In 1968, John Le Carré was nobody very much. He had done well with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but was not well known. The book had at least allowed him to hang up his hated job as a spy for MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, working some of the time in Bonn, which gave him the inspiration for 1968’s Small Town. Le Carré is famous today as the writer behind The Night Manager and, soon, a new television adaptation of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. For older British television fans, his best work was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
I am a lifelong Le Carré fan, having started with Tinker Tailor in the 1990s. They were a struggle for a teenaged boy, but worth the effort. I believe Le Carré’s books, while heavily fictionalised, are as close as we mortals can get to the world of real spying. This trip down memory lane, reading one of Le Carré’s least known books for the first time, was a revelation.
Small Town is not a great novel. It is really a collection of character studies, each chapter being named after the person of interest. Turner is the main character, but he is really just an interviewer. He is investigating, on behalf of MI6, the defection of Harting, a temporary contractor at the British Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, at the height of the Cold War. None of Harting’s colleagues can understand where he is, or why he betrayed them, and Turner grumpily interrogates them all at a series of grand locations.
After Small Town, Le Carré wrote one more book, The Naive And Sentimental Lover, before embarking on his masterpiece, the Karla trilogy, starting with Tinker Tailor. It was soon after made into a smash hit BBC television series, and cemented Le Carré as perhaps the greatest spy writer of his generation, which was the one following behind Graham Greene. Le Carré was a contemporary of Ian Fleming. Le Carré himself was inspired by another British writer, Eric Ambler, who is largely forgotten now, but is very much worth a long look.
Hard to imagine a modern publisher allowing a writer three goes at a bestseller, and it took Le Carré six cracks of the whip to produce his very best work. But this reviewer is very grateful. Le Carré is not only a great spy writer, he is a great writer, period. We know far more about British antics during the Cold War as a result than we every would have done otherwise.
An Important Novel
Crucial reading for Le Carré fans, but not much for anyone else.