Reading John le Carré’s 1993 novel The Night Manager, I was struck by the odd sensation that I had actually met the villain of the story. Richard Onslow Roper is one of le Carré’s typical English upper-class shits. He is suave, handsome, well-connected in high circles, and utterly unscrupulous. His vast profits come from selling arms, illegally, to warlords in poor non-Western countries, and he is aided in his criminal enterprise by a variety of amoral smoothies in the British government.

Roper is, of course, a fictional character. But it didn’t take long to figure out whom he reminded me of: Alan Clark, right-wing politician, notorious skirt-chaser, classic-car buff, scandalous diarist, member of Margaret Thatcher’s government, and tireless promoter of more or less shady arms deals with countries like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and General Suharto’s Indonesia. In Iraq, Clark helped a British company evade the official arms embargo. Indonesia used British weapons to massacre civilians in East Timor. Asked by a journalist whether this had ever bothered him, Clark drawled: “No, not in the slightest. It never entered my head.”

Back in the 1990s, I interviewed Clark in his elegant flat in London. He couldn’t have been more charming. He also told me how much he admired aspects of Hitler’s Third Reich, which he said would have been perfectly fine were it not for all that “horsing around” by the SS.

I don’t know whether le Carré—or David Cornwell, his real name—had Clark in mind when he wrote The Night Manager. But I was fascinated to read in Adam Sisman’s riveting new biography of the novelist that the two men once knew each other well. They had met by chance in a small hotel near the East German border in the 1960s, when le Carré’s literary career was taking off and Clark was still trying to establish himself as more than the rich-playboy son of Kenneth Clark, the eminent art historian.

Le Carré and Clark drove through Europe in Clark’s Mercedes 600. They exchanged letters with endearments like “lover boy” and “golden boy.” Even though Clark was married to a much younger woman, he would often use his friend’s London flat for secret sexual encounters. Le Carré was sometimes appalled, but also intrigued, by Clark’s extreme views and disreputable friends. The two finally fell out after one of Clark’s trysts; le Carré’s housekeeper had found blood on the walls; very young girls had allegedly been involved. Le Carré decided that his friend was “too rich for my blood.”

Sisman writes judiciously about this odd friendship. Le Carré, he observes, “detected in [Clark] an unusual capacity for evil. For him, Clark was a kind of Mephistopheles, whose wicked example he found both fascinating and repellent.” This combination of attraction and repulsion, in particular toward British elites, runs like a current through much of le Carré’s life and often electrified his literary work.

Many of le Carré’s villains are seductive scoundrels not unlike Clark, and they usually come from the British upper class, or aspiring upper class. This was true as far back as his second published novel, A Murder of Quality, which told the story of a homosexual schoolmaster in an exclusive English public (meaning private) school. The man, in le Carré’s hands, is depicted as a silky aesthete, a snob, and a murderer.

The school in A Murder of Quality was based on Eton, the most exclusive public school of them all, where le Carré taught German for two years in the 1950s. At Eton, le Carré came to loathe the snobbish rituals and sense of entitlement built into what he called the school’s “Herrenvolk doctrine.” At the same time, he was enchanted by the fine manners and cultivated self-confidence instilled in the future members of Britain’s most privileged class.

Other institutions that le Carré was involved in before reaching the unassailable autonomy of a best-selling author also filled him with feelings of ambivalence: the Foreign Office, for which he served as a junior diplomat in Germany in the early 1960s; and, of course, the intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6, for whom he worked first while a student at Oxford, and later in Austria and Germany under diplomatic cover.

One of le Carré’s great strengths as a novelist is his gimlet eye for the nuances of dress, speech, and manners that distinguish such institutions and that marked off England’s upper classes. He is the ever-alert outsider who can pass brilliantly on the inside by mimicking the people around him so convincingly that they believe him to be one of them. This is the prerequisite of the successful spy and, as le Carré has often pointed out, of the successful novelist. When writing his stories, le Carré “inhabits” his imagined characters, as Sisman puts it. He views the world with the sense of wonder that goes with being an observant child who feels like an interloper in the schools and institutions that he is compelled to be part of.

* * *

In le Carré, this sense of wonder was always mixed with large dollops of resentment and rage. The kernel of his anger, as he himself has acknowledged, was his torturous relationship with his father, Ronald Cornwell. In Sisman’s biography, “Ronnie” is by far the most compelling character, regularly upstaging his son in the narrative. The chapter on his father is also the best thing about The Pigeon Tunnel, le Carré’s own collection of anecdotes about his life that he published this year. His bitter memories of Ronnie are the closest this highly guarded author comes to self-revelation.

