“The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.”
—John le Carré,
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Fifty years ago, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold completed the most successful transformation of David Cornwell’s shape-shifting life. The son of a war profiteer and con man became John le Carré, the mysterious transmitter of messages from the Other Side, the “secret world” of his novels. Le Carré has said that his books provided a needed “antidote” to the glamorous world of Ian Fleming. His burnt-out agent runner, Spy’s Alec Leamas, told readers who the spies of Le Carré’s secret world actually were:
What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors . . . pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks . . . balancing the rights and wrongs?
Near the end of Spy, Leamas summed up the precarious morality of the Cold War as great-power expediency. He explained that the spymasters needed murderous, amoral operatives like the novel’s double agent, Mundt, “so...