however, dryly noted that his father had never paid the tuition bills anyway.
Oliver Single has a similarly troubled relationship with his notorious father, Tiger. The elder Single is a bon vivant venture capitalist in London, whose firm, Single & Single, launders money for a Russian-organized crime ring. He is determined that Oliver take over the business, but Oliver is plagued by moral doubts and, after an airport epiphany, "defects" at Heathrow Airport and tells a customs agent about the business. Tiger escapes a jail term, while Oliver is given a new identity and retires to the countryside to become a magician. The story is revealed in flashback, for Single & Single opens with the murder of the firm's former legal counsel in Turkey, one of the ramifications of Oliver's betrayal. The Russians are determined to kill Tiger as well, and Oliver joins authorities in the battle to break up the mob and save his father's life in the process. Maclean's writer Anthony Wilson-Smith called it "arguably the best of le Carre's five books this decade. Its musings over morality, pitch-perfect dialogue and easy command of diverse geography and characters show why le Carre is one of the finest novelists in any field."
Other reviews were similarly enthusiastic about the novel. "The opening sequence, in which Tiger's lawyer surreally describes his own assassination on a Turkish hilltop by mobsters seeking to avenge their undoing, is perhaps the most chilling passage Le Carre has ever written," noted a Business Week reviewer. Washington Monthly contributor David Ignatius particularly liked one of the lead characters, customs agent Nat Brock, and likened him to the memorable George Smiley. Ignatius granted that outwardly the fictional characters possess no similarities, but found other attributes in common. "He is a gray man, with a world-weariness so profound that the reader senses immediately that Brock has gazed into the very bottom of the abyss," Ignatius noted. "You have the feeling with Brock, just as with Smiley, that he knows how the story will end before it begins."
The Constant Gardener employed a similar backdrop of international intrigue in Cornwell's tale of a rapacious pharmaceutical giant. The legitimate corporation is secretly testing a new miracle drug that, when officially released on the world market, portends massive profits. But Dypraxa, a cure for tuberculosis, possesses some deadly flaws, as clandestine research trials underway in Africa reveal—and the company is desperate to keep the true nature of Dypraxa a secret. In Kenya, Tessa Quayle, the beautiful young wife of a British diplomat, learns about the research trials, but her threat to alert the media and authorities to the pharmaceutical company's activities results in her murder. Her bereaved husband, Justin, takes up Tessa's cause in his search to find her killer.
A contributor to Business Week praised The Constant Gardener as a story "about the human capacity for transformation. Through Justin, the political themes are elevated to questions of loyalty, integrity, and personal sovereignty in a world that rewards betrayal, venality, and the abdication of moral responsibility." A Publishers Weekly reviewer also praised the veteran author's talents, writing that "Le Carre's manifold skills at scene-setting and creating a range of fearsomely convincing English characters, from the bluffly absurd to the irredeemably corrupt, are at their smooth peak here." In the National Review, Anthony Lejeune paid similar tribute to the writer, noting that his novels "are impressive because he is an excellent craftsman, writing clear, classic prose and constructing his intricate plots so that they fit together like well-carpentered marquetry."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Aronoff, Myron J., The Spy Novels of John le Carre: Balancing Ethics and Politics, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2001.
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Maclean's, March 7, 1983; April 5, 1999, Anthony Wilson-Smith, "The le Carre File: A Celebrated Author's Painful Childhood Is the Catalyst for His Writing," p. 54.
Nation, December 30, 1968.
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Yale Review, January, 1994, p. 150.
John le Carre Home Page,http://www.johnlecarre.com/ (February 25, 2003).*