Ronnie was a charming con man who often managed to live as a rich grandee by defrauding friends, family, and strangers of their savings while trying—unsuccessfully on several occasions—to steer clear of prison and bankruptcy. The remarkable thing about Ronnie is that even his wretched victims, after losing everything they owned to his duplicitous schemes, found it hard to resist his allure. There’s a photograph of Ronnie at Ascot or some other horse-racing venue, looking like an Edwardian fop in a gray top hat and morning tailcoat, with the lopsided grin of a vaudevillian performing a particularly baffling conjuring trick. Women adored him.

One of Ronnie’s victims was Alan Clark’s brother Colin. This is, in fact, how Alan introduced himself to le Carré when they first met in Germany: “My name is Clark. Your father ripped off my brother.”

Typically, Alan rather admired Ronnie for it. In Colin’s words, quoted in Sisman’s book: “What was difficult to comprehend about Ronnie was that everything was fake. His office, his car, his chauffeur, his ‘regular’ box at Ascot, were all just hired for the occasion, and never paid for. His wife was not his wife, and his accountant was just an accomplice.”

Ronnie married three times. His first wife, Olive, gave birth to le Carré and his elder brother Tony. Olive was so badly treated by Ronnie that she eloped with a friend when le Carré was just 5. “Today, I don’t remember feeling any affection in childhood except for my elder brother, who for a time was my only parent,” le Carré writes. Ronnie, meanwhile, drifted in and out of his sons’ lives—always dressed to the nines, smelling of fine cigars and the hint of perfume left by one of his many mistresses.

Ronnie went on jaunts to the casino at Monte Carlo. And there were times when he mysteriously disappeared. There were grand parties replete with famous sportsmen, show-business figures, politicians, and underworld cronies. Le Carré also recalls seeing Ronnie behind bars in one of the prisons where he did time, although he isn’t quite sure whether he might just be imagining it.

Living with so many lies set le Carré apart from his peers at a very early age. Growing up with a con man means that nothing is certain. So much about Ronnie was fantasy, a shaky stack of cards built on promises of great riches that left others in ruins, even as Ronnie lived it up whenever he could.

Often revolted by his father’s behavior, le Carré wasn’t immune to his dangerous charm. Ronnie was the original model for many of the seductive rogues in le Carré’s fiction, including the villainous Roper. Sisman tells us: “While the finished version of Roper is quite unlike [le Carré’s] own father, the early sketches of his character…are reminiscent of Ronnie: ‘proletarian but senatorial…genial but menacing.’ It is perhaps relevant that [le Carré] had suspected Ronnie of trying to find an opening in the arms trade at the time of the Six Day War.”

Ronnie keeps popping up like a recurring nightmare in his son’s life. Checking into fine hotels around the world, le Carré is frequently confronted by managers inquiring about his father’s unpaid bills. When the film version of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was about to be made, Ronnie was in Berlin pretending to be his son’s “professional adviser,” in which capacity he accepted studio tours and the company of starlets. Le Carré had to bail his father out of prison in Zurich for hotel fraud, and in Singapore for a betting scam, and in Vienna and Indonesia, and so on and so forth.

Ronnie was also quite prepared to blackmail his son, once threatening to expose one of le Carré’s marital infidelities if he wasn’t paid £1,000 to keep his mouth shut. What is perhaps the creepiest aspect of this grotesque father-son relationship was only revealed to le Carré after Ronnie’s death. A woman from Brussels contacted him to remind him of an affair they’d had on a train. Le Carré quickly realized what had happened: The liaison had most likely taken place, but his father had passed himself off as his famous son.

In his account of Ronnie, le Carré is unsparing, still a little angry, but not unforgiving. In a sense, he can see himself, as the professional spinner of tales, in the distorted image of his father. Ronnie, he writes, could not have lived any other way:

I don’t think he wanted to. He was a crisis addict, a performance addict, a shameless pulpit orator and a scene-grabber. He was a delusional enchanter and a persuader who saw himself as God’s golden boy, and he wrecked a lot of people’s lives. Graham Greene tells us that childhood is the credit balance of the writer. By that measure at least, I was born a millionaire.

Living with a con man—some of whose secrets the young boy found out by literally spying on his father—taught le Carré the art of make-believe (such as pretending at school that his father was a wartime secret agent when he was in fact a black marketer). “I remember the dissembling as we grew up,” le Carré writes, “and the need to cobble together an identity for myself, and how in order to do this I filched from the manners and lifestyle of my peers and betters, even to the extent of pretending I had a settled home life with real parents and ponies.”

