Inside Story

The past catches up

An Australian diplomat follows le Carré and Greene among spies and moles

Graeme Dobell Books 7 March 2023 1517 words

“Who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?” asked Graham Greene. Alamy

The spy novel is among the great creations of modern fiction. Roaming the battlefields of hot and cold wars, the spy — brave, betraying, or both — does dual duty for the writer. Big themes of power and the fate of nations are illuminated by the actions of a single character.

Author and spy both seek to unlock secrets. For the writer, William Boyd observes, “the best way to arrive at the truth is to lie — to invent, to fictionalise.” Real-life espionage and the fictional version seek that alchemy, using lies to reach for truth.

Boyd produced a successful James Bond novel drawing on his memory of reading Bond as a twelve-year-old, “utterly captivated by the now familiar blend of snobbery, sex, ludicrous violence, exotic travel and superior consumer goods.” For the anti-Bond, the tragic hero battling the deadly bureaucracies of the spook world, turn to Graham Greene and John le Carré, who shared one bit of personal history with Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming — they all worked as British spies.

In their greatest spy books, Greene and le Carré both put a mole inside the British secret service. Greene embraces the mole in The Human Factor; le Carré pursues him in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The real-life mole haunting both works is Kim Philby, the British spymaster who was spying for the Soviet Union.

Philby was Greene’s friend and The Human Factor embraces E.M. Forster’s sentiment: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” In the introduction to Philby’s memoir of life as a double agent, Greene wrote that Philby “betrayed his country, yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?”

As a writer fascinated by characters with divided loyalties, often losing their faith, Greene saluted a friend who never doubted his communist beliefs.

Le Carré lashed Philby as “spiteful, vain and murderous” — murderous because he betrayed the agents he sent into Albania, ensuring they were caught on landing and executed. Yet, as le Carré mused, infiltrating spies into secret or subversive organisations is an ancient practice: “As J. Edgar Hoover reportedly said with unusual wit when told the news that Kim Philby was a Soviet double agent: ‘Tell ’em, Jesus Christ only had twelve, and one of them was a double.’”

The rich lode of espionage that le Carré and Greene mined is now being worked over by a former Australian diplomat, John Michell. A full-time writer since 2017, Michell was in the diplomatic service for thirty-three years, serving abroad for two-thirds of that time. As the cold war wound down in 1991–93, he was in the Australian embassy in Moscow as a second secretary, working “in a technical function” on “embassy security and communications.”

“The fall came as a shock to many Russians,” he tells me, though initially it was “a welcome surprise, I’d say, given the widely held mindset among the populace that the end of communism would lead them to the land of milk and honey. Quite the opposite occurred, of course, with inflation and unemployment, hitherto unexperienced economic impacts, soon running wild, no matter how many statues of Lenin they pulled down.”

He remembers president Boris Yeltsin’s pro-Western approach being, if not popular, at least tolerated. “A strong memory of that time is of people begging in the underpasses and railway stations when previously there were none… I loved the Russian people for their stoicism and, beneath gruff exteriors, their kindness. But I also fear for them because Putin is taking them somewhere dark.”

The Soviet collapse frames Michell’s second spy novel, Weather Over Mendoza. The hero/anti-hero, codenamed “Mendoza,” is an Australian, Adrian Ashton, who worked as a Soviet mole in Britain’s MI6 for thirty-three years.

The story opens in 1994 with Ashton sitting in his London flat, his Walther PPK pistol on the table, waiting for the Sunday paper that will break the story of his career of betrayal. Ashton waits because he has nowhere to flee; the country and the cause that he served have died.

The book traces Ashton’s lonely life, starting as an orphan unloved and abused in an institution in Ballarat. Serving as a tail gunner with an Australian crew flying Lancasters during the second world war, he was the only survivor when his bomber is shot down over Germany in 1944.

Hidden by a cell of German communists, the twenty-one-year-old meets the man and woman who will take the place of the parents he never knew: the German communist Heidi, who shelters him for months and converts him to socialism, and Soviet spymaster Feodor, who trains Ashton and guides his espionage career.

The best thriller sequence of the book is a series of chapters following Feodor as he is spirited into Germany then leads Ashton on a deadly trek through battlelines back to Russia. Feodor’s Soviet chief tells him that the young Australian’s new devotion to socialist ideals — “the ideologically committed always make the best spies” — can make him a special asset when the war ends.

“Once Germany is defeated and the postwar tidying up complete,” the spy chief says, “the Soviet Union’s next war will be against the West. However it might be achieved, my ultimate aim is for our socialist convert to become a Soviet source in MI6.”

Ashton eases himself into the British secret service but isn’t a particularly valuable asset for his Soviet masters. Dismissed by one of his British bosses as an “odd man with odd ways” and “an inadequate little colonial who uses prostitutes,” his outsider status defines his low-level MI6 career.

The greatest danger comes when a CIA investigator arrives in London on a mole hunt that targets Ashton. Feodor saves his spy by discrediting the American and then murdering him in a hit made to look like suicide.

Arcing across fifty years, the tautness of the novel’s 238 pages means Michell easily avoids the nasty shaft— “twice as long as it should be” — that Clive James aimed at one of le Carré’s novels. (Le Carré’s recently published letters record his withering contempt for the jumped-up Australian expat who dared to criticise a plot’s “stupefying gradualness” and to pronounce a verdict of “elephantiasis, of ambition as well as reputation.” The writing game inflicts deep wounds even if the scars aren’t visible.)

Michell captures the spook world and its day-to-day spycraft in Weather Over Mendoza and his previous novel, The Far Grass, both of which feature British spies as their main characters. In his first novel he explains, for instance, the challenges facing a British spy doing surveillance in the crowded suburbs of Jakarta, where a white face can’t linger on one street for long without becoming the focus of local interest.

Setting his novels in the British service helps the former Australian diplomat skirt the problem Graham Greene identified in the preface to The Human Factor: “A novel based on life in any Secret Service must necessarily contain a large element of fantasy, for a realistic description would almost certainly infringe some clause or other in some official secrets Act.”

The Greene and le Carré parallels raise the question of whether Michell was a diplomat working beside spies or a spy with diplomatic cover. So I put those questions to him: Were you working for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service? What contact did you have with spies in your work as a diplomat?

Michell’s response: “I have certain lifelong legal commitments that preclude me making any comment on intelligence matters.” Mark that as an entry in the great tradition of neither confirming nor denying, from a writer who is a lawyer as well as former diplomat.

Remembering the caution about telling lies to get to truth, le Carré warned that his spy novels were not “the disguised revelations of a literary defector” from the British secret service. Instead, they were “works of imagination that owed only a nod to the reality that spawned them.”

Michell says he wrote about the British secret service because of his official secrets obligations in Australia and “because the cold war had far greater day-to-day impact on Britain than it did Australia, making Britain a much more relevant setting for the novel.”

At the core of Weather Over Mendoza, he writes in his preface, is “a man reflecting on a past that has caught up with him.” This man has plunged into crisis, reliving his life through the rear-view mirror: “The aim is leave readers pondering a philosophical question: is it just and right to think the worst of Adrian, or is there reason to be sympathetic to his plight?”

The book’s final scene turns Ashton’s efforts to find the meaning of a life of betrayal into a choice between his two parent figures. His decision, in the last eight sentences, is a plot twist both elegant and surprising. •

Weather Over Mendoza
By John Michell | Shawline Publishing | $24.95 | 238 pages