Part 1. Triple Cross: an eerie encounter with Russian spies.

I’m not sure what’s wrong (or right) with me lately but over the past few years I find I am re-reading beloved books rather than loving or even liking new ones.

I’m an addict of mysteries/thrillers/police procedurals, so have been inevitably pushed into trying books and writers new to me, but with a few exceptions have found them unsatisfying. I can’t even finish some of them, do not care who dunnit. My sensibility regarding mysteries has become over a lifetime so exquisite, within 10 pages I can pick apart the faults of an inferior book.

I am a slight disappointment to myself–where did my eagerness for the unknown go?–but mostly I’m flat disappointed. The “unknown” has become overworked, rococo, improbably vicious and bloody. So much blood! There seems to be a competition among crime novelists for raising the body count, for uglier ways of killing people.

I have a cast-iron stomach–I used to watch CSI autopsies while eating dinner–so you don’t repulse me, writer people, but you don’t fool me either. If you were really good, you’d be able to tell a compelling story without gallons of spritzed body fluids and interior body parts hanging out of carved-up exterior bodies.

In my blood-soaked disappointment–even before the election, and the acute awareness that Russian espionage has again penetrated our nation, let alone our national consciousness– I have often picked up and re-read David Cornwell‘s great trilogy, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, The Honorable School Boy and Smiley’s People. So often, in fact, I’ve virtually memorized the first and third books.

A few weeks ago, I decided it was high time to fully acquaint myself with the real spies, the  factual Cold War Soviet moles who traumatized British and American intelligence services and laid the groundwork for Cornwell’s novels. I had some vague ideas about those upper class, university-educated spies Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who reached high levels of officialdom in Britain’s MI6–the rough equivalent of our CIA–but were actually working for the USSR.

The historical education I bought was A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre.

On the front cover of the paperback is this squib: “More than just a spy story…When devouring this thriller, I had to keep reminding myself it was not a novel.” — Walter Isaacson, New York Times Book Review.

Yes. And with an afterword by Cornwell (le Carré), covering his personal connections to the characters in the story, A Spy Among Friends was precisely what I needed and wanted: the true story.

Although I did not plan to re-read Tinker Tailor in tandem with my first read of A Spy Among Friends, I have found myself doing just that. And it is a shivery experience, picking up specific real-life incidents that I could detect were the underpinnings of some of Cornwell’s fictional episodes and characters.

One real British Russian spy was code-named “Stanley;” Cornwell code-named a fictional spy “Stanley.” Networks being blown and killed, elaborate counter-espionage operations dead on arrival. There were suspicions of a Russian mole high up in British intelligence that lingered, were languorously pursued, then shrugged off.

Occasionally I feel as if a passage I’m reading in Tinker Tailor is superimposed upon suddenly exposed invisible ink in a passage from A Spy Among Friends. Or vice versa. The two passages flick on and off, appearing and receding, appearing, receding…It produces an uneasiness in me not entirely attributable to how thrilling both fictional and non-fictional books are.

Next: Part 2.

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