* * *

People associate le Carré with the spy novel. This is accurate, up to a point. Some of his best books— Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), or Smiley’s People (1979), or the autobiographical A Perfect Spy (1986)—feature secret agents and are set against the backdrop of the Cold War.

But le Carré’s novels also belong to a genre at which English writers often excel: the comedy of manners. This type of story has everything to do with the complicated rituals of the British class system, which has changed over the years but has never disappeared. The Cornwell family was not at all from the top drawer, but from the provincial lower middle class—shop assistants and the like. Part of Ronnie’s projected image of grandeur was to make proper gentlemen of his sons by sending them to fancy public schools. And there, as le Carré explained in an interview, “we did what spies do. We acquired the clothes. We acquired the mannerisms, we acquired the voice…the code of the target that we were penetrating.”

At St. Andrew’s, the exclusive prep school that he attended, the young le Carré joined in the laughter of his peers at the sound of a lower-class accent, while concealing his shame that his own relatives spoke like that too. As Sisman observes: “He became especially sensitive to social nuance, noticing details to which boys from more secure backgrounds might be oblivious.”

This sensitivity breeds the fine ear and acute eye of a comic novelist. It also breeds the lifelong resentment, all too common in Britain, of the man who doesn’t quite fit in, and it explains le Carré’s ambivalence about his institutional affiliations, from St. Andrew’s to MI6. This extended to his feelings about his country and was one reason why he often sought to escape from England, as he did to Switzerland when he was 16, and why he chose to live in the solitude of his imagination.

Some of this ambivalence toward English society may have been the misdirected anger he felt toward his father. In fact, when describing his teenage escape to Switzerland in The Pigeon Tunnel, le Carré admits as much: “And very probably I blamed the school for my woes—and England along with it—when my real motive was to get out from under my father at all costs.” In any case, it was on this trip abroad that he had his first encounter with the world of spies. While in Switzerland in 1948, he was approached by a woman in tweeds from the British consulate, who probed him over a glass of sherry on his patriotic credentials. Considered sound, he was asked to spy on meetings of left-wing students and report on the British citizens who attended them. Three years later, le Carré was serving in the British Army Intelligence Corps in Austria, interrogating people who had slipped past the Iron Curtain. In 1952, he was a student at Oxford, where he led a peculiar double life: raising a glass to king and country in the exclusive company of other former public-school boys and joining left-wing groups to snoop on subversive elements.

Spying on fellow students who believe they’re your friends is an unsavory business, and some of le Carré’s “friends” never forgave him. Why was he so keen to do this? Le Carré puts these activities down to love of country. Having grown up during the war, and having avidly read a steady stream of schoolboy books on imperial heroes by John Buchan, Dornford Yates, G.A. Henty, and the like, le Carré became “the greatest British patriot in the hemisphere,” he recalls. There was also the Cold War, and the real menace of the Soviet Union. Someone had to do the dirty work required to protect the free world, and as a result, he undertook actions that, “although they were in some way morally repugnant, I felt at the time, and still feel, to have been necessary.”

What he did, apart from snooping around, le Carré is not prepared to say. The details of his life as a spy are still shrouded in secrecy. There is no reason to think that he is being disingenuous about his patriotic spirit or his views on the Cold War. Most of his contemporaries in Britain at the time probably felt much the same way. Then again, most of them never became spies.

* * *

Le Carré started at Oxford in 1952, at a particularly fraught time for the British intelligence services. It was the year after two of the Cambridge Five—Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean— defected to Moscow. Kim Philby, whose betrayals probably caused more deaths than any of them, followed in 1963.

Le Carré has always harbored a particular hatred for Philby—perhaps because he recognized something of himself in him. One thing they shared was growing up with an impossible father. St. John Philby, Philby’s rather sinister and eccentric father, was an anti-Semitic convert to Islam who was briefly arrested in 1940 as a possible Nazi sympathizer. As le Carré explains in Sisman’s biography: “Through his father, and the education which his father gave him, [Philby] experienced both as a victim and as a practitioner the capacity of the British ruling class for betrayal and polite self-preservation. Effortlessly he played the parts which the Establishment could recognize.”

In many ways, this was what made both Philby and le Carré good spies. They had what the KGB agent who recruited the Cambridge Five recognized as “an inherent class resentfulness, a predilection for secretiveness and a yearning to belong.” Le Carré once described the intelligence services as a kind of “masonry” where troubled souls could find a home, even a moral center. And yet joining this masonry might seem like an odd choice for an Englishman suffering from class anger—especially MI6, which was run by the very men that he, and others like him, resented. No wonder that Sir Dick White, head of MI6 when le Carré’s bleak The Spy Who Came in From the Cold came out, declared that the author “is getting his revenge on the old-school-ties in British intelligence.”

