What Is Truth?

Alec Guinness as George Smiley in John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Even though the Soviet Menace has long since disappeared, I am still a devotee of spy fiction. These days, it’s harder to find a spy service that is a worthy adversary for the great British agents of MI-5 and MI-6. Oh, Vladimir Putin is still around; and he is a bona fide graduate of the KGB Academy; but the situation has morphed beyond recognition since the old Marxist-Leninist days.

The one constant in the genre is the frangibility of truth. Who is it that decides what actually happened? I have just finished reading Len Deighton’s Spy Line, which ends with a scene on the autobahn in East German territory. There are two KGB men killed; one British agent; the sister-in-law of the book’s hero Bernard Samson; leaving behins Samson and his wife, who had defected to the Soviets and was returning to the West; and one man named Turkettle, who appears to be a CIA asset who has reputedly performed assassinations for the Soviets. Amidst this confusing welter, a British agent must try to make sense of all this so that he can get his “K” (Knighthood). He has to construct a plausible truth while the survivors of the incident have their own reasons for hiding facts.

Here is a short list of spy novels that I think are worthy of your attention:

  • Erskine Childers: The Riddle of the Sands (1903). Spying on the German naval buildup leading to WWI.
  • W. Somerset Maugham: Ashenden (1928). Made into a film by Hitchcock called The Secret Agent (1936).
  • Ian Fleming: From Russia With Love (1957). Very fanciful, but great fun.
  • Graham Greene: The Honorary Consul (1973). Set along the border between Argentina and Paraguay.
  • Len Deighton: The “Harry Palmer” and Bernard Samson novels, especially Funeral in Berlin (1964)
  • John Le Carré: The George Smiley novels, particularly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). Adapted into two films, of which the 1979 BBC series with Alec Guinness was the better.

If any others come to mind, I’ll expand this list in the future.


Cold War Nostalgia

The Spy Vs. Spy Characters from Mad magazine

The Spy Vs. Spy Characters from Mad Magazine

Looking back, the Communists were a worthy enemy. There were no suicide vests or improvised explosive devices aimed at innocent civilians. (Religious wars are always the most brutal.) Mind you, the Russians weren’t Boy Scouts, either. But after the ugliness and indiscriminate savagery of the current Sunni Muslim jihad against the West, I grow downright nostalgic about the 1960s.

Lately, I have been reading the three great spy novelists of that time—with great pleasure. I just finished Funeral in Berlin by one of them, the great Len Deighton. The other two were Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, and John Le Carré, author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Funeral in Berlin is typical of the period. The hero, who is called Harry Palmer in the movies but is unnamed in the books, arranges to transfer a Russian scientist to West Berlin by means of a coffin. No one seems to be trustworthy. In fact, the character one would think would be the most villainous, Colonel Stok of the KGB, is actually the most sympathetic character that “Harry” encounters. The people who are supposedly his allies are an untrustworthy lot: two of them try to kill him, others just want to sell him down river.

In comparison, James Bond is almost never surprised by villains who are supposed to be on the same side as him. There are all those lovely girls, and Felix Leiter of the CIA appears as a supporting hero in several of the novels.

Only Le Carré comes close to Deighton in creating a murky world of spies and supposed friends. My favorite of his books is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been made into an excellent film and a great British TV series starring Sir Alez Guinness as George Smiley.


Favorite Films: The IPCRESS File

Michael Caine in The IPCRESS File (1965)

Michael Caine in The IPCRESS File (1965)

Michael Caine co-starred with a pair of glasses (curiously similar to the ones that Rick Perry sported while he was still running for President) in a spy film that was most un-James-Bond-like, despite the fact that Harry Saltzman produced both The IPCRESS File and many of the classic Bonds.

(By the way, if you’re wondering why IPCRESS is in all caps, it’s because it’s an acronym for Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex with Stress, the brainwashing scheme used by Commie spies to “turn” British scientists.)

The IPCRESS File was Michael Caine’s first big shot at stardom. His spy is unnamed in Len Deighton’s novels, but you couldn’t very well have an unnamed character in a film who is constantly being directly addressed by his friends and co-workers. It was Caine who came up with the moniker Harry Palmer, and it stuck.

Palmer’s world of spies is much dirtier than Bond’s. You wouldn’t suspect M or Q or Miss Moneypenny for being a Russian plant; but in Harry Palmer’s WOOC(P) [SIC] organization no one is near as squeaky clean.

In the film, Harry accidentally kills one CIA operative in an underground garage who was tailing him too closely and is suspected of killing another whose bullet-riddled body is found in his flat.

Kidnapped from a train, Harry finds himself in an Albanian prison being brainwashed to forget everything he knew about the IPCRESS project. Some people, and Harry is one of them, just can’t succumb to brainwashing; and he comes out ahead.

Sidney J. Furie’s film direction is edgy and effective. I had not seen the film since my college days when I saw that it was being screened on Turner Classic Movies. Coincidentally, I had read Deighton’s novel just a couple of weeks ago.