When people write about John le Carrés spy novels, the most frequent contrast they draw is with Ian Flemings James Bond novels. Heres a sample, from Wikipedia:
At its publication during the Cold War (1945–91), the psychological realism of [le Carrés] The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) rendered it a revolutionary espionage novel by showing that the intelligence services of both the Eastern and Western nations practiced the same expedient amorality in the name of national security. Until then, the Western public imagined their secret services as promoters of democracy and democratic values; a view principally espoused in the popular James Bond thriller novels romantic high adventures about what a Secret Service should be. John le Carré, on the other hand, shocked readers with chilling realism and detail, portraying the spy as a morally burnt-out case.
The espionage world of Alec Leamas [the protagonist of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold] is exactly the opposite of the James Bond world; Bonds brightly romanticized world features sexual adventure and heroic danger, all in a days work for assassin number 007 (a scalp-hunter in Circus jargon); whereas Leamass world features love as a three-dimensional, problematic, true emotion that can have disastrous consequences to those involved. Moreover, good does not always vanquish evil in Leamass world an existential fact problematic to some conservative critics.
And the contrast that Wikipedia points here is made by others, over and over, constantly. (Often the suggestion is even that le Carrés greater realism and cyncism is the result of his own background in espionage, as though Flemings background were not similar.)
Now certainly there are sharp differences between le Carrés and Flemings novels. And no ones going to confuse the plodding, froglike George Smiley with action hero 007.
All the same, the popular perception here is grossly distorted a case, I would guess, of the James Bond movies obscuring readers memories of the books. Those who think of self-doubt and moral ambiguity as being absent from the Bond books are clearly forgetting such passages as this one from Casino Royale:
When I was being beaten up, [Bond] said, I suddenly liked the idea of being alive. Before Le Chiffre began, he used a phrase which stuck in my mind … playing Red Indians. He said thats what I had been doing. Well, I suddenly thought he might be right.
You see, he said, still looking down at his bandages, when ones young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong, but as one gets older it becomes more difficult. At school its easy to pick out ones own villains and heroes and one grows up wanting to be a hero and kill the villains. …
Now, he looked up again at Mathis, thats all very fine. The hero kills two villains, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond and the villain Bond knows he isnt a villain at all, you see the other side of the medal. The villains and heroes get all mixed up.
Of course, he added, as Mathis started to expostulate, patriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date. Today we are fighting Communism. Okay. If Id been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts. … Take our friend Le Chiffre. Its simple enough to say he was an evil man, at least its simple enough for me because he did evil things to me. If he was here now, I wouldnt hesitate to kill him, but out of personal revenge and not, Im afraid, for some high moral reason or for the sake of my country. … Ive been thinking about these things and Im wondering whose side I ought to be on. Im getting very sorry for the Devil and his disciples such as the good Le Chiffre. The Devil has a rotten time and I always like to be on the side of the underdog. … We know nothing about him but a lot of fairy stories from our parents and schoolmasters. …
The most recent, and in some ways quite faithful, film adaptation of Casino Royale represents an attempt to restore some of the books moral ambiguity to the screen; but the moviemakers evidently shrank from including that scene.
Fleming also portrays Bond, at least in the early novels, as popping pills and whimpering in his sleep. Is he really such a far cry from le Carrés morally burnt-out case?
Moral ambiguity and psychological complexity also show up in, for example, the short Bond stories The Living Daylights and Octopussy (not to be confused with the mostly-unrelated movies with those titles).
Recall also that although the name James Bond sounds romantic and exciting to us today, Fleming by his own testimony chose the name because it was the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, and thus appropriate to his conception of Bond as a neutral figure an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.
As for good always vanquishing evil, what about the endings of From Russia With Love (the book, not the movie) and On Her Majestys Secret Service?
As for love not being portrayed as a problematic emotion with unhappy results, what about the endings of Casino Royale, Moonraker (the book, not the idiotic movie), The Spy Who Loved Me (ditto), Quantum of Solace (the short story) and, again, On Her Majestys Secret Service?
As for romanticism vs. realism, recall the sentence with which Fleming chose to begin Casino Royale: The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.
Its true that as the Bond series progresses, Fleming veers farther and farther from gritty realism and moral ambiguity and more toward the romantic and implausible; the later novels are clearly influenced by the film adaptations of the earlier novels. Its also true that even at the beginning, the Bond novels are seldom as realistic or cynical as le Carrés novels. All the same, even the later Bond novels never veer as far into superheroism and absurdity as the movies frequently did; Im thinking, e.g., of Bond adjusting his tie while racing underwater in The World Is Not Enough a movie that, like its successor Die Another Day, in many ways struggles valiantly to escape from the Bond clichés only to be sucked back into them in the end. (Imagine The World Is Not Enough without Denise Richards character and the film dramatically improves. In the case of Die Another Day, I assume that some decent screenwriters were assassinated and replaced by lunatics about halfway through the scripting process.) What viewers of the movies Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun would suspect that in the books of those names late novels both Bond slides into depression, gets captured and brainwashed by the Soviets, and ends up trying to assassinate M?
So anyway, my point is: le Carré is terrific, yes, but Fleming is better than people think.