About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Friday, February 19, 2016

John Le Carré as Real Life Spy

David Cornwell posing as a spy
for Life magazine
In reading John Le Carré by Adam Sisman I was most intrigued by the sections of the book setting out David Cornwell’s participation in British espionage. While I had vague knowledge he had been involved with British intelligence I had not known how extensive and how long he had been involved.

His involvement began when he was a member of the British Army during his National Service. During that period he spent time in Austria. It was shortly after WW II with large numbers of refugee claimants. He was assigned to question these refugees to ascertain if they were legitimate refugees. He found the work very boring.

His work in that area brings to mind the large numbers of refugee claimants from areas east of the EU being processed in Europe. While Cornwell may have been bored I am certain past and present claimants find it an agonizing process.

During his time in Austria he was asked to join a real intelligence officer in meeting a spy. The process became a farce when in the restaurant chosen for the meeting a gun Cornwell had concealed in his pants slid down his leg and on to the floor. It is a lively anecdote but Sisman raises real doubts about its authenticity. As with most people, Cornwell’s recollection of past personal events is often flawed.

After finishing his stint in the army he went to university in Oxford. I was startled to learn that as a university student he spied on fellow students and wrote reports on the leftist (communist) activities of friends.

I was left uncomfortable with his personal spying at university. Sisman also has discomfort. You think of students spying on students as an infringement of personal rights. Yet was Cornwell putting love of country over love of friends?

England was just coming to appreciate in the early 1950’s how deeply Soviet Intelligence had penetrated British intelligence through the recruitment of students in Cambridge during the 1930’s. Whether it was the Cambridge Five or Six the Russians had been very successful.

As well we now live in an age where Islamic extremists are seeking out the young. I am not sure what should be the limits on internal spying in the Western World.

Cornwell had a flirtation with the Russian Embassy hoping to be recruited so he could spy on the Russians. It is unknown why the Russians broke off contact with Cornwell.

With regard to who the Soviets sought out for spies:

It is worth noting that David possessed at least some of the characteristics that the KGB recruiter Arnold Deutsch had identified in Philby, Maclean and others, and had listed as attributes of a successful spy – an inherent class resentfulness, a predilection for secretiveness and a yearning to belong.

In the late 1950’s Cornwell worked for MI5. One of his tasks was to interview potential senior civil servants and government scientists about Communist connections. He was reported to be very good in his interviewing.

Later he was an agent runner meeting agents like he had been in university.

Unhappy at MI5 Cornwell applied to join MI6:

He told Michael Overton-Fox that MI5 was ‘a dead-end sort of place’. By contrast MI6 seemed smarter, more larcenous and more glamourous. The people were funnier, naughtier and raunchier than their counterparts at MI5.

 After being trained to be a “real” spy he was posted to Bonn, West Germany where he travelled Germany:

His task was to investigate and detect potential Nazi cells or organizations, and to recruit German sleepers who would join any such groupings in order to provide information on them.

His work proved unproductive as there were no significant Nazi groups to be found.

I do expect there are intelligence agents all across Europe today carrying out the same task with regard to Islamic radicals.

His work with MI6 ended after the immense success of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

With such an extensive background in the intelligence world Cornwell was well prepared when he entered into the writing of spy fiction.

Le Carre, John – (2000) - Single & Single; (2001) - The Constant Gardner (Second best fiction of 2001); (2005) - Absolute Friends (Best fiction in 2005); (2008) - Mission Song; (2009) – A Most Wanted Man

Sisman, Adam - (2016) - John Le Carré


  1. He certainly did have extensive work in espionage, Bill. Like you, I know he'd been involved, but not to what extent. I think you draw an interesting parallel, too, between the Soviets' recruiting of young people and some of today's terror groups doing the same thing. And yet, like you, I am uncomfortable with the thought of young people spying on their friends. This is fascinating background, for which thanks.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. His books are far more exciting than his real life spy experiences.

  2. This would be a very interesting part of the biography, Bill. I do hope I read it someday.

    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. I thought the stories of his spy experience the best part of the book.

  3. The links between real-life spying and spy fiction are always intriguing, aren't they? The book sounds very informative.

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. With no real life spy experience in my background I was intrigued by Cornwell's life as a spy.

  4. Bill, I knew Le Carre was David Cornwell but I didn't know he was a real-life spy or anything about his role in British espionage. I seem to have missed that completely. Thanks for this post.

    1. Prashant: Thanks for the comment. My knowledge was vague before reading the biography which also makes clear that he denied and then minimized his intelligence career for a long time.