Authors: John Bingham
—aka Lord Clanmorris, aka Michael Ward—was born in 1908 near York, England. The only son of the Sixth Baron Clanmorris, he began his writing career as a journalist. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Bingham joined the Royal Engineers, and it was during a train ride through the countryside that he overheard a conversation in German between two people in his car. The couple were observing and taking notes on the location of military installations and possible munitions factories. Pretending to be German, Bingham spoke with them, obtaining their names and whereabouts they were staying, which he passed on to a friend in Intelligence. He was soon recruited by MI5, where he worked with famed undercover agent Maxwell Knight, as well as David Cornwell (also known as author John le Carré), and remained with MI5 in various capacities well into the 1970s.
John Bingham’s first novel was
My Name Is Michael Sibley,
published in 1952;
Five Roundabouts to Heaven
followed in 1953. In the span of thirty years, while with MI5, Bingham wrote seventeen crime novels and thrillers, including
The Third Skin, Night’s Black Agent, A Fragment of Fear,
I Love, I Kill.
Bingham died in 1988.
My Name Is Michael Sibley
The Third Skin
The Paton Street Case
Murder Plan 6
Night’s Black Agent
A Case of Libel
The Double Agent
I Love, I Kill
Vulture in the Sun
The Marriage Bureau Murders
Brock and the Defector
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1965 by John Bingham
Copyright renewed © 1993 by John Bingham
Introduction copyright © 2000 by Le Carré Productions
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bingham, John, 1908–
A fragment of fear / John Bingham with an introduction by John Le Carré.—1st Simon & Schuster trade paperback ed.
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his novel comprises some of the best work of an extremely gifted and perhaps under-regarded British crime novelist, now dead, whom I would dearly like to have called my friend. And for a time, John and I were indeed close friends. We came from totally different worlds, worked together in perfect harmony in an operational section of MI5 for two years but parted a few years later, on John’s side, on terms of bitter animosity. If John had been able to hate anyone for long, he would have hated me. That we had been friends and colleagues only added spleen. John had been my professional mentor. He had been one of two men who had gone into the making of my character George Smiley. Nobody who knew John and the work he was doing could have missed the description of Smiley in my first novel,
Call for the Dead.
“Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes…”
John had introduced me to his agent, Peter Watt, and his British publisher, Victor Gollancz. John had encouraged me to write, and read the manuscript of my first novel. John, in other words, by every generous means available to him, had set me on course to become a writer. And I would have been happy to credit him with all this—if our service had allowed me to—and probably I would have dedicated a book to him and acknowledged my debt.
But John saw things quite differently. As far as he was concerned, I had repaid him by betraying everything outside his family that he held most dear in the world: his country, his Service, his colleagues, the bond he shared with his agents in the field, and by extension his own humanity. The fond apprentice had turned wrecker. In an angry foreword to his novel
The Double Agent
written three years after the publication of
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,
John wrote as follows: “There are two schools of thought about out Intelligence Services. One school is convinced they are staffed by murderous, powerful, double-crossing cynics, the other that the taxpayer is supporting a collection of bumbling, broken-down layabouts. It is possible to think that both extremes of thought are the result of a mixture of unclear reasoning, ignorance and possibly political or temperamental wishful thinking.”
No insider doubted that John was writing about me. Or that he was expressing an opinion widely shared by his contemporaries in the Service. He might of course have added that there was a third school of thought about our Intelligence Services, and that it was his own, and my crime was that I subscribed not merely to the two he mentions, but to the third also—his. John, if pressed, might also have conceded that, just as there was an anti-authoritarian rebel in
nature, so was there a patriotic civil servant in mine. And that the problem with secret services was the same problem that people have: they can be an awful lot of things at once, good and bad, competent, incompetent, one day indispensable, the next a hole in the head. I might also have pointed out to him that my experience of Cold War intelligence work had extended into fields of which he was fortunate to know nothing, since John had long been stuck in the groove of domestic counter-subversion, whereas I had been fortunate enough to obtain a glimpse of our foreign operations. John was sweetly unaware of the disastrous influence of James Jesus Angleton’s spy mania upon the international intelligence community. He knew nothing of black operations at home or overseas. He knew nothing of the training and infiltration and deaths of uncounted armies of small spies against the communist menace. He knew precious little of conspiracy and even less of cock-up. He ran a perfected system all his own. He cherished his agents without the smallest thought of ever betraying them or exposing them to dangers they couldn’t handle. But even if John
conceded all this, he would never have wanted to read, let alone write, about it.
As far as he was concerned, I was a literary defector who had dragged the good name of the Service through the mud. I had supped at King Arthur’s table, then sawn its legs off. In those days I had to listen to a lot of that stuff, and read it in planted reviews. But when it came from John it never failed to hurt. No good my protesting I was engaged in a literary conceit. Or that anyone who knew the secret world as we did would be the first to recognize that I had invented a completely different one. Or that I had used the secret world as a theater to describe the overt world it affected to protect. As far as John was concerned—and many others too—claims of good intent were guff. I was a shit, consigned to the ranks of other shits like Compton McKenzie, Malcolm Muggeridge and J. C. Masterman, all of whom had betrayed the Service by writing about it. Thank God Bingham never lived to see David Shayler on television. On the other hand, I wish dearly that we could have had a conversation about him.
