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Should Crime Novels Be More Political?

April 29, 2013

John le Carré’s latest novel A Delicate Truth has just been published, and from the extracts I have read serialised in the Telegraph, it looks set to be one of his best works in years. Part of the criticism of le Carré’s recent novels is that they have been too preachy and angrily left-wing. There are not many writers producing work at the age of 81 who can produce as much buzz as le Carré, but with A Delicate Truth continuing his general leftward trend – the plot involves a cover-up of a disastrous counter-terrorism operation which left an innocent mother and child dead on that last outpost of Empire, Gibraltar – has le Carré made the right choice in giving his work a more partisan edge?

To a degree every narrative will be political. Some crime writers are well known for their political beliefs: Sara Paretsky and David Peace are broadly leftist, PD James and James Ellroy are conservatives. John le Carré is one of the most interesting writers to read through the prism of his politics. I like to think of him as a sceptical patriot.

His most famous creation is the aging spymaster George Smiley. In the trilogy of novels Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979), Smiley is jaded, understated, underestimated and often humiliated: his promiscuous wife cheats on him, and yet through the application of his intellect, intuition and dogged perseverance, he always triumphs, albeit at a heavy price. Part of Smiley’s appeal is his pragmatic patriotism. He knows the West has to win the Cold War because communism is an evil force, but yet he sees on his own side abuses of power which are (almost) as bad. By contrast, the traitor in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, codenamed ‘Gerald’, who was based on Kim Philby is much more brashly English. Yet behind the mask of his patriotism, Gerald is sending British agents to their death.

le Carré was in his late forties when he completed the Smiley vs Karla trilogy, and it is often presumed that people who start on the political left become gradually more conservative with age. Yet right at the age when you would expect le Carré’s values to start corresponding more closely with Smiley’s. the author suddenly turned against him:

My impatience with George Smiley is that I am no longer able to resolve his excuses. There is something specious to me now about his moral posture. The notion of Smiley’s was that he sacrificed his moral conscience so that decent, ignorant people could sleep at night. He goes through life saying, “I give up all moral judgments; I take upon myself the lash of my own guilt.” We Empire babies were brought up thinking that we messed with things so that others could have clean hands. But I believe that someone who delivers up the responsibility for his moral conscience is actually someone who hasn’t got one.

With his follow-up novel The Little Drummer Girl (1983), le Carré found what he regarded as a radical cause, to portray the Palestinian people sympathetically in a work about the Middle East. In the novel, a radically left-wing English actress ‘Charlie’ is used by Israeli Intelligence in an elaborate scheme to penetrate a breakaway Palestinian terrorist group. le Carré conducted a huge amount of research for the novel, interviewing members of Mossad and meeting then PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Beirut. In writing the book le Carré, in his own words, ‘fell in love with the Palestinians':

(I) became astonished really with one very simple perception that seems to me to have made no headway in the West at all: that one can, indeed as I am, be greatly in favour of the state of Israel and wish for its survival but that in the making of Israel a great crime was committed, not numerically commensurate with the crime that was committed against the Jews, but appalling all the same. Millions of people displaced, others subjugated with total alien types of rules, turned into second-class citizens. The image of the Palestinians, largely invented, as crazies carrying guns and so on was so far removed from the reality of the majority of the Palestinian people that it needed saying, it needed demonstrating – and not by some maverick Trotskyist, or something, but somebody like myself who has written extensively, with great passion I like to think, about Jews in the past but found in this situation an injustice which needs reporting.

I’m not sure that portraying the Palestinians sympathetically would be seen as radical today. It seems to be the broad view of people in the arts, but perhaps in 1983 the issue was perceived differently. The irony is that le Carré said he didn’t want the novel to be the work of ‘some maverick Trotskyist’, but Charlie in the novel is on the Far Left. Charlie was partly based on le Carré’s sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell, and partly, it is believed, on the well known left-wing firebrand,Vanessa Redgrave.

le Carré would then turn to a radical examination of his own life story. His most autobiographical novel, and for many his greatest, A Perfect Spy (1986), is not particularly political (in examining the nature of betrayal here le Carré seems uninterested in ideology). The end of the Cold War was to prove challenging for many spy writers, but le Carré was ahead of his contemporaries with The Russia House (1987), an examination of how glasnost and perestroika was changing the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the USSR, le Carré has examined a wide array of espionage subjects, with mixed results. The 9/11 attacks and the resulting War on Terrorism seemed to fire his passion again as a writer. Absolute Friends (2003) was a scathing critique of the ‘Special Relationship’. le Carré, like Smiley, had previously held the view that Britain needed to be the junior partner of the US after the war in order to defeat communism, but now the Coalition angered him. Reviewing the novel in the Telegraph, George Walden wrote ‘a once entertaining writer is subsiding into ranting moralism [...] All it says is that the Americans are making a cock-up of everything, and that they, not the terrorists, are the greatest danger to civilisation.’ Highly critical of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, le Carré wrote an article for the Times titled simply ‘The United States of America Gone Mad’.

Ultimately, like Walden, I have reservations about crime writers using novels to preach their political views, even if they are distinguished as le Carré. The danger is that they will alienate the readers who will disagree with them and bore the readers who don’t. Of course, they could convert a reader or alert them to issues which are not widely discussed elsewhere, that is, however, a formidable task.

Should crime novels be more political? Probably not.

Here’s the trailer for A Delicate Truth:

The two interviews quoted in this article are ‘The Little Drummer Girl: An Interview with John le Carre’ by Melvyn Bragg from The Quest for le Carre (London: Vision Press, 1988) and ‘John le Carre on Perfect Spies and Other Characters’ by Thom Schwartz from Writer’s Digest, 67 (February 1987), pp.20-21

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2013 11:21 am

    Pretty debatable that le Carre is a crime novelist. Obviously there’s no moral imperative to be ‘more political’ in crime writing. But this rather ignores the concept of ideology, ie that everything is infested with power that subjugates. Hammett was a Communist and that underpins his view of American society,but he doesn’t rant. What you mean, it seems, is should crime novels be party political, a different question altogether. An excellent crime novel that takes on many political issues in a non-partisan way is Philip Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation.

    • May 3, 2013 11:41 am

      Hi Paul,

      I did try and make the point that every story is to a degree political. I don’t think it’s necessarily party political as you wouldn’t call le Carre a loyal Labour supporter but more of an anti-establishment figure on the Left who wants to evangelise his anger. That’s where I take issue with his recent work.

      I think of crime fiction as a fairly broad church and I’m happy to put le Carre and spy fiction in it. Unless you think le Carre is too literary to put in a genre?

      Best wishes,
      Steve

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