LONDON — I came to know David Cornwell, who wrote as John le Carré, just after the United States and Britain removed Saddam Hussein from power. He was a neighbor; we met in our local pub in Hampstead in North London. We were introduced by a mutual friend who knew the genial white-haired gentleman in brown suede shoes. “Who was that?” I asked as we reached our own table.
Chance encounters followed, as we found common ground in our anger at the lies used to harness public support for war, the abuses of intelligence invoked to justify an invasion of Iraq. We bonded over our reaction to Colin Powell’s flawed Security Council presentation and Tony Blair’s mendacious “dodgy dossier.”
My interest was the law: Did the intelligence establish a threat to security that could justify the use of force? He was concerned with matters of morality and espionage. “I have a great distrust of lawyers,” he said, yet with an intense interest in criminality. We connected over stories about motive, and what made these people act as they did.
David, who wrote 25 novels and was renowned as one of the greatest thriller writers of all time, died on Sunday at the age of 89, knew the postwar world to be a messy and fraudulent place, one in which dubious or criminal means could be embraced in the name of the greater good. This was a central theme of his writings, from the Cold War Soviet threat to current challenges, from radical Islam to the rise of Western nationalisms. He allowed us to see aspects of our world as no one else could, borne from his own experiences.
David was uniquely able to draw the connections between the human and historical, the personal and political, pulling on the seamless thread that is the human condition. He adopted language and techniques that appeared simple — often reducing politically significant and complicated matters to a choice faced by an individual — but were actually rather complex. With his words, the dark recesses of our modern world, and the choices we face, touched readers in a manner they — we — felt to be deeply personal.
David got his start in the world of espionage; he would later draw on the personal experience of working for the intelligence services in Germany. His third novel, “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” was his first best seller. It was a simple tale of a British agent using dubious means to promote supposedly democratic values. “Are you a spy,” another protagonist would be asked two decades later, in “A Perfect Spy,” or “merely a criminal?”
Distrust was a fine thing for us, the lawyer and skeptical former spook. Our friendship soon grew beyond our early gulf war conversations. One day, he asked if I might be willing to review a draft of his next book; it was a means of peering more deeply into his characters, this time lawyers. He wanted a check on fashion and speech. This became a joyful routine, David at my front door, arms thrust forward with the text of a new book.
I became a different type of reader, immersed in his style and forensic attention to particulars, recognizing how matters of structure and form were harnessed to bring the reader to the heart of a dilemma, as yet another decent human called upon to act with unspeakable duplicity. The lens usually had something to do with spies, but not always, and over the years he went back and forth in time. In 2017, he even brought back George Smiley, the most famous of his characters, in “A Legacy of Spies." Fifty-six years after his first appearance, Smiley was called upon to address the decline of Britain and the mendacities of Brexit.
Over time, my own writing on the origins of genocide and other international crimes in the years of the Nuremberg trial connected unexpectedly to matters of espionage. Looking into the murky world of the Nazi escape route from Europe to South America, known as the ratline, I turned to my neighbor for insights into the postwar years. I wanted to understand how could it possibly be that senior SS officers came to be recruited by the Americans, so soon after the war’s end.
David surprised me. “I was a tiny part of that world,” he explained. As a young man doing national service in Austria in 1949, he ran agents to watch over the Soviets. “Little guys on motorbikes selling pornographic photographs to Russian sentries, that kind of thing,” he said, with an eyebrow raised and the faintest of smiles.
He was a Nazi hunter, trawling displaced-persons camps; I hadn’t known. “To prosecute them?” I inquired, innocently. “Not at all,” he replied. “To recruit them. To get our hands on their Rolodexes.” Indeed, it was “perplexing,” given that he came of age learning to despise Nazism and then, at 18, he was ordered to recruit mass murderers as allies in the struggle against the new enemy, Communism.
But I should have known. After all, le Carré wrote about such matters in “A Perfect Spy,” which is my favorite of his oeuvre, perhaps because of its hints of memoir, combining postwar duplicities with his complex relationship to his father, Ronnie Cornwell, who is barely fictionalized as Rick Pym, the father of Magnus, the novel’s main protagonist. Ronnie was a “most volatile, exotic and amusing man,” David would say, but also “seriously bent,” a fraudster and a con man. Occasionally, le Carré was called upon to get him out of jail around the world, from Indonesia and Zurich to Singapore. Sometimes, we would wander into a conversation about what I sensed might be one of the deepest of fears he harbored, and what made him tick, the worry that he was, in the end, a con like his father.
My perch was uniquely privileged. In private and in public, David was captivatingly warm, and deftly funny, the best raconteur I have ever known. His spirit was generous, nourished by the darker recesses of the human experience. Once, he told me about meeting Simon Wiesenthal, in Vienna. It was 1962. David inquired of the famed Nazi-hunter why he continued to live in a city imbued with anti-Semitism. “If you are studying the disease you have to live in the swamp,” Wiesenthal told him.
Looking back, I wonder if this was David’s way of actually speaking for himself. He too knew of the swamps, and they informed his view of the world and his writings. The swamps appear even deeper in 2020 than they were in the extraordinary postwar years that formed him. This may be what makes him so current, and our loss so acute. For my part, what a joy to have been able to sit together in a pub, and to learn from him that nothing is ever only what it seems.
Philippe Sands (@philippesands) is a professor of law at University College London and the author of the forthcoming “Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive.”
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