“Ronnie the con man could spin you a story out of thin air, sketch in a character who did not exist, and paint a golden opportunity where there wasn't one… if all that isn't part and parcel of the writer's art, tell me what is.”—John le Carre, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life (2016)
“Ronnie"’s son is David Cornwell, but readers know him better as spy novelist John le Carre, born 85 years ago yesterday.
Deceit and betrayal lie at the heart of the espionage trade, and nobody might have been better at inculcating the traits of mind needed for it than David’s father, a con man extraordinaire who cheated people right and left—even friends and family—of their money, with occasional breaks for prison and bankruptcy.
When le Carre became rich as a result of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, he had to deal with a string of his father’s unpaid hotel bills. At one point, Ronnie even seduced a woman by claiming to be his famous son!
Le Carre aficionados have already known the basics of this story since the publication of one of his more autobiographical novels, A Perfect Spy, but a chapter in his newly released The Pigeon Tunnel lays out in considerably more detail a legacy of Dickensian shame over a father who always seemed in trouble.
(For more on le Carre’s theme of betrayal, see this prior post of mine on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the first installment of his superb “Quest for Karla” trilogy about the hunt for a mole at the highest reaches of Britain’s intelligence system—and the consequences of it.)