John le Carré, 1931 – 2020
Krimidoedel, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
There will be lots of obituaries regarding the death of author John le Carré from pneumonia last Saturday. They will talk about his career as an author of spy stories with intricate plots based on his experience with, first, the Army Intelligence Corps, and later, the Foreign Office. They will describe how he branched out in later life to novels that exposed the tactics of big pharmaceutical companies, and the shady world of arms traders. They will talk about his most famous characters – George Smiley, especially – and they will mention his books that were adapted to become films and television series (including The Night Manager). I will let these reviewers do this and not repeat what they say but I would like to comment on the effect John le Carré had on me.
My introduction to le Carré’s books was sometime in the late ‘60s when I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, his 1963 novel about a faux intelligence defector from the West who offered himself to the East in order to spread misinformation about one of the East’s spymasters. At the time, I was struck by the intricacy of the storyline and, subsequently, read the Smiley trilogy as each book came out starting with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1974 and followed by The Honourable Schoolboy in 1977 and Smiley’s People in 1979. This was no flashy James Bond versus the world’s baddies. This was a battle of wits between two unlikely cerebral heroes – George Smiley, head of the Whitehall Circus, and Karla, head of the Moscow Circus. Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy was the first book I read, school books excepted, wherein I had to make notes as I read in order to remember who was who and their role in the story.
From that point on, I was hooked on le Carré’s books, eagerly awaiting an announcement of a new book, buying them at airports, and devouring them on long-haul flights and in hotel rooms, always with pen and paper to hand to make notes. I still have around half of his novels in my bookcase and in 2011, they took on a new role. 2011 was the year I decided to try my hand at writing non-technical articles and books, starting with my book on religion. I was not unfamiliar with writing techniques but I needed to brush up on my understanding of English grammar and on standard practices such as when to use single speech marks versus double speech marks, or -ise versus -ize endings, or how best to lay out a dialogue, or hyphens versus en or em dashes, or paragraph styles, font types, … The list was long and I turned to le Carré’s books to see how he stylised his prose. I’d long admired John le Carré’s prose; the way he punctuated sentences; his use of both long and short sentences for effect; his techniques for describing a scene; his paragraph layouts; the way he developed the story, bringing together different sub-plots and challenging the reader to build the puzzle and see the big picture before the denouement. This was not high-octane guns-and-beds James Bond action prose. This was slow detailed intertwined storyline and character development requiring attention and focus, and I both enjoyed and admired his skill as a storyteller.
Yes, I learnt a lot from John le Carré. His stories have both challenged and enthralled me and his prose has affected how I write. I feel, in fact I know, I have lost a mentor and I mourn his death. In May 2011, my wife and I walked part of the UK National Trail known as the South West Coastal Path. We walked the 113-mile segment from Newquay on the north side of Cornwall to Lizard Point on the south side. Our path from Land’s End to Penzance took us past a small village called Lamorna which my guide book informed me was close to where John le Carré lived (St. Buryan). I recall jokingly saying to my wife that we should seek him out so that I could say thank you for the pleasure he had given me through his books. Needless to say, we walked on but I now regret we did so.