At 87, le Carr is publishing his 25th novel. He talks to John Banville about our dismal statesmanship and what he learned from his time as a spy
I have always admired John le Carr. Not always without envy so many bestsellers! but in wonderment at the fact that the work of an artist of such high literary accomplishment should have achieved such wide appeal among readers. That le Carr, otherwise David Cornwell, has chosen to set his novels almost exclusively in the world of espionage has allowed certain critics to dismiss him as essentially unserious, a mere entertainer. But with at least two of his books, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and A Perfect Spy (1986), he has written masterpieces that will endure.
Which other writer could have produced novels of such consistent quality over a career spanning almost 60 years, since Call for the Dead in 1961, to his latest, Agent Running in the Field, which he is about to publish at the age of 87. And while he has hinted that this is to be his final book, I am prepared to bet that he is not done yet. He is just as intellectually vigorous and as politically aware as he has been at any time throughout his long life.
In the new book there is a plotline that is predicated on covert collusion between Trumps US and the British security services with the aim of undermining the democratic institutions of the European Union. Its horribly plausible, he says, with some relish when we meet in his Hampstead home. His relish is for the fictional conceit, not its horrible plausibility, and at once his conman father pops up with his large-browed head and his all too plausible grin. Ronald Ronnie Cornwell was a confidence trickster of genius, of whom his son is still in awe, and to whose exploits and influence he returns again and again, to the point of bemused obsession. Ive had the good fortune in life, says le Carr, to be born with a subject no, not the cold war, which many foolishly imagined was his only topic the extraordinary, the insatiable criminality of my father and the people he had around him. I Googled him the other day and under profession it said: Associate of the Kray brothers. This gives us both a laugh, though a queasy one.
A ceaseless procession of fascinating people wound its felonious way through his childhood. In his earliest days he was relieved of any real concept of truth. Truth was what you got away with. All too familiar to him, then, are the frauds who have swaggered their way into the spotlight in todays political pantomime.