Monday, November 08, 2010

Five best books about Britain's Secret Service

Keith Jeffery is a professor of British history at Queen’s University, Belfast, and has written or edited thirteen books. His new book is The Secret History of MI6, the authorized history of the world's oldest and most storied foreign intelligence service, drawing extensively on hitherto secret documents.

At FiveBooks, he spokes with Daisy Banks about five books on MI-6, Britain's Secret Service. From their discussion of one book on the list:
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

Let’s move on to your next book, which is about an iconic time in the history of the British Secret Service. This is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré.

This novel shows a very different kind of world and service. It is a grainy monochrome world with amoral spymasters moving pawns about the board in this grim Cold War era. These are gripping psychological novels as much as anything else. The novel has Smiley in it but the central figure is Alec Leamas, who is a hard-bitten veteran whose duty to the Service conflicts with his relationships and his humane side. He has to work in an amoral value-free world.

This is at the far end of the spectrum from James Bond, but it also says a lot about the bureaucracy of the Service. The decisions made back home in what le Carré calls ‘the Circus’ – head office – are really important and you don’t see so much of this in the James Bond books. Le Carré’s book is from a moment in history when you have this monolithic kind of Soviet enemy with the West defying it. And you have spymasters on each side who have perhaps more in common with each other than their own fellow countrymen. And there is a little bit of that, too, in the real story, I am sure.
Read about another book on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue