John le Carré, master spy writer, dead at 89

Le Carré’s literary agency, Curtis Brown, said that he died on Dec. 12, 2020 after a short illness.
John le Carré in his North London home in 2017. (Eleanor Wachtel/CBC)

John le Carré, the spy-turned-novelist whose elegant and intricate narratives defined the Cold War espionage thriller and brought acclaim to a genre critics had once ignored, has died. He was 89.

Le Carré's literary agency, Curtis Brown, said that he died in Cornwall, southwest England after a short illness on Dec. 12, 2020.

The death was not related to COVID-19.

In such classics as The Spy Who Came in from the ColdTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy, Le Carré combined terse, but lyrical prose with the kind of complexity expected in literary fiction.

His books grappled with betrayal, moral compromise and the psychological toll of a secret life. In the quiet, watchful spymaster George Smiley, he created one of 20th-century fiction's iconic characters — a decent man at the heart of a web of deceit.

For le Carré, the world of espionage was a "metaphor for the human condition."

Born David Cornwell, le Carré worked for Britain's intelligence service before turning his experience into fiction.

"I'm not part of the literary bureaucracy if you like that categorizes everybody: Romantic, Thriller, Serious," le Carré told the Associated Press in 2008. "I just go with what I want to write about and the characters. I don't announce this to myself as a thriller or an entertainment.

"I think all that is pretty silly stuff. It's easier for booksellers and critics, but I don't buy that categorization. I mean, what's A Tale of Two Cities? — a thriller?"

His other works included Smiley's People, The Russia House, and, in 2017, the likely Smiley farewell, A Legacy of Spies. Many novels were adapted for film and television, notably the 1965 productions of Smiley's People and Tinker, Tailor featuring Alec Guinness as Smiley.

More than fifty years after his breakthrough novel, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” John le Carré is as much in the news as ever—with a new biography and more movie adaptations. Eleanor speaks with le Carré about his 23rd novel, "A Delicate Truth."

Le Carré was drawn to espionage by an upbringing that was superficially conventional but secretly tumultuous.

Born David John Moore Cornwell in Poole, southwest England on Oct. 19, 1931, he appeared to have a standard upper-middle-class education: the private Sherborne School, a year studying German literature at the University of Bern, compulsory military service in Austria — where his tasks involved interrogating Eastern Bloc defectors — and a degree in modern languages at Oxford University.

It was an illusion: his father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a con man who was an associate of gangsters and spent time in jail for insurance fraud. His mother left the family when David was 5; he didn't meet her again until he was 21.

It was a childhood of uncertainty and extremes: one minute limousines and champagne, the next eviction from the family's latest accommodation. It bred insecurity, an acute awareness of the gap between surface and reality — and a familiarity with secrecy