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Le Carre surfaces to say the new order hasn't killed the spy story


TULSA, Okla. -- He rarely leaves the 19th century farmhouse he shares with his second wife and the youngest of four sons atop a wind-swept cliff on the rugged Cornish coast at the southwestern tip of England, and when he does, it's usually to visit his London residence.

If he ventures farther, it's often to a European capital or an international trouble spot, a Moscow or a Beirut perhaps, to gather material for his next novel. You wouldn't expect to find John le Carre in this beautiful city of almost 400,000 in the verdant hills of eastern Oklahoma.

But on a December weekend, there he was, tall, patrician, witty, an engaging raconteur, utterly British, sampling the house specialty from a local chili parlor, dining on barbecued ribs, baked beans and other regional delicacies at a country-club luncheon, visiting a museum that features art from the American West, addressing a black-tie dinner and giving a public lecture at the Tulsa City-County Library.

Over the years, he has become more at ease with such appearances. "I sort of come out and sniff the air for a bit and then go back to my hutch, and it seems to be OK," he says.

In this instance, he was enticed from his writerly solitude not only by the scent of barbecue and beans but also by the Tulsa Library Trust's Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, which comes with a $10,000 honorarium, an engraved book of Baccarat crystal and round-trip transportation by private jet.

This year, the timing was right. Le Carre was able to attend the Hollywood premiere of "The Russia House," made from his 12th novel, and to bring advance copies of "The Secret Pilgrim," his 13th, and the Tulsans were able to capitalize on the anticipation for both.

Le Carre was struck by something else. "I can't think of a stranger moment or a more apt one for you to have paid me this honor," he said at the dinner. "In the first place, I recently entered my 60th year, an occasion when, by tradition and nature, we are invited to look back at what we've done and ponder a little nervously on how best to use the time we have left.

"In the second place, a freak of history has brought me to a different kind of watershed, namely the end of the Cold War. . . . I find myself reading my professional obituary.

" 'Poor old Le Carre,' goes the refrain, 'what will he write about now that his Berlin Wall is down?' "

In 1960, David Cornwell, a 29-year-old British intelligence agent, began writing books under the pen name John Le Carre. His third, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," published in 1963, was a blockbuster, enabling him to leave his covert life and devote all his time to writing.

He wrote about espionage, but his complex, well-written novels were starkly different from the popular, simplistic James Bond fantasies of that time. Le Carre's world was bleak and real; his stories were about the effects of a policy of betrayal and deceit on people and governments.

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