“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
-F Scott Fitzgerald
James Bond by Ian Fleming was in real terms an ‘out-of-the-world’ fantasy and one instinctively knew that the real spy would not be a glam boy playing ducks and drakes with gals and guns. Somerset Maugham gave an insight of spying during the World War days through his character ‘Ashenden’ and the narrative showed the drab side of the game even if it was low in terms of action.
But in my view it is John Le Carre who is the undisputed master of the spy novel. I read many of his books dealing typically with the Cold War period and was gobsmacked by his craftsmanship. George Smiley was my eternal favourite character but my top five books include a somewhat different list.
#1 The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
The twist in the tale is perfect and just goes to show that the foot soldier is meant to follow his orders and not attempt to under his General’s strategy. Amoral to the core and possibly true of the real world, the spy is shown to be no hero but just a small puppet in the hands of his Master.
#2 The Honourable Schoolboy
It’s the pits and Smiley is called in to salvage the situation.Working against odds to time and resources, battling his political masters, Smiley plans a coup. The mission is a success but the spoils of the victory are shared by the non-actors. It has become Le Carre’s penchant to deprive Smiley of the crown.
#3 A Perfect Spy
Autobiographical in nature it is interesting not for the plot and story but in exploring the makings of a spy and his inner drives and moorings. And sadly it reveals a hash of spoilt childhood and a sore lack of social values. More than a spy story, it is more like a proper novel that makes it an interesting read.
#4 The Russia House
Le Carre changes his tack – we have no Smiley now and the story runs a typical line that one is lulled into thinking that we can predict the end. For once fortune favours the underdogs and Le Carre reveals a happy ending for the people involved.
#5 The Secret Pilgrim
The spy on his own will amount to nothing than being the foot soldier. He is supported by a strong organization that pulls the strings in so many ways. In this book using a popular anecdotal form, Le Carre gives us a run of the inner workings of the Spy organization. And it is a glowing and possibly final tribute to Smiley by the writer. It also reflects the ushering of the new world as the Cold War finally seems to be coming to an end.