The Madness of Spies

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From The New Yorker, by John le Carré, who recently passed away:

I carried my first 9-mm. automatic Browning when I was just twenty years old. I was a National Service second lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps in Austria. It was my first clandestine mission, and I was in heaven. The year, I think, was 1952, and I was stationed in Graz, the hub of the British Occupied Zone in the early Cold War years. The gun was loaded. On the advice of the Air Intelligence Officer, or A.I.O., in charge of the operation, I wore it jammed into my waistband against my left hip with the butt foremost, allowing for an easy draw across the body. Over it I wore a green loden coat, borrowed under a pretext from one of our Field Security drivers, and, for additional cover, a fetching green Tyrolean hat, bought at personal expense. Such was my disguise of choice for a top-secret night trip through sparsely populated countryside to Austria’s border with Communist Czechoslovakia.

The A.I.O., however, had opted for the more traditional spy’s attire: fawn raincoat and trilby hat, which, together with his military mustache, gave him, to my callow eye, a rather too British look. But he knew best. The A.I.O. was a veteran of the business, as we National Service fledglings had often been reminded sotto voce by our seasoned superiors in the bar of the Wiesler hotel, reserved for British officers, where the A.I.O. could be observed of an early evening, always seated in the same corner and half-hidden by his Austrian newspaper, with a mahogany whiskey at his side and a crisp white handkerchief jammed into the cuff of his officer-class sports jacket. The A.I.O., they said, had done his share of this and that—as ever with the clear implication that we hadn’t.

As became a man of mystery, the A.I.O. was a solitary. His office, which we never entered, was situated in the attic of the elegant villa on the edge of town that our military masters in Vienna had requisitioned for us Intelligence types. Spy ethic dictates that the higher up the building you go the more secret it gets, which explains why we mere Field Security trash were confined to the ground floor. But I knew his window. It was a dormer, thick with grimy net curtains. He had no known rank, and no known staff. He made no use of our mailroom. We assumed, but were never told, that he relied on his own communications system. Just occasionally, a standard tin box of papers would arrive for him by way of the Army Field Post Office, and although it looked exactly like the sort of junk we ourselves were handling, he would immediately hasten downstairs and, with an air of immense gravity, return with it to his aerie. He was said to be much decorated, but we never saw him in uniform. In short, he was the real McCoy. His work might look as boring as ours, but in reality he was an undercover Friend, meaning a member of M.I.6, the highest form of Intelligence life known to man.

Why me, sir? I asked him, when he suggested we take a quiet stroll along the river.

“Because you’ve got what it takes,” he replied, in the bitten-off style of a man who would prefer not to be speaking at all.

How do you know I have, sir? I asked.

“Been watching you.”

Our car was an innocent black Volkswagen Beetle with civilian plates. The A.I.O. explained that he had got it from Intelligence Organization Vienna, which, as far as I was concerned, was the summit of Olympus. Should we by chance be stopped by the Austrian police, he said, we were two businessmen from Graz interested in buying farmland for cash. This would explain the ten thousand U.S. dollars in the brown briefcase lying on the back seat of the Beetle. The dollars also came from Int. Org. Only when all else failed, he said, should we flash our cards and declare ourselves to be British military personnel engaged on secret duties.

At first as we drove I could think only of the Browning nudging at my hip. But as the night darkened and my body eased and the Browning grew warmer, we became a pair, which was what the A.I.O. had said we would do. “Think of it as part of you,” he advised. So I did, even if from time to time I discreetly fingered the safety catch to make sure it was still on.

In what sort of situation might I be using it, sir? I asked.

“Contingency. If the Czech goons come after him, we give him covering fire. Not till I tell you, mind.” And, as an afterthought, “Don’t go for the legs. Aim for the mark.”

The mark?

“Shoulders to groin and all points between.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker