‘A Wilderness of Mirrors’: Deception in John le Carré’s Cold War Novels

In: Deception: An Interdisciplinary Exploration
Author: Toby Manning

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Like espionage itself, John le Carré’s Cold War espionage novels are defined by deception. The standard spycraft of cover stories is a deception, as is the clandestine tailing and taping of suspects, le Carré’s ‘lamplighters’ and ‘pavement artists’, wherein former MI5 man le Carré draws on the real-life investigations of spies Gordon Lonsdale and Klaus Fuchs. But deception is still more pervasive in le Carré. Espionage controllers deceive their agents in the field; both sides of the political ‘special relationship’ deceive the other in Far Eastern-set Honourable Schoolboy (1977). It is not just enemies who are being deceived, but families and friends too. Spies can’t even tell their spouses about their jobs, but le Carré’s spies’ personal relationships are riven by deception, notably the serial adultery of Ann, wife of his most famous creation, George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). Double agency is a different order of deception: so, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Alec Leamas’s defection is itself a deception. The plots of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and A Perfect Spy (1986) channel real-life moles and lifelong deceivers Burgess, Maclean and Philby. Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy, raised in the shadow of his conman father, has made both his personal and political life a diorama of deceptions. That A Perfect Spy is autobiographical highlights the deceptive nature of authors themselves, perhaps especially pseudonymous former intelligence officer, le Carré.

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