The Anti-James Bond

A new film adaptation of John leCarré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy prompts The Atlantic to look at the various incarnations of his greatest character, George Smiley.

Across the sequence of novels in which he appears, peripherally or centrally, this secret servant of Her Majesty (like Bond, he works for British Intelligence, known in le Carré world as “the Circus”) is discreet to the point of self-erasure. Bureaucratically dowdy, rarely spotted in the field, a dull fucker by both instinct and training, Smiley drops no one-liners, romances no tarot-card readers, roars no speedboats through the Bayou. Bond has his ultraviolence and his irresistibility, his famous “comma of black hair”; Smiley has his glasses, his habit of cleaning them with the fat end of his tie, and not much else. There is a cultivated blandness to him.

There is no greater comparative pleasure than reading the work of Ian Fleming and leCarré side-by-side. Both are spy novel masters and both are wickedly different in their machinations and universe building.

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