Home / Books / From John le Carré to Jake Needham: Spies That Don’t Die

From John le Carré to Jake Needham: Spies That Don’t Die

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I have the great pleasure to soon be interviewing Jake Needham, an American crime fiction novelist based in Thailand, on my podcast blog, 2012writersALIVE. He’s given me a complimentary copy of his latest book, A World of Trouble, and I’m reading it concurrently with John le Carré’s classic, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Comparison and contrast. The simplest rhetorical device available to writers.

Of course, I’ve been familiar with le Carré’s work for many years and recently watched the 2011 award winning film based on his novel, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy. So the question arises for me: what delineates the difference between crime fiction and espionage fiction?

The similarities are obvious. Good guys are sometimes bad guys and bad guys are sometimes good guys, crossing back and forth along the mythical river Styx and sometimes getting bogged down in the marshes, unable to free themselves from the weeds of confusion that trap them in a mist of combined common sense and criminal behavior.

The differences are less subtle and more prone to subjective interpretation. The moral ambiguities that a crime fiction protagonist and a spy protagonist face are perhaps theme-driven and based upon character motivation. In either case, a good writer will leave that up to an intelligent reader to decide. No condescending on the author’s part. No cartoonish, one-dimensional portrayal of characters who can easily be identified by what color they wear, as in modern American Cowboys-and-Indians films. Also, there is very little gratuitous, plot-driven violence that caters to commercial mainstream market fiction. Tension exists, without a doubt, but it is subtle and richly developed through nuances of dialogue, description, and other narrative devices.

In my opinion, explicit violence should be used sparingly and (to use a Greek dramatic device) is best done “offstage.” An author can honor his audience in no better way than to assume that it has imaginative capabilities, bringing to the work an active and engaging mind which discerns and decides themes, allegories, and motivational intrepretations that resonate on many levels.


<a href='http://www.123rf.com/photo_11014519_studio-photography-of-a-ice-crystal-and-smoke-in-black-reflective-back.html'>prill / 123RF Stock Photo</a>



As Ernest Hemingway once said, “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.”

And as we all know, water never dies. It just transforms.

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About John H. Byk

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  • Cassandra

    I would have thought, on an open site that invites comments, it was my opinion that matters rather than my “credentials”.It is however your blog and you may of course compare anyone with anybody:I simply pointed out that in this instance the comparison seemed outlandish.Now if you had compared Elmore Leonard with John Le Carre that would have been fascinating.

  • Well, I can compare Moses to Elmore Leonard if I want to and who cares what somebody with unverifiable credentials says? I might as well be arguing with myself.

  • Cassandra

    As a Bangkok resident with publishing experience, I have read several of Jake Needham’s books and while entertaining enough they are not even in the first league of the Asian crime genre, distinctly inferior to those say of John Burdett.Needham’s reviews are generally not from blue chip sources.However I have no wish to traduce Needham – a competent though not very widely read journeyman, simply to point out that it seemed completely inappropriate to headline a comparison of his work with John Le Carre, a contemporary literary master.

  • What’s comical is that Needham’s books have received 4 and 5 star reviews all across the globe. I guess some people just prefer reading cartoons rather than compelling and contemporary literature that requires a thoughtful perspective.

  • Cassandra

    Without wishing to be unkind do you not feel it comically inappropriate to be comparing John Le Carre and Jake Needham? Cartoonish and one dimensional were your words, and they apply I’m afraid to one of these writers.The other is a literary genius.