The irreconcilable differences between Bingham and myself may tell you a bit about the conflict of generations within the Service, and a bit about John. But I would not want you for a second to imagine that he was some kind of chauvinistic fuddy-duddy. Indeed, the older I get, the more often I wonder whether he was right and I was wrong. I mean by this that, ever since some PR whiz-kid sold the secret services the notion that they should present an image of openness, they have lost more and more credibility with the public. A secret service that sets out to be loved is off its head. And if my novels in the 60s and 70s in some way invited the opening of that door, then I wish somebody could have slammed it shut.
John was a quarter of a century older than I was. He was born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and married a Catholic woman of birth, a playwright. He had wandered around pre-war Europe, I expect—though no one says so—for British Intelligence. Certainly I made that assumption when I gave Smiley fragments of John’s pre-war past. He spoke French and German though I never heard him do it, so I don’t know how well. I know little of his childhood, but imagined that, quite unlike myself, he was born into a world of certainties that time eroded. When I came to write Smiley, I tried to give him the same faint air of loss that John carried around with him. Smiley, like John, I felt, was fighting to preserve a country that survived only in his head, and was clinging to standards long abandoned by the world around him. There was something quixotic as well as shrewd about John. Like Smiley, he was the perfect parish priest of the Old Faith. He was a superb listener. He was profoundly orthodox, but with a nice dash of heresy. He exuded stability and common sense and inspired his agents with his own gentle, old-fashioned zeal. His humanity was never put on. The best of his agents were women. He managed to see some of them almost every day of their operational lives. I could not for one second, then or now, have imagined John caught up in some devious game of bluff and counter-bluff that involved the cynical sacrifice of one of his precious agents. They were his adopted children, his little wives, his creations, his wards, his orphans. John had shared their lives with them, assuring them every day that what they were doing was absolutely vital to the nation’s health. He had drunk them into near oblivion when the strains of their double life became intolerable to them. And he was back next morning with the coffee for their hangovers. In this, he was the pupil and stablemate of Maxwell Knight, another Pied Piper extraordinary of men and women looking for an unorthodox way to serve their country. “Your wife will be spat on in the fish-queue,” John told them. “Your kids will be persecuted at school. You’ll be hated or at best distrusted by your neighbors as a fire-breathing Red. But the Service will be with you. We’ll be walking at your side even when you can’t see us. We’ll be worrying about you day and night.” And they believed him—for as long as upstarts like le Carré didn’t tell them otherwise.
But le Carré had seen more of the new verities than John had, and far fewer of the old ones. He had not fought John’s war, he had never enjoyed the conviction that he was opposing pure evil, a rare privilege conferred by the 1939–45 war, but much harder to sustain in the war between capitalism and socialism, both gone off the rails. Le Carré had emerged not from the aristocracy but from a rootless childhood of chaos and larceny. And le Carré turned Bingham the preacher of certainties into Smiley the disciple of doubt. And I don’t think John, if he ever fully decoded the references, would have thanked me one bit for that compliment.
So what on earth has all this to do with the book you are about to read? you ask. It is because in my sadness, and love of John, I wish you to do him justice, not just as a British patriot and supremely able intelligence officer, but as an intuitive scholar of human motive, which is what informed the writer in him. John was not only an intelligence technician but a former journalist. He understood and loved police work. As a dedicated custodian of society he cared passionately about the containment of evil. He wasn’t interested in
dunnit. But as a master interrogator and explorer of human motive, he wanted to know
dunnit and whether justice was going to be served. John’s country’s enemies were John’s enemies, whether they were Germans trying to spy on us, communists trying to undermine the fabric of bourgeois society, or our own criminals upsetting the decent order of Britain as he dreamed and loved it. An interrogator is nothing if he is not a master of many fictions, and John was all of that. Seated before his suspect, listening to the fluctuations of the suspect’s voice as well as his words, watching the body language and the tiny facial inflections, the good interrogator is subconsciously trying on stories like clothes: would
one fit him, or would that one fit him better? Is he this person or that person—or another person altogether? And if I were in his shoes, what would I be saying? All the time he is plumbing the possibilities of the character before him.
Bingham wrote with the authority of an extraordinarily wide experience of human beings in bizarre situations. As a novelist he was held back in part by the sheer scale of the material he disposed of and could never use, in part by the constraints quite properly imposed on him by his service; but above all by his own innate sense of “good form”: a notion that died a little before he did. What drove him was a love of the citadel he was protecting and a visceral disdain for its enemies. What gave him his magic was something we look for in every writer, too often in vain: an absolute command of the internal landscape of his characters, acutely observed by a humane but wonderfully corrosive eye.
And John had one other quality that every agent runner needs: great entertainment value. Now read on.