There has always been something contradictory about le Carré and his work, especially when it came to his attitude toward Britain. Obviously, he never betrayed it as Philby and the other Cambridge spies did, but why was he so frequently enraged with his own country? After he took Swiss residency in 1990, this consummate Englishman declared: “I really didn’t think I could stand being English for another day, or in England.”

Class resentment may have been one reason. But there was perhaps another as well. I once asked the writer Bruce Chatwin why he thought so many English authors between the two world wars wrote so venomously about England. Chatwin’s answer was both concise and plausible: “It is because they actually cared very much.” Writers of le Carré’s generation grew up in the twilight of empire and witnessed its fairly swift demise. Young readers of Buchan and Henty, they were imbued with an exalted view of Britain. Even leftist rebels who opposed British imperialism often failed to shake the conviction that there was something superior about being British.

This was especially true of men with a public-school education: Guy Burgess still proudly wore his Old Etonian tie even after defecting to Moscow. The sense of gloom that permeates le Carré’s work is the disillusion of a patriot who once believed in the moral superiority of his country’s institutions. It is a gloom created by his recognition that the institutions to which he was committed did not live up to their promise. The spy who came in from the cold wasn’t only the protagonist of his 1963 novel; it was also le Carré himself, who had once thought he’d found a home in MI6.

* * *

The moral bleakness of his early novels is often read as cynicism. But this is, in many ways, to misread le Carré. It is true that the British spies in his fiction are usually depicted as cynical and worldly, in contrast to the crass and hubristic naïveté of American agents. Harold Macmillan, later a Tory prime minister, once said: “These Americans represent the new Roman empire, and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go.” Le Carré would disagree with the premise, I think, but not with the sentiment. The world-weariness of George Smiley and his ilk has less to do with a natural (or cultural) tendency toward cynicism than with disappointment in a nation that had failed to live up to its own billing.

It is often hard to tell in le Carré’s novels whom he despises more: the coarse, power-drunk Americans or the smoother Brits who do their bidding. This came to an especially frothy head after George W. Bush unleashed war in the Middle East with the fawning connivance of Tony Blair. Le Carré declared that he wasn’t anti-American, just disgusted with what he called the “Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld disaster of the last eight years.”

His anger was justified. “We have squandered the peace that we’ve won with the Cold War,” he observed, and whatever one thinks of the Western powers’ conduct during the Cold War, this is surely true. But le Carré’s feelings about the meddling Yanks—like those of Graham Greene, a writer with whom he is often compared—goes deeper than that and, in fact, preceded Bush and Cheney.

Sisman quotes an entry in le Carré’s notebook about his detestation of the CIA agents he’d met: “I hate them more than I hate myself, more than I hate a hangover. They’re the one bunch I hate morally: I only have to see their Mormon haircuts and listen to their open-plan charm. I have only to hear them call Europe ‘Yurrp’ and I start sweating at the joints.”

Le Carré’s moral hatred of the CIA agents, and by extension the nation they serve, goes beyond a political dislike; it is cultural. The diatribe reveals something else as well, which moves his feelings about the United States a bit closer to those for his own country. Le Carré’s sense of anger and frustration stems from the official American claim of a higher morality. So much of US foreign policy, then and now, has been cloaked in the language of freedom and democracy even when it involved raw aggression. To le Carré, this hypocrisy is what makes it even more odious than the actions of openly criminal regimes.

The main difference between Smiley’s people and their “cousins” across the Atlantic was that the British had more or less given up pretending they were morally better than others, while the Americans continued to do so. Blair—with his self-aggrandizing and missionary zeal—was a signal exception, which is why le Carré came to loathe him so much.

* * *

Perhaps some of this is a bit over the top. But le Carré’s angry moralism (the opposite of world-weary cynicism) is what gives many of his stories their zest. The Constant Gardener (2001), for example, tells of the corrupt Western pharmaceutical industry operating in Africa. Several reviewers criticized it—unfairly, in my view—for being too angry, but this is what gives the novel its power. Le Carré once said that his wife Jane thought he was unreasonable at times about the United States. He said that she was probably right: “In fact, I’m becoming seriously unbalanced about America altogether.” But he also wasn’t “sure that isn’t the right thing to be.”

This lack of balance, which can be found in some of his views of Britain and its pernicious class system as well, is a sure sign of disenchanted idealism. He believes that Britain and the United States could have done better. More than the imperialist romances that le Carré imbibed in his youth, this is at the center of his patriotism. His books are the cry of an outsider who has been on the inside, and who cares enough about his country to be outraged by what he saw.