Monday 28 August 2017

Deighton & Le Carré .... spy fiction titans cut from different cloth

(c) Tom Jamieson, New York Times
This recent New York Times profile of John Le Carré is part of the growing pre-launch hubbub surrounding his new novel A Legacy of Spies, which is launched in September with a live interview of the author at the Royal Festival Hall.

The fever pitch reflects renewed interest in Le Carré's fifty years plus career as a novelist of note, arguably the greatest spy fiction thriller writer. The success of the TV adaptation of The Night Manager in 2016 and the film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, brought Le Carré's writing to a whole new generation.

While Le Carré's career has continued without pause since the end of the Cold War, by contrast Len Deighton's career has - since his last published novel Charity in 1996 - in effect trasnmuted into a well-deserved retirement (which he enjoys and which he evidently has no desire to leave). As such, their public - and online - profiles has gone in dramatically different directions over the last decade and more.

A contemporary of Len Deighton - Deighton is 88, Le Carré will soon be 86 - John Le Carré's life and writing career in a number of interesting ways contrasts with Deighton's.

  • In terms of background, Deighton is from working class stock, educated at art school and worked as an illustrator before turning to fiction full time. Le Carré - or David Cornwell, his real name - is more classically English middle class, from Poole in Dorset.
  • Le Carré has an espionage background, his first novel being written while still serving as an MI:5 agent in West Germany (meaning he required approval for the novel from his superiors). 
  • Deighton, in contrast, has no formal links with intelligence agencies, though, he once revealed to the Dossier, he met numerous 'spies' and people in the intelligence demi-monde in the sleazier parts of Soho in the sixties
  • While Le Carré's writing and plotting is perhaps regarded by critics and readers alike as superb, it can often be bracketed at the more 'literary' end of the spy fiction spectrum, whereas Deighton's most famous novels - while extremely well-written - are perhaps more popular and action-packed in tone.
  • The characters for which each is most well known - George Smiley in Le Carré's case, Harry Palmer and Bernard Samson in the case of Deighton - while each was a spy, they operated in very different ways. Smiley is a desk-bound intelligence officer, cerebral and rather disciplined in his approach who takes well to the office politics of the bureaucracy of The Circus.
  • Harry Palmer and Samson are, in contrast, both more the field agent types, open to using violence and gun play to meet their objectives. Both are also more evidently comfortable with female company than Smiley was.

Le Carré and Deighton have each woven different, complementary strands of the spy fiction tapestry and both have added to the vitaility of the genre and its continued fascination with readers over the last half-century and more. 

Indeed, both writers are often considered in contrast to the previous 'giant' of spy fiction, Ian Fleming, as their first few novels in the 'sixties were regarded as providing a grittier, more realistic counterpoint to the Bond fantasies which proved a hit with readers.

John Le Carré and Len Deighton are both titans of the spy fiction genre and, while their careers have in the last two decades taken different paths, their positive influence on the genre - and on popular culture more generally through film and TV adaptations - is clear to see. 

Len Deighton shared with the Deighton Dossier a short anecdote which illustrated a subtle difference in how each author approached the task of writing:

"In the 'eighties Bob Gottlieb was my publisher and he continued to edit (and line edit) my books even though he had left Knopf to edit the New Yorker.
Recently Bob wrote his memoirs and mentioned the differences between me and John Le Carré. He wrote that, having once pointed out an inconsistency to Le Carré in a text, he subsequently straightaway received a large batch of freshly-written pages to insert from the author.
On a separate occasion Bob told me that a man who was 'killed' on page 15 of one of my manuscripts was in fact still alive on page 100. From me, Bob wrote, he merely got a short message saying 'make it almost killed.'

A fun anecdote which suggests that while Le Carré and Deighton may have taken different approaches to the task of writing, what they produced in the end was in both cases still formidable and eminently readable.

I'm sure A Legacy of Spies - which Le Carré has hinted may be his penultimate book - will be a great success for fans of Smiley. Readers can only wish for a similar return for Bernard Samson!


  1. Ian Fleming introduced James bond and I relished what this character did when I first read his Bond novel in 1958 during my university days. 1960s is arguably the golden era of producing 2 superb spy novelists, Le Carre and Len Deighton, the former introduced George Smiley in his first novel: Call for the Dead and the latter, which Harry Saltzman later called: Harry Palmer. Having read these 2 novels, I knew then that these 2 authors would go very far, and they did.
    It is interesting that Deighton’s third novel: Funeral in Berlin, and Le Carre’s third novel: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, were both set in East Berlin and the appearance there by the respective spies: Harry Palmer and Alec Leamas. I was able, 20 years later, to appreciate both authors’ knowledge of West Berlin and East Berlin and the Wall, when I visited both places in early 1980s. Both novels were made into films with Michael Caine as Harry Palmer and Richard Burton as Alec Leamas. However, the narrative of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the intimate knowledge of West and West Berlin and particularly the Wall as exemplified in the story won it for me; added to this, the superb acting of Richard Burton won approval of wider audience. I was not surprised that it won BAFTA awards and was then adjudged as the best spy film then. Le Carrie with his first hand knowledge of working of the secret intelligence service (MI6) spun a very good narrative of how the cold war intelligence worked. He particularly developed his own genre, which is reflected in the massive but quality output of his thrillers involving George Smiley. The novel Tinker , Tailor Soldier Spy and the film of the name firmly established as the supreme spy novelist, and the only living titan for me, and he is still generating superb output. The single powerful character he created: George Smiley contributed to this supreme status of Le Carre. We see also today how powerful characters like James Bond in its own way, has lasted for over 50 years, and counting.

  2. Sorry a few repetitions.Should be: "... intimate knowledge of East and West Berlin..."