When I was 12, I was hooked on James Bond, both Ian Fleming’s elegantly pulpy novels and the cartoonish movies they spawned. One day, my friend’s older brother, who went to Harvard, tossed a paperback onto my lap and said, “Here’s the real thing, kid.”
The book was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the 1963 thriller by John le Carre. I opened it expecting a racier version of what I found in 007 — you know, Asian thugs with steel-rimmed bowlers, gorgeous women as sweetly pliable as taffy. What I got was a dankly bitter tale of betrayal ending at the Berlin Wall. I hated it. It was just too sophisticated for the adolescent me.
You see, le Carre wasn’t merely a better writer than Fleming, but a reaction against him. Where 007 fought amusingly acronymed groups like SPECTRE, le Carre conjured a Cold War hall of mirrors in which spy craft wasn’t about knife fights and hot sex, but about gambits and machinations in which it was hard to tell the good guys from the bad.