Liar Liar, Pants on Fire

I just finished a delightful New Yorker article by John Le Carre, author of many popular spy novels, and former spymeister himself. Le Carre shares with us some of his early training and observations while in British intelligence around those heady postwar days of the early 1950’s. The article is “The Madness of Spies” in the September 29 New Yorker.

But I don’t want to review the Le Carre article. Delightful as its anecdotes are, they are only further proof of something I learned back in 1964 or so: I could never, ever be a successful spy.

I am, or was, a huge fan of Le Carre. To the best of my recollection I only ever read one out of almost two dozen popular Le Carre novels: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. And there’s a reason for that precipitous dropoff in my reading rate. Le Carre is an acknowledged master at de-mythologizing the romantic and 100% fictitious Bond school of spy adventure.

Now, I LOVED those Bond movies. They were safe. You’ll never catch ME in Monte Carlo with a tux, a blonde and a wad of pounds sterling. “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” convinced me: spying is really a nasty, brutish, and often short-lived career. Ian Fleming was great. But it took John Le Carre to convince me that line of work is barking up the wrong tree.

Spies are supposed to be duplicitous. If you aren’t good enough that all your peers suspect you must be a double agent, you’ll get parked in some backwater office along the fringes of the Sahara.

My mother used to tell me I would never be a good liar. Indeed she did have high and strict standards of honesty, and yet she seemed to admire the many artful dodgers in her own family. For me, her transparently clumsy evasive son, concealment was a sin. When it came to owning up to who broke the shower door, being forthcoming was a virtue, though rewarded with swift and byzantine publishment.

So, after all these years, all I have learned is that Mother was right. I’m the world’s worst liar. You can skip the klieg lights and brutal interrogations at the back room at the station. You can find what you want to know just to look at me. If that doesn’t work, just let me rabbit on until I hang myself. I can’t keep track of who I told what, so if there is a web of inconsistent stories, I already know they will all point back to me. Even my “white lies” have a telltale ring of insincerity about them. “It’s written all over your face.”

I don’t blend in. I can still remember those years of standing on the platform waiting for the San Francisco train, just one unmemorable soul among several hundred identically-dressed men: gray pin-stripe wool three-piece suit, gray Samsonite briefcase, leather shoes in some condition of needing a good polish. I can still remember the breeze as a train rushed by one day, realizing I must be the only one of those hundreds of men who forgot to zip up.

To remain anonymous in the crowd, you want to give the appearance of being completely lost in the inner, self-centered world. I make eye contact. I show expressions such as smiles or frowns. I look around alertly at my environment, like a rabbit watching the descending hawk. I even stare. In San Francisco, there was always a hat sitting on every street-corner sidewalk, its tenured owner holding the “Please Help” and “Spare Change” cardboard signs. Why, at the exact moment when I arrived at the street corner, would this poor soul choose just then to “go off”, shouting incoherent rants and epithets?

I’m not much of a “Mom was right” sort, but, you know, sometimes she was. I was never a good liar. I never will be. And Le Carre was right, too. Spying is just not my cup of tea, mate.

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