I read a lot of early or mid John Le Carre novels this month. Vacation, what? An interesting experience. At the back of the reader's mind is a little hole, a leak, a sense of the futility of all the excitement of finding the mole, of placing the agent, of playing the game. It had, in the end, nothing whatever to do with the end of the Soviet Union. It did, of course, end the lives of many people, and in a more general sense - as the vast price for actually making anti-communism a state activity -produced millions of casualty, besides distorting beyond repair the fragile hopes of a post WW2 social democratic order. George Smiley, that hidebound reactionary with the cheating wife, is not so much a tragic figure as a puzzling one: why waste his intelligence to become an intelligent agent? There is, in the books, not one shred of the idea that the British government is a democracy - these people could be working for Franco, or Pinochet, save for the clubbish glass of sherry or two.
In a sense, the spy novel handled by a fine writer - Le Carre goes in and out of frequency as a fine writer, but Tinker Tailor Spy still kicks ass - is a comment on meritocracy and its downfalls. The "merit" is a value judgment made by those who are already in positions of power and wealth, or rather transmitted through every media and in every institution by those who have accepted the criteria that legitimates those who already have power and wealth. In other words, you have a very conservative sense of order, which compromises with the egalitarianism of social democracy by making the social churn in that order seem like the healthy result of liberating the individual character, instead of the social condition which fiercely protects upper class prerogative and condemns those who violate a certain narrow protocol.
Of course, this is neither how those novels were produced or received. Le Carre is famously anti-American, or at least looks down on the States, but he has swallowed the most fatuously American idea on earth, that communism is evil - and when he plays the existential card with Smiley, it is all about Smiley getting tired of the "game", i.e. the old weltschmerz of the radical right that the West is too decadent not to succumb to evil communism.
This isn't quite fair - Smiley is also famously cuckolded by his wife Ann, who seems to have made up for the democratic deficit in the book by sleeping with the entire population of the UK. Le Carre is pretty bad with female characters who still have a sex life - he's good with women who have retired and retreated to the bottle, a certain kind of dissolute "aunt" figure, but otherwise this is a world antithetical to women.
I've not yet found an American Le Carre - a spy novelist with a real artist's view of the spyworld. Although Ross Thomas, from the few novels I've read, might be a competitor. Gore Vidal once wrote that E. Howard Hunt, the Watergate figure (and William Buckley's best friend - when Buckley worked in the CIA, he was under Hunt) was a good spy novelist. Maybe I'll look there.