Thursday, November 17, 2016

Writers To Debate Whether Ian Fleming Or John Le Carre Is The Better Spy Novelist

Some years ago actor George C. Scott refused to accept an Oscar for his great portrayal of General Patton in the film Patton.

I agreed with what he said at the time, which was that art should not a competition. You simply can not hold up two great paintings and say, "And the winner is..."

So I can't say I like the idea of a debate on whether the late Ian Fleming (seen in the above photo) or John le Carre (seen in the below photo) is the better spy novelist, which, as the The Spy Command noted, will soon take place.

Intelligence Squared, which stages debates and presentations on various topics, will hold a debate this month whether Ian Fleming or John Le Carre is the better spy novelist.
Representing Fleming (1908-64) will be Anthony Horowitz, author of the James Bond continuation novel Trigger Mortis, according to the group’s website.
Advocating for LeCarre (real name David Cornwell, b. 1931) will be David Farr, who adapted LeCarre’s The Night Manager for the BBC. The debate is scheduled for Nov. 29 at Emmanuel Centre in London.

And yet...

Ian Fleming served as a British naval intelligence officer and assistant to the Royal Navy's Director of Naval Intelligence in WWII. He later wrote admittedly highly romanticized novels that featured a character by the name of Bond, James Bond. He said he wrote the books unabashedly for his own and the public's entertainment.

The novels are highly entertaining and they are far darker and more complex than the films, and some of them, like From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, are first-rate thrillers.

John le Carre, who, like Fleming, was a British intelligence officer, having served in both MI5 and MI6 as a young man, considers himself to be a much more serious novelist than Fleming, which means he is a much duller thriller writer.

As I wrote in my Philadelphia Inquirer review of le Carre's novel Our Kind of Traitor, le Carre wrote a talky thriller that unfolds mostly through dialogue. And he offers some very good, smart writing.

Le Carre has written, in my view, some fine spy novels, such as the "Karla" trilogy that featured a character by the name of George Smiley; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley's People, and The Honorable Schoolboy. I can't say I care much for his later novels, which are marred, as I wrote in my Washington Times review of John le Carre: The Biography, with his shrill leftist and anti-American views.      

The two novelists are very different, and I like them both, and they should not, like Scott said, be compared or be in competition.

And yet, I'm interested in this debate, because le Carre is often presented as the "realistic" antidote to Fleming's "fantasies," and le Carre has been highly critical of Fleming in the past.

You can read about the upcoming debate via the below link:

You can also read my Philadelphia Inquirer review of le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor via the below link:

And you can read my Washington Times review of John le Carre: The Biography via the below link:

And you can read my Crime Beat column, Spy Writer Vs. Spy Writer, via the below link:

Note: Below are photos of Sean Connery as James Bond and Alec Guinness as George Smiley:


  1. All very interesting. Yes. But we are comparing apples and oranges, aren't we? Two very different styles. But, I thank you for the timing of your posting; I think I need an excursion into Le Carre as a way of escaping the roller-coaster of life for a while.

  2. RT,

    That was my point...

    Yes, reread le Carre, but you should also read, or reread, Fleming's "From Russia With Love."