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.

 

Spy Vs. Spy

Could It Be That I Miss the Cold War?

Last year, during tax season, I started falling in love with spy novels. To be more specific, I started reading the spy novels of Len Deighton, starting with the “Harry Palmer” titles, of which I read the first four. (There are three more in the series.) Then I moved on to the Bernard Samson titles, where I am now, wending my way through London Match. Of course, I am also very fond of Eric Ambler, Paul Furst, and the inimitable John Le Carré.

Perhaps I subconsciously think that the Soviets were a more admirable enemy than, say, Sunni Arab Jihadists. There was a certain rationalism to the Russians, which seems to be lacking in the Arab world. I have always loved Russian literature, even more than American literature. Don’t worry: I have no intention of toeing the Marxist-Leninist line any time soon. The fact that, as a Hungarian, I lost a number of relatives in 1956 when the Russian tanks invaded, makes it difficult for me to be Pro-Communist.

I love spy fiction. It is so devious. Sometimes I wonder why the British are so good at it. There are American CIA novels of the Tom Clancy variety, but I never quite fit that groove. The British operatives of MI-5 and MI-6, have won some battles; and they suffered some serious defections, especially the Cambridge Five. The British seemed to have more at stake. I remember a British friend at Dartmouth College who told me that he felt uncomfortably close, geographically, to the Iron Curtain.

At some point, I will print a list of my favorite spy novels. But for now, I am going under cover.

 

 

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.