I’ve worn out this line, using in virtually every review of a film or TV series based on his work, but it’s worth trotting out one last time.
In spy fiction, there is a master, John LeCarre, and then there’s everybody else. I mean, check out the links at the bottom of this review to see further proof of my LeCarre lust.
The author of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Little Drummer Girl” and “The Constant Gardener” and “The Tailor of Panama” and that most recent adaptation, “Our Kind of Traitor,” is all alone in capturing the grays and shifting morality of the Cold War and the spy game that both predates it and survives ever onward, a relic of conflicts past and the insurance policy for conflicts to come.
Take away “The Tailor,” a darkly comic vision of The Game of Nations as played out by a con man and the blackmailing British agent new to the country with the canal (Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan faced off in the movie) and you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of humor in his ouevre.
Not so LeCarre’s memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel.” I can’t recall a collection of memories and anecdotes that made me laugh out loud this much. It’s not just the odd funny story — LeCarre, the pen name of ex-British Intelligence agent David Cornwell, worked with Alec Guiness over two TV series and just nails the man’s talent and dry wit — but the ludicrous situations he injects himself into.
He shares the inspiring inspiration — a French aid worker in Cambodia and elsewhere — whom he based the heroine of “The Constant Gardener” on, and assorted other real life people he noted, carefully, before spinning their lives as journalist spies or idealists or what have you into fictional creations.
But he also lets on that his wasn’t much of an MI5/MI6 career, and that the real danger he’s gotten himself into came after writing fame, when he had the cheek to research his books, meeting Arafat and a German leftist terrorist in a secret Israeli prison, the grizzled Beirut war correspondent who dragged “the war zone tourist” (himself) into harm’s way to meet real Palestinian fighters and victims of the fighting. The reporter, “Mo,” calls and addresses everyone as “Ass’l,” so that the various Arabs they run into sound like the profane acolytes of some latter day Lawrence of Arabia.
“Ass’l David, you are most welcome!”
He recalls falling under the spell of Hollywood director/emperor Sydney Pollack, who wasted a lot of his time promising to make movies that the distraction of learning how to ski (Cornwell owns a Swiss chalet) or a Tom Cruise blockbuster kept him from doing. George Roy Hill of “The Little Drummer Girl” acknowledges, “I f—-d up your movie, David.” The great Fritz Lang wanted to make a movie from one of his early books (Lang was nearly blind, no longer a Hollywood player, never happened).
And then there were his visits to Russia, which he’d battled as a lower-level spook himself, and then skewered in legions of books which, to be fair, ripped the British and U.S. spy apparatus just as severely. Somehow, Cornwell got it into his head that he needed to meet a genuine Russian mobster after the Fall of the Wall had turned the USSR from a tyrannical communist state into one run by robber barons and their protector, Mr. Putin. The interview, fearlessly blunt and darkly comical, is an intimate (nightclub) scene of foolish bravado and hilarious low farce.
A tempting tidbit? His hints at what he learned about DIN, a secret Jewish assassination squad that went around hunting down and summarily executing Nazis after World War II. Unofficial, off the books, privately financed, in business for 30 years, at least.
That’s a book I’d like to read and a movie I’d love to see. I hope it’s on his plate.
For that matter, “The Pigeon Tunnel” itself would make a roaring good film — mild-mannered lower-level spook turns novelist, gets reamed by enemies left and right, and is only shot at AFTER he leaves spying and starts researching his later books.