He was 89, so a corner of the treasonous heart expected it would happen some day soon. But one had hoped that this extraordinary, vile and tragic year would not claim John le Carré too.

In the Circus of his fans – and they are more numerous than you can imagine – I would be a mere lamplighter with occasional pretense to being a scalphunter. Therefore I shall not speculate about why he was denied the usual accoutrements of literary greatness. A Booker, if not the Big One. These are discussions I shall leave to the Lacons. But this loss is grievous, and we shall speak of the man and the world he created. Just that, for now.

I was introduced to him by my grandfather, who in turn was recommended to his works by WWI veterans-turned-teachers in India. There were, I was told, some tenuous connections between said teachers and the Oxford dons who headhunted le Carré – then just David Cornwell – and his generation into the Security Service in 1958 and then the SIS. There is a long legacy of dour, illusionless men who come to mind every time I pick up a Cold War le Carré novel, and it has always been so because one of them got me on to the books.

Thus, also, is how I happen to have every single first edition le Carré till The Russia House, including Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, his first two sighting shots before he wrote The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Warming up to the Cold War

It has been mentioned, and will be again now, how different his characters were from Ian Fleming’s. A lot of this has to do with the nature of his particular secret war as opposed to Fleming’s. For the creator of James Bond, espionage was what the Special Operations Executive did – Christopher Lee parachuting into the Balkans or someplace suitably exotic with a knife, for king and country. A good and just war, if such creatures exist.

Le Carré’s six years in the Cold War trenches ended with the devastation of Kim Philby’s betrayal. There was no heroism to begin with, and no identifiable moral positions. Just dour, illusionless men in a world with no righteous fulcrum, saddled with the orphanhood of empire. And so in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold Alec Leamas, that immortal, tragic fellow, on being asked by his Communist lover Liz Gold whether he loved her, replies that he does not believe in fairy tales. The Spy… transcends the espionage genre and becomes a great literary work, its bleakness as fascinating as its characters are repellant.

The early le Carrés are relentless in this bleakness, and the more obscure works of this period are not lacking in significant literary merit, nor are their characters mere preparatory sketches for a fully realised George Smiley. Leo Harting and Alan Turner in A Small Town in Germany, or Fred Leiser in The Looking Glass War are intermittently stand-ins for le Carré’s disaffection with the illusions of post-colonial England and precursors to tragic characters in his later works; minor players in great games beyond their comprehension but not the scope of their conscience.

There haven’t been many espionage writers who have come close to this treatment of the subject during that period, not to mention le Carré’s felicity with the written word and his understanding of the human condition. Arguably closest was Len Deighton, another curious fellow who has been retired for decades, professing to be bored with the effort of writing. His An Expensive Place to Die fits quite well in tone and characterisation with these post-Leamas le Carrés.

A marvellous cast

And then there came along Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, my second favourite le Carré and the greatest espionage novel ever written. Smiley, fully crafted, fully retired, befuddled with his wife’s many indiscretions and the last will and testament of his secretive boss Control. Smiley outside the Circus, which in le Carré’s world stood in for the SIS. Smiley trying to unearth the Soviet mole who had burrowed to the very top of the British secret intelligence establishment.

There is not a false note in this story. The characters would have been memorable if they had never appeared in a subsequent work. The tone is just as bleak as ever, but now we see the glimmer of some kind of provisional denouement, if only in the unmasking of a traitor. Because the reader finds that they still prefer the certitude of the good guys winning, at least this once, even if nobody really does.

And oh, such a marvellous cast of rogues – lamplighters (surveillance operatives), scalphunters (who do “black” jobs like kidnapping and burglary); Smiley’s allies like Peter Guillam and Connie Sachs, and of course all the suspects, for this is mainly their story. A great exploration of Britain’s secret heart, but also the secret hearts of nations with pretense to greatness that may have passed them by or was never theirs to claim. A beautiful exploration of the frailties that lie in the souls of fragile men.

Tinker Tailor… is the first of what is called the Quest for Karla trilogy, and its sequel The Honourable Schoolboy does not get the praise it deserves, which is rather unfortunate. And Smiley’s People rounds things up rather well.

There are later and quite competent works, such as The Little Drummer Girl, but one begins to notice le Carré’s difficulties when not directly dealing with Britain’s inner contradictions and the Soviets, in this case with the Israel problem. There is also an oddity in this period in the form of The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, which is about the secret lives of amateurs, if one may put it that way.

When the enemy vanished

The end of the Cold War was difficult for writers like le Carré. Despite the absence of moral fulcra, there was a reassuring solidity in that conflict and even in the enemy. As Smiley tells his Soviet antagonist Karla (in Delhi, of all places): “We are not so different, you and I.”

But after the Cold War the British secret establishment mutated, and le Carré faltered, barring the autobiographical, gentle and quite beautiful A Perfect Spy. There were occasional sparks of the old greatness – Single and Single, The Night Manager, Our Game and The Constant Gardener – but when it came to the War on Terror, his political position was problematic. His works therefore suffered from an understandable but lamentable inability of Anglo-American male writers of a certain vintage in engaging with the complexities of the Muslim world.

This is one reason why the greatest living espionage fiction writer now is Daniel Silva, with his Mossad version of the Circus. His Gabriel Allon even does Smiley-type interrogations in Europe.

But that is how influences last, how literary mantles are inherited, even if literary merit is not. As Terry Pratchett said of Tolkien: “He has become a sort of mountain, appearing in all subsequent fantasy in the way that Mt Fuji appears so often in Japanese prints. Sometimes it’s big and up close…Sometimes it is not there at all, which means the artist has made a deliberate decision against the mountain, which is interesting in itself, or is in fact standing on Mt Fuji.”

Spies are, as I grew up and found out, just professionals, or trying to be. In what passes for the real world, they tend to fall midway between Bond and Smiley. But in their secret lives and strivings, they encompass some of the quainter questions about humans, about their devices and desires. Le Carré knew this and could write about it better than anyone ever had. He shall be missed. Smiley, meanwhile, endures. It’s what old spies do.

Siddhartha Sarma is a journalist, author and historian. His latest novel, Twilight in a Knotted World, came out in September 2020.