Rightly championed for decades by genre and literary readers alike, John le Carré has written a novel that may appeal to neither camp

A short and straightforward tale of espionage: today it is hard to imagine such a novel securing critical recognition for an obscure writer. Luckily for John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963) appeared at a time when people still wandered freely between the literary and genre sectors, sometimes even forgetting where they were; it felt more like occupied Vienna than Cold War Berlin. Both J. B. Priestley and Graham Greene praised the book in the strongest terms, hardly minding that they were agreeing with people who had enjoyed Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me a year earlier. It wasn't long before the postmodernists arrived on the scene, vowing to obscure the line between elite and popular culture altogether, and in the sense that a towering wall was erected in its place, they certainly kept their word. But by then le Carré's good name had already been established, and both sides still respect it forty years on.

Looking back, the much vaunted break with the 007 tradition doesn't seem quite so clean as all that. Though highly literate, and endowed with greater gifts of observation and imagery than most of today's prizewinners, le Carré is hardly an intellectual writer. Like Fleming, he fawns over his good guys, displays a fierce pride in a conventionally imagined Englishness, and scripts foreign characters according to national type. Also like Fleming, he deals in male fantasy: Alec Leamas, the hero of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, may have been a snappish fifty-year-old operative, but he was just as interesting to flight attendants as Bond was, and his girlfriend was barely out of her teens. How strange that critics consider it escapist tripe when a dashing young man wins a pretty young woman, and unflinching realism when the young woman invites a nondescript middle-aged man home for no apparent reason at all—though to be honest, I now prefer the latter kind of book myself.

The James Bond novels abound in embarrassments, from gobbets of nonsense presented as hard-won expertise ("the smell of danger … something like the mixture of sweat and electricity you get in an amusement arcade") to absurdly connoisseurish leering at women. Le Carré put a stop to most of these things while finding new ways to make the reader squirm. The occasional burst of iron-manliness is bad enough in itself: "And Jack—dear Jack—you have your marvellous old attaché case, as faithful as the dog you had to shoot." But it is even harder to take when expressed in the primly mournful tone of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, a novel of which le Carré is an avowed admirer: "And Magnus goes. Magnus always goes. Even when a sharp smack across Mary's chops would be the wiser course, Magnus goes."

There are also passages that make one realize how liberated the Bond girls were by comparison:

Then she felt ashamed, because she knew she should have cleaned and tidied. Jumping up, she fetched the carpet sweeper and a duster from the kitchen, and set to work with feverish energy. She found a clean teacloth and spread it neatly on the bedside table and she washed up the odd cups and saucers … "Alec, don't be cross, please don't," she said. "I'll go, I promise I will, but let me make you a proper meal. You're ill, you can't go on like this, you're … oh Alec," and she broke down and wept, holding both hands over her face, the tears running between her fingers like the tears of a child.

The smart reader forgives these little things, because le Carré's best novels are some of the most exciting stories ever written. They are exciting because he wrote them with this goal uppermost in mind. "I would wish that all my books were entertainments," he has said, and to his credit he never uses that word in the shamefaced way that Graham Greene did. So why do "serious" types consider his work to be something else entirely? (An American interviewer sought to compliment him by saying that "entertainment" is "not a word usually associated with le Carré.") The answer seems to be that the very stratagems he uses to make his work exciting have always made it seem quite highbrow as well. Take The Spy Who Came In From the Cold: the gloomy tone lends plausibility to a story in desperate need of it, as gloom has done since Conan Doyle and continues to do in Hollywood. (Fleming knew the principle, and although he couldn't keep his writing joyless enough, one of his choices to play 007 on film was the long-faced Richard Burton—who ended up playing Alec Leamas instead.) But the fact that le Carré's England feels as bleak as his East Germany was interpreted by some as a repudiation of the Cold War mindset and thus of the entire spy genre. Meteorological relativism was taken for the moral kind, and the hero's grumbling about dirty methods pored over as if it betokened a Scobie-like inner struggle. Ever since then le Carré has been the "moral ambiguity" man, though his hero was really just fretting, as the best good guys often do, about sinking to the bad guys' level. Fretting needlessly, I might add: if the author really thought it wrong to trick a totalitarian enemy into executing one of its own intelligence officials (and it sounds like a great idea to me), he would have done a better job of making us agree with him.

In the famous trilogy of the 1970s—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley's People (1979)—the gloom was augmented by an element of willful difficulty that made everything seem even more authentic for the reader, and even more serious for the critic. The battle between spymaster Smiley and his Soviet nemesis, Karla, was so complex that it all but required a foldout chart to follow, and the prose often lapsed into a dense combination of Britishisms and spy jargon: juju men were sent spare and graded Persil; they felt like Gordon at Khartoum. At times leCarré seemed not to care whether the average American reader understood him at all, an attitude that never fails to make the average American critic sit up and take notice. The books are still remembered on both sides of the Atlantic for their "sophisticated analysis of moral questions," as a British newspaper recently put it, though one would need to have been raised on a very strict diet of Don DeLillo to find this sort of thing profound:

[Smiley] thought about treason and wondered whether there was mindless treason in the same way, supposedly, as there was mindless violence. It worried him that he felt so bankrupt; that whatever intellectual or philosophical precepts he clung to broke down entirely now that he was faced with the human situation.

