The Man Who Was George Smiley is a very good title for a new book by Michael Jago, published by Biteback, which is sub-titled The Life of John Bingham. Bingham's claim to fame - you've guessed it! - is that he was the spy whom John Le Carre used as a model for Smiley. Interesting in itself. But more interesting to me is that Bingham was a successful writer of crime novels and espionage stories, and I was glad to learn more about him, as well as about his work.
Due to Julian Symons' advocacy, I read many years ago Bingham's debut novel My Name is Michael Sibley, a story told from the point of view of an innocent man accused of crime. It's a strong and original story, and I'm really not sure why I've seldom read Bingham since. But Jago's book has definitely encouraged me to do so.
Jago gives a good and readable account of Bingham's life, and does not flinch from the rift that developed between Bingham and Le Carre. Bingham's wife was especially unhappy with Le Carre, and it's intriguing and rather sad to read about how their relationship deteriorated. Part of the problem was no doubt jealousy of Le Carre's critical and financial success, which far outstripped Bingham's. It's always a huge mistake to be jealous of others. Yet Jago suggests there were faults on Le Carre's side too, and that is probably right.
I enjoyed reading the sections about Bingham's own books, and his relationship with Victor Gollancz, one of the most brilliant of all British publishers. I suspect that Jago is not really a detective fiction fan, as there is little here that connects Bingham with the wider genre, or his place in it. Sir John Masterman, for instance, a spy of distinction, is mentioned, but his detective novels are not. The Detection Club, of which Bingham was a long-standing member, as was Masterman, isn't mentioned, one more frustration for its archivist. But I liked this book, which has made me want to read more of Bingham's work, and that's a sign of a good literary biography.