David Cornwell, AKA John Le Carré, died last week at the age of 89.
Despite being an immense fan of his, I don’t think this was exceptionally tragic, except in the sense death is usually tragic. He had a long life, a truly amazing career and his last book, Legacy of Spies proved he still had the touch. As I said at the link, writers returning to the scene of their early classics usually tank, but Le Carré came through.
When I started reading (sometimes, but not usually rereading) Cornwell’s work a few years ago, I fully expected that he’d no longer be cutting edge. Sure, he was more cynical than James Bond, but several spy books I’d read in recent decades showed more cynicism than James Bond. They knew that espionage services included careerists who put personal advancement ahead of the mission, incompetents, and officials who treated ordinary people like pawns. But there was always the hero, standing against them, doing the right thing.
When I read Spy Who Came In From the Cold I realized Cornwell’s cynicism was of a different order. It’s his protagonists who treat ordinary people like pawns, make incompetent decisions or prioritize their careers. Smiley and his boss Control at a minimum put an innocent British woman’s life in danger; at worst, they put her in danger fully knowing she won’t survive. In Looking-Glass War Control manipulates a branch of military intelligence to eliminate them as potential rivals. Cornwell, an ex-spy himself, rips into British intelligence in countless ways, as only someone on the inside can rip into something.
His 21xt century novels aren’t his best work. After 9/11 his anger at the way intelligence services have been let off the leash with no consequence if they bite someone led to some heavy handed endings (even though I’m sympathetic to his views). But we still got some excellent books such as Legacy and A Most Wanted Man.
Cornwell’s writing is first rate and his characterization ditto, though reading so much in a relatively concentrated span of time makes his tropes stand out (this is true of any writer) such as the protagonist with the dysfunctional marriage, the ne’er do well father and the flamboyant, edgy troublemaker (The Naive and Sentimental Lover, my least favorite of his books, has two out of the three). He can still make those tropes work, like the conniving father in A Perfect Spy, or work against them, like the happily married couple in Our Kind of Traitor.
He was a great talent, and it was a pleasure to read him.
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