Of course, moral issues do not have to be articulated in order to be explored, but at the very least a writer must make readers doubt the hero a bit themselves. Le Carré, however, will not even allow us the critical distance we feel in the presence of Bond, who is described on the cover of a new edition of Casino Royale as "chillingly ruthless." Someone is always reminding us that Smiley is the perfect dear if not the perfect spy, and the cordiality with which his idiosyncrasies are detailed can be downright cloying. His self-doubt—if that's not too grandiose a term for what seems largely a matter of reading German poetry and having the occasional "weep"—is there mainly to recommend him to us, like a metaphysical version of a white hat.

Sixty years ago the British writer William Sansom wrote a short story about a man climbing a very high ladder and becoming more and more afraid. "The Vertical Ladder" is a masterpiece, at once pure thought and pure action, though like most of the best short stories of the twentieth century, it is hopelessly out of print. To track it down and read it is to realize how absurd the current "serious"-versus-"genre" divide is—to realize that a tale of suspense can be as intellectually rewarding as any other. Film critics already know this; hence the esteem in which Hitchcock has always been held. But book reviewers confer honorary "serious" status only on storytellers who, like Elmore Leonard, have a sufficiently showy prose style, or who, like le Carré, are thought to have some moral or philosophical message. As with Sansom's story, however, the true value of the Smiley trilogy is inseparable from the tension created by the plot. Because the frightened characters are all spying on one another, their awareness of every sight and sound, every nuance in their counterparts' speech, is heightened to a level that is often poetic. Nothing is "analyzed," thank God, but the stories bring our own lives of deception into sharper focus. Anyone who has ever worked in a competitive organization will recognize the poisonous atmosphere of the mole-riven spy agency in Tinker, as well as the paranoia evoked in its classic scene of an office meeting: Have they been talking behind my back—or do they know I've been talking behind theirs? Unlike the American tough guy, the English man's man is allowed to be literate and thoughtful, so le Carré is able to assume the perspective of his spies without imposing limits on his own sensibility. In Tinker a man snooping in another's office hears what is probably a car braking outside, and it sounds "like a single note played on a flute"—a perfect comparison that would seem wrong in, say, a Jack Ryan novel.

But if thriller writers must write well enough to keep us from skimming to the action, they must also keep our attention on the story and not the prose. Few have the combination of talent and self-effacement needed to strike this balance, and no one maintains it with le Carré's consistency. This is an example of the standard reached on almost every page:

Last night there had been a storm, he remembered … He had watched it from the mattress while the girl lay snoring along his leg. First the smell of vegetation, then the wind rustling guiltily in the palm trees, dry hands rubbed together. Then the hiss of rain like tons of molten shot being shaken into the sea. Finally the sheet lightning rocking the harbour in long slow breaths while salvos of thunder cracked over the dancing roof-tops. I killed him, he thought.

Any of today's up-and-coming mediocrities would know what to do with a description like that: set it off from the rest of the text, pad it out with tautology and outright repetition, link everything into one breathless sentence—and wait for someone at The New York Times Book Review to hoist it reverently into an excerpt box. But le Carré pulls back from an obtrusive display of virtuosity. He keeps things short, sets them down in a summary tone (First … then … Then … Finally …), and moves right along, the story being paramount. No wonder the merits of his prose are so often overlooked. Praise tends to focus on his uncannily authentic-sounding dialogue, which manages to bring even marginal characters to life.

His hands still in his pockets, his head high against his shoulders, Brotherhood turned stiffly to Nigel. "I'm going to tell her," he said. "You want to throw a fit?"
"Are you asking me formally?" Nigel asked.
"Not particularly."
"If you are, I'll have to pass it to Bo," said Nigel and looked respectfully at his gold watch as if he took orders from it.
"Lederer knows and we know. If Pym knows too, who's left?" Brotherhood insisted.
Nigel thought about this. "Up to you. Your man, your decision, your tail-end. Frankly."

The charge of pomposity once leveled against the author in a literary spat would have been absurd even if it hadn't been leveled by Salman Rushdie. As down-to-earth in interviews as he is in his writing, le Carré was the first to tell people not to take his novels too seriously—that in the interests of a satisfying story he had fitted out his spies with more intelligence, in both senses of the word, than probably pertained in real life. Alas, since the Iraq debacle we no longer need him to point this out; it has become easier to swallow the notion of a spy's bankrupting a casino, or jumping a boat over a bridge, than to believe that the British "Circus" and its American "cousins" ever had much in the way of useful information to exchange. That the Smiley stories nonetheless retain their power to enthrall us is perhaps the most impressive proof of their creator's skill.

