Artificial Worlds: Fiction, Spying . . . Politics?

By David Ludlum

Spy

photo: Phillip Sidek, public domain

The New York Times Book Review touts the release of a new John le Carré novel, A Legacy of Spies, through an interview by Sarah Lyall (great last name for a spy) of both the father of modern spy novels and his friend Ben Macintyre, author of 11 non-fiction books, mostly on British espionage.

On the chance anyone’s not familiar with le Carré, the write-up credits him with almost single-handedly elevating spy novels from genre fiction to literature (“almost,” because of the significant, occasional contributions of literary writers like Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and Somerset Maugham). Macintyre gets more specific, calling le Carré’s novels “emotionally and psychologically absolutely true.”

The article notes he popularized “the subversive hypothesis that the spies of East and West were two sides of the same tarnished coin, each as bad as the other . . . espionage painted not in black and white but in shades of gray.”

There’s not a lot of detail about the new book, though somewhat tantalizingly, we learn it’s “a coda of sorts” to 1963’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which the interviewer calls possibly most responsible for readers’ “le Carré addiction.” In this sequel, the children of the two main characters of the earlier book sue security services over the fate of their parents.

As a writer trying my own hand at espionage fiction, I was especially interested in what the two authors cited as similarities between espionage and novel-writing, including this exchange:

Macintyre: Spying and fiction are not entirely different processes. You try to create an artificial world. And the better and more realistic and more emotionally believable you can make that world, as either a spy or a novelist, the better you are going to be at it.

Le Carré: And you must also contemplate all the varieties of a person’s character. Could she be this? Could he be that? Can I turn him or her into that other person? All of those are actually the serious preoccupations of a novelist.

Macintyre: . . . And because spies invent their world, and often invent their pasts, they’re tremendously unreliable narrators. You have a wonderful backdrop of truth and nontruth to work against.

In a sense, lying, when it comes to facts, is at the heart of both espionage and fiction. Le Carré attributes his ability to create fictional worlds of duplicitous characters to his upbringing by a father who was a flamboyant con man, one with the temerity to run for Parliament despite having served time in jail. Another exchange:

Le Carré: And I had to lie about my parental situation while I was at boarding school.

Macintyre: What you’ve just described — is it the root of your fiction? Your ability to think yourself into someone else?

Le Carré: If my father said he was going to come and take me out, it was as likely as not that he wouldn’t show up. I would say to the other boys, I had a wonderful day out, when I had really been sitting in a field somewhere.

Inevitably I was making up stories to myself, retreating into myself. And then there was the genetic inheritance I got from my father. . . . He had a huge capacity for invention. He had absolutely no relationship to the truth.

Some readers won’t be surprised that a conversation dwelling on espionage, the Russians, and the slipperiness of truth segues to consideration of President Trump, of whom le Carré says, “There is not a grain of truth there.”

He suspects the Russians hold compromising information on Trump. “The mentality that is operating in Russia now is absolutely, as far as Putin is concerned, no different to the mentality that drove the most exotic conspiracies during the Cold War,” he says. “It worked then, it works now.”

Macintyre is of the opinion that the Russians do have compromising information on the U.S. President, termed kompromat. Their motive: “Then [Trump] has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.” He calls the Russian lawyer who met with the President’s son and top campaign officials at Trump Tower, and who may or may not be working with the government, “straight out of one of our books.” She’s foggy and deniable. “It’s called maskirovka,” Macintyre says, “little masquerade — where you create so much confusion and uncertainty and mystery that no one knows what the truth is.”

Le Carré caps off this discussion by speculating that the “smoking gun” might be documents on plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow. “There are bits of scandal which, if added up, might suggest he went to Russia for money. And that would then fit in with the fact that he isn’t half as, a tenth as rich as he pretends to be.”

Guest poster David Ludlum works as an editor and marketing professional for a wealth management organization and is writing an espionage novel.

Spy Fic: “Freshly Relevant”

Spy

photo: Joshua Rappeneker, creative commons license

The old saw “truth is stranger than fiction” was never more apt than when applied to the Trump Administration. Back in February, its bull-in-the-China-shop approach to national security inspired me to create a recommended reading list—as a public service [!]—comprising a few thrillers that would illustrate how espionage works and how to behave in order to protect our country and its secrets. The books on that list provide a much more exciting and vivid curriculum than tedious daily briefings, for sure. Apparently, my post came too late for Don Jr. Ah, well, authors keep trying. And the parallels keep emerging.

