Notes towards a taxonomy of the novels of John le Carré

October 18, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Oct. 18, 2016

The British author John le Carré has written 23 novels, according to Wikipedia, of which I’ve read about two-thirds. If one were to draw a Venn diagram of le Carré’s oeuvre, there would be two main “bubbles,” or categories: Those in which the protagonist is a professional spy and those in which she or he is not.

An example of the former would be all of the so-called George Smiley novels, of which Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is perhaps best known: Smiley devotes his entire career to British intelligence. An example of the latter would be many of le Carré’s other books, such as two of my favorite novels by him: 1993’s The Night Manager, in which a hotel manager is drafted for an operation targeting illicit international arms dealers, and 2001’s The Constant Gardener, in which an ordinary British diplomat begins to uncover shady doings by a multinational company after the death of his unfaithful wife.

Several other le Carré books feature amateurs who dally in espionage. There’s The Russia House (1989), wherein a British publisher becomes a courier for a spy ring; The Little Drummer Girl (1983), in which a radical English actress is recruited to locate a Palestinian terrorist; and Our Kind of Traitor (2010), in which a professional London couple decides to help a Russian money launderer and his family defect to England.

And what, you may ask, of the overlapping between the two bubbles? This area is dedicated to two kinds of novels. One type has multiple leading characters, some of whom are professional spies and some of whom are not; the other, a leading character whose status is nebulous or transitional.

In The Tailor of Panama, there are two main characters: The eponymous tailor and the duplicitous British spy who recruits him. Obviously, this homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana belongs to the first type, as does A Most Wanted Man, with its multiple characters, some intelligence professionals and others (more or less) ordinary individuals. A Perfect Spy tracks its main character, Magnus Pym, from childhood through a key episode in his adulthood; this book, of course, belongs to the second type.

I’ll touch upon this le Carré taxonomy later this week…

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