We’ve discussed spy novels here before, and we’ve professed a preference for the books on one end of the spectrum: the unrealistic spy-as-a-superhero genre, as exemplified by stuff like this or like this. James Bond is probably the perfect example of this kind of reading; suspension of disbelief is a must, but the rewards are a truly fun read and a welcome piece of escapism.
But there’s another side to the spy book business. Some writers go the literary routs and, instead of making their agents superhuman, they settle for making them all-too-human. Graham Greene, of course, showed us part of this with his The Third Man, and Conrad failed, but the master is John le Carré.
The Russia House isn’t his best known book. That would be The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I haven’t read enough of his books to say with any confidence that it’s his best… but I can say it’s typical.
In le Carré’s world, spies are tired, worn workers in a trade that takes a toll. Some suffer the anxiety of being captured and tortured, and shot, but most, the ones not on the front lines simply feel the stress of being responsible for an unheralded part of national security while, at the same time, having to worry about wives and lovers, pushy coworkers and office politics.
These are the characters that populate this novel, and they play against the ones that truly are at risk, the men and women on the front lines whose very lives depend on the aforementioned handlers.
The tension in his books is of the slow-burn type. You don’t have a gigantic guard running after the protagonist with an AK-47. The KGB is around every corner, but they’re probably just as bored as you are.
It’s certainly not the escapist rush of a quick 1970s secret agent novels from supermarket racks… but it does draw you in to the Cold War and build a world that means the last page of the novel is turned with regret because you have to return to the real world. The characters are well-rounded. They are people, not cardboard cutouts.
The espionage? It’s secondary. Like the sex in Lolita or the car trip in The Remains of the Day, it’s a framing device to tel us about lives that might not be so different from our own, and values that are, perhaps, lost.
A worthwhile alternative look at the genre.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Ice Station Death takes international politics and crosses them with Jurassic Park to create a tense adventure with modern sensibilities. You can check it out here.