Last Friday Dwyer Murphy in LitHub said he also finds spy literature “freshly relevant.” And apparently, Senator Tom Cotton agrees. Murphy’s essay, “10 Great Spy Thrillers That Could be New York Times Headlines” starts like this:

The cast of characters is almost too much to believe: a Russian pop star, a British tabloid veteran, an attorney with mysterious ties to the Kremlin, a Moscow-funded lobbyist running a White House campaign, a real estate scion married into political power, and the son of the soon-to-be President of the United States.

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

Murphy contends that you can get “uncannily close” to the strategies and schemes filling 2017 newspapers—and understand how the U.S.-Russia relationship got to be what it was and is—all while lounging in your beach chair with some pretty exciting novels. I remember wondering what John le Carré would do after the Cold War ended. Now we know. Trot out his backlist.

Here are Murphy’s picks that I’ve read too:

  • The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton – “cynical, paranoid, and savvy”; and the 1965 Michael Caine movie was a winner too
  • Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst – The hero of this novel is caught up in the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, “a work on a grand scale”—I’m a big Furst fan.
  • The Human Factor, by Graham Greene – Like many of Furst’s books, Greene’s classic starts with the protagonist, an MI6 operative near retirement, taking a few slight actions to aid the Communists and, when he’s in too deep, finding out they have an altogether different game on. The film version had an all-star cast and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré – Murphy calls this the ne plus ultra of the Russian spy game. Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy is the favorite of other writers, including Philip Roth.
  • The English Girl, by Daniel Silva – Silva has cited this novel when discussing the Russian interference in the U.S. election. “KGB playbook 101,” he reportedly said.

If you still have room in your vacation suitcase, the other books on his list (which I have not read) are: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, David Downing’s Zoo Station, Mesmerized by Gayle Lynds, Martin Cruz Smith’s Tatiana, Seventeen Moments of Spring by Yulian Semyonov, and JFK’s favorite, From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming. Read all these and you will be every bit as well prepared to manage our country’s security services as some of the people actually doing so.

Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor

McGregor & Skarsgård, Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor is my kind of movie (trailer). A political thriller that avoids the eye-rolling tropes of so many films in the genre—the relentless testosterone-fueled special effects, vehicular mayhem, and beyond-evil bad guys. Instead, it relies for tension on the attachment it craftily develops between viewer and character, thanks to an excellent script and solid acting.

Based on the 2010 John Le Carré novel, as adapted by Houssein Amini, and directed by Susanna White, Our Kind is a movie about trust. While it shows that people at the highest levels of public trust may not necessarily have the public’s good at the top of their agendas—no news flash in this genre—trust at the personal level is still possible. And trust is entails risk. Life-and-death risk.

Low-key London academic Perry Makepeace (played by Ewan MacGregor) and his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) are in exotic Marrakesh trying to revive a fading relationship. When she leaves him alone in a restaurant, he’s befriended by a Russian at a neighboring table, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård, brilliant!), who convinces him to go to “a Russian party” extravagant even by oligarchical standards. The next day Dima persuades Perry and Gail to drop in at his daughter’s 16th birthday party, where it’s just the usual—you know, bands, fireworks, sword swallowers, bejeweled camels.

At the party, Dima pulls Perry aside and confesses he’s the chief money launderer for the Russian mafia and in imminent danger of being murdered in an internecine war. He gives Perry a flash drive and asks him to get it to MI6. He says a big bolus of dirty money is about to land on British shores by way of a shell bank headquartered in the Mediterranean. Dima wants to defect, and he wants the Brits to protect him and, most of all, his family.

Plots featuring the “average man” work because you inevitably wonder, “what would I do?” The operational guys in the British security services (sly Damian Lewis, especially) like Perry’s information, but the big bosses don’t want them to follow up, for reasons of tangled agendas noted above.

After that it’s cat-and-mouse, with Dima and Perry two little mice and pretty much everyone else in the role of fat cats. Says critic Scott Marks of the San Diego Reader, “The mid-summer release of an adult, effects-free British thriller relating to the collapse of Europe’s global financial system timed out perfectly. You’ll Brexit knowing that your entertainment dollar was well spent.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 57%. The principal complaint seems to be that not much blows up (exactly what I liked about it!). Except of course, for people’s lives. Don’t believe the naysayers. It’s a subtle gem.