Sunday, December 13, 2020

Espionage and counter-espionage

David Cornwell, who wrote as John le Carré, died yesterday. I've read quite a few of his books. My favorite was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the first of a trilogy involving a Soviet master spy known as Karla. Two of the books in that trilogy, Tinker, Tailor... and Smiley's People were turned into very good BBC series starring Alec Guinness as Smiley. The John le Carré obituary in the Washington Post included this:
In Tinker Tailor, Smiley seeks to find a “mole” — a double agent answering to Moscow — in the British intelligence service. Mr. le Carré based the plot on the real-life double agent Kim Philby, who fled to the Soviet Union after being unmasked.

“It’s the oldest question in the world, George,” a government official tells Smiley, luring him out of retirement. “Who can spy on the spies?”

The story is taut and filled with treachery, but the book is also a revealing study of the various suspects — and of Smiley himself, who learns during his investigation that his wife has had an affair with the mole.

Back in the clandestine chase, Smiley returns to his well-practiced habits of suspicion:
What of the shadow he never saw, only felt, till his back seemed to tingle with the intensity of his watcher’s gaze; he saw nothing, heard nothing, only felt. He was too old not to heed the warning. The creak of a stair that had not creaked before; the rustle of a shutter when no wind was blowing; the car with a different number plate but the same scratch on the offside wing; the face on the Metro that you know you have seen somewhere before: for years at a time these were signs he had lived by; any one of them was reason enough to move, change towns, identities. For in that profession there is no such thing as coincidence.
The books and the two TV mini-series with Guinness are very good, although the series might be thought a bit slow today. I've posted on the first before. I didn't care for the more recent film.

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