Photography by John Philby; copyright Charlotte Philby

When the news broke of John le Carré’s death, I was already in bed and he was with me, as he is most nights.

With the events of the world looming large in recent months, causing a mental whirring that can keep me awake until the small hours, I’ve found myself turning in early and listening to a rotation of my favourite novelists to help ease my mind into that elusive state of slumber.

And so it was on Sunday evening that my husband and I drifted off with The Constant Gardener lulling us to sleep, through our speakers.

It might seem an unusual choice of bedtime story. The works of John le Carré – the nom de plume of David Cornwell, who was still “in the harness” with MI6 when his breakthrough novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was published in 1963 – should not have any sort of soporific effect.

Gripping, complex and always complete with an astonishingly realised, fully human cast, each one of his books shows his masterful talents and should be devoured in a full state of consciousness, especially to appreciate his withering descriptions.

Le Carré’s writing conjured a chilling portrait of a society defined by duplicity and betrayal

Take his most famous antihero, George Smiley: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”

For decades he conducted a relentless skewering of the dark and insidious world on both sides of the Cold War. Later he focused on the wider global political landscape, ranging from pharmaceutical firms to oligarchs.

Throughout, Le Carré’s writing conjured a chilling portrait of a society defined by duplicity and betrayal, so haunting that it has the ability to follow a reader – or listener – from sleep into wakefulness.

Yesterday morning, the emotional impact of Tessa Abbott-Quayle’s perceived betrayal of her husband, Justin, in The Constant Gardener, ran through my mind as I paced bleary-eyed into to the kitchen and turned on the radio to hear the headlines.

I never had the chance to ask him the questions I dreamed that one day he would allow me to discuss with him

This was 4am and after hearing the sad news I turned off the radio and sat a while. What I felt was a sense of gratitude that Le Carré, who died from pneumonia at the age of 89, had been prolific enough to leave behind two dozen or so magnificent books.

There was also a sense of personal regret that I never had the chance to ask him the questions I dreamed that one day he would allow me to discuss with him.

It is no exaggeration to say that Le Carré is the reason I became not just a writer but the sort of writer I am – one whose novels occupy a space somewhere in the hinterland between espionage fiction and thrillers and something else entirely.

Having grown up with the ghost of my grandfather, the double-agent Kim Philby, looming large over my childhood, I adopted an early interest in the world of spies.

Photograph by John Philby; copyright Charlotte Philby

Partly this came about through conversations as a teenager with the journalist Phillip Knightley, who had spent a long time over the years interviewing Kim in Moscow before our families became close friends.

During those conversations, for me it was not the mechanics of the spying – the hows and the wheres – but rather the whys, and the what then, that continued to intrigue.

Understanding that my questions to him were more around the notions of betrayal and the psychological impact of the choices made by men such as my grandfather – and, less often discussed, women – it was Phillip who first pointed me towards my father’s hardback copy of The Little Drummer Girl.

There it stood, like a discarded door-stop, on the shelf in our living room.

I read Le Carré as the years passed, first as an exercise in trying to understand my grandfather, and then as a window into the human condition

Reading it felt like being transported to a world that had nothing to do with me, and yet one which, through the questions I had about my grandfather, I felt so desperate to understand.

I continued to read Le Carré as the years passed, first as an exercise in trying to understand my grandfather, and then as a window into the human condition.

As a writer, I listen with a desperation to understand how he does what he does. Because no one else does it quite like him.

In truth, it’s probably better that I never had the chance to meet my literary hero, as I can’t imagine he would have had much to say to me. It was the revelation that my grandfather was spying for the Soviets that is said to have brought an end to Le Carré’s own intelligence career.

It was his ability to convey the ying and the yang within each one of us that made him truly remarkable

“I had been betrayed by Philby,” he said of my grandfather in an interview with Channel 4’s Jon Snow in 2010. “I actually refused to meet Philby in Moscow in 1988. For me, Philby was a thoroughly bad lot, just a naturally bent man.”

His meticulously crafted plots, as credible as they are occasionally outlandish, helped to make him a commercial success as well as a literary giant – a rare feat.

But it was his ability to see people, to convey the ying and the yang within each one of us, that made him truly remarkable.

Charlotte Philby the author of The Second Woman. out now (£12.99, Borough Press)

More in Features

Book festivals 2021

By , 19th August 2021
Features
From a celebration of the life of John le Carré at Cheltenham to an exploration of women and crime in Chiswick, please join me at one of the following events, across the country (and the internet!)