Much as a beautiful woman will rush out and change her hairstyle if complimented on it often enough, so do artists hate being told that they have found the ideal outlet for their talent. It's likely, then, that few people in the West were as glad to see the Berlin Wall go as the man who for so long had been touted as a kind of novelist laureate of the Cold War. Since then le Carré has written a succession of thrillers on subjects from the Panama Canal to the pharmaceutical industry, and his readership is still largely intact. Most fans of a fast and literate story can be counted on to give his latest a chance, and even those who end up reviling it on make a point of saying they can hardly wait for his next. His more serious readers, being serious readers, prefer to regard themselves as humble sponsors of his creative development; no matter what he writes, they try to find something in it, if only a scene or a character, to hold up as a worthwhile addition to an impressive body of work. The Smiley books, however, were the last ones everyone was able to agree on. Although each side still claims the author as its own, each routinely feels let down by him, and there is hardly a novel among his last nine that hasn't been criticized for being either too artsy or too Clancy.

Absolute Friends (2003) stands to re-unite the fan base at last, but not in a way anyone could have wanted. This is le Carré's first truly bad novel, one that seems almost calculated to give the lie to each building-blurb of his reputation. A gift for plotting? No sooner are we introduced to a florid middle-aged tour guide called Ted Mundy, a man with a vaguely and unpleasantly familiar name and no claim on our curiosity, than we are treated to well over two hundred pages about his youth and how he became a spy. The more we hear about him, the less we care, because everything is set down in the revoltingly roguish tone of a writer twirling a moustache with his free hand.

And if [Ted] hadn't signed up for Wulfila, he would never have found himself, on the third day of his first term at university, sitting buttock-to-buttock on a chintz sofa in North Oxford with a diminutive polyglot Hungarian spitfire called Ilse … he will hang up his musket for her any day, just as long as her impatient little heels keep hammering his rump on the coconut matting of her anchorite's horse trailer …

As for that legendary ear for human speech, le Carré has in the past shown a readiness to put his hand over it when he needs to impart some hard information. The protagonists of The Little Drummer Girl (1983) and The Constant Gardener (2001) are both lectured by characters who are obviously speaking for the author. But nothing was ever like this:

"I have in mind such thinkers as the Canadian Naomi Klein, India's Arundhati Roi, who pleads for a different way of seeing, your British George Monbiot and Mark Curtis, Australia's John Pilger, America's Noam Chomsky, the American Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz, and the Franco-American Susan George of World Social Forum at Porto Alegre. You have read all these fine writers, Mr Mundy?"
"Nearly all." And nearly all Adorno, nearly all Horkheimer and nearly all Marcuse, Mundy thinks …
"From their varying perspectives, each of these eminent writers tells me the same story. The corporate octopus is stifling the natural growth of humanity."

The action, when it finally comes, is so brief and simple that it's hard even to touch on it without giving everything away. Suffice it to say that the Americans launch a military attack in response to a trumped-up threat in Heidelberg, whereupon the German chancellor expresses regret that his country "should apparently have been selected as the showplace" for anti-American activity. In another dismal first the author lampoons his own villains.

For [the chancellor's] conservative critics the statement was insufficiently abject … And what's this weaselly apparently that has crept into the text? Go down on your knees, Mr Chancellor! Grovel! Have you looked at Germany's bank statements recently? Don't you know that America will only do business with its friends? Don't you realize that they still hate us for siding with the French and Russians over Iraq? And now this, for God's sake!

As ghastly as this stuff is, le Carré must have had great fun getting it off his chest. Let this be a reminder to us readers that when a writer says he wants each book to be an entertainment, it's not necessarily our entertainment he has in mind, although of course we're expected to pay for it either way.

There can be no excuse for Absolute Friends, but there is an explanation. The third or so of the text that most people will consider the actual story was clearly inspired by the invasion of Iraq, which was only a few months old when the manuscript was finished, in June of 2003. Either the author foresaw the war with enough certainty to start writing about it back in 2001 or 2002, or he wrote the novel in a fraction of the two years he usually needs. Or—and this is the only way to make sense of that interminable flashback—he wrote Ted Mundy's life story with a different book in mind, and then called it up at the last moment to do service in an anti-imperialist rant. I'm all for anti-imperialist rants, but an anti-imperialist novel would have gotten the message out to more people, and done a more subtle landscaping job on le Carré's moral high ground. A president sells his country a war under false pretexts, and a writer allows the corporate octopus to market his shoddiest book as the one that "fans have been waiting for." Only betrayal, to quote the man himself, is timeless.