The Blog of Toledo Lucas County Public Library
On December 12, 2020, David John Moore Cornwell died. Your first reaction may be “That’s too bad, who’s that?” Until you find out that he was also known as John le Carré, in which case your reaction may be, “My dad loved his books!”
Fairly or not, like much genre fiction, spy novels don’t always get respect. But le Carré’s prodigious literary output is an exception. His agents aren’t jet-setting martini-drinking playboys like James Bond but rather world-weary bureaucrats like your uncle who works in the Jersey City auditor’s office.
It helped that le Carré was not only a talented writer and a keen observer of human nature but an actual former spy. As a young man he did the espionage thing for the MI-5 and MI-6 intelligence agencies; the strictures of his employers were the reason he was required to publish under a pen name in the first place.
Graham Greene called his novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – which featured George Smiley, the unglamorous civil servant who would figure in nine of le Carré’s books – “the best spy story I have ever read.” Philip Roth said his book A Perfect Spy was the finest post-war English novel. Stephen King called le Carré a “literary giant.” And Ian McEwen described le Carré as “the most significant novelist of the second half of the 20th century in Britain.”
As is often the case when a notable artist passes, this is a chance to revisit his work – or to finally find out what all the fuss was about. The library can help you with that:
Between the inherent drama of espionage – Lies! Secrets! Envelopes! – and le Carré’s gift for characterizations and relationships, his books became favorites for screen adaptations. Sure, the heroes in his novels are often described as poorly dressed and overweight, while in movies they tend to look more like, well, movie stars. But the films are great entertainments, whether you like your movies to be about plotty procedurals or mid-life crises.