I read John le Carré to get to know my father, a Richmond, Virginia, stockbroker who wore a family signet ring instead of his wedding band, who secretly kept hundreds of thousands of dollars in his checking account, who stored a 9mm pistol in his sock drawer. He loved spy novels. He read Ken Follett and Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy and le Carré. He’d read them after work at the end of the sofa, by lamplight, with a tumbler full of ice cubes and chardonnay.
I started reading these books in the mid-1980s, trading my fantasy novels for Dad’s airport paperbacks with covers featuring hammers and sickles, sniper crosshairs, and silhouetted men in trench coats. Follett, Ludlum and Clancy were relatively easy—novels with good guys and bad guys. Le Carré was different. I understood at age eleven or twelve that Dad’s copy of The Little Drummer Girl was going to give me difficulty. That his well worn Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy paperback was a mountain to climb.
So I started with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, that 1963 masterpiece about double agents in Cold War Berlin, because it was appealingly slim. It took me two weeks and little about its twisty plot truly sunk in. Still, it cast a mood of gloom and moral compromise. I remember finishing it at a sleepover, by the light of my friend’s gurgling aquarium, and thinking that this was what a grown up novel did. It left you transported and a little depressed.
“That was a good one to start with,” Dad agreed.
In his bookshelves he had A Perfect Spy, Smiley’s People, and The Russia House. I took on Tinker Tailor because it was clearly his favorite. I was in 9th grade. “You’ll have to concentrate,” he warned me, and I did. I stepped into le Carré’s Byzantine world where the British Secret Intelligence Service was called “the Circus” and everyone was well dressed and even tempered and forbidding. There was the hero George Smiley (nothing like the paper thin heroes of Ludlum and Clancy) who was seeking to unmask a Soviet mole, planted by his nemesis, a shadowy Soviet spymaster named Karla. Everyone had sibilant, ruling class names: Alleline, Hayden, Westerby, Prideaux. I finished it, not at all sure I’d understood what I’d just read, but palpably aware that Dad approved.
My dad died, suddenly, of cancer at the age of 64, a little more than ten years ago. My stepmother disposed of that handgun in his sock drawer, but there were other things I kept: a microfilm camera, a pocket watch, a handful of gold coins, 1980s mail-order forms for pornography, his signet ring. He also had some notebooks and journals with pages torn out. Fathers in my childhood were mysterious, reticent, hard to read. Mine could be all of these things, though he was affectionate too and even, later, given to sentimentality. His books and his other enthusiasms—bicycles, 1960s folk music, downhill skiing—were a way to get to know him.
John le Carré died on Saturday at the age of 89. In the years since my own father’s death, I’ve made a project of reading all of le Carré’s work, from the early procedural mysteries, to the breathtakingly complex middle-period novels (the Karla trilogy, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s Game, is his masterwork), to the angry leftist post-9/11 novels. I adored—probably more than it deserved—last year’s Agent Running in the Field mostly because it existed. A solid spy novel, written by an octogenarian le Carré, with superb sequences on, of all things, the badminton court. Le Carré seemed immortal, a writer who had lived many lives (including 16 years as a British spy), and wrote beautifully, and rarely gave interviews, and persisted, in a way my own father did not.
I felt a piercing sadness at his death—and the same, all over again, at my father’s. I think of Dad reading by lamplight. I think of le Carré’s intelligence officers, assembled around a dimly lit table, with their paper cups of weak tea. I recall the sensation, thrilling, of decoding the first chapters of The Honourable Schoolboy, a few years after Dad died, and feeling that I had achieved something hard-won and permanent. I have a few le Carré books on my shelf that I still haven’t gotten to: Single & Single, A Perfect Spy, his memoir Pigeon Tunnel. I will read each one. Riddles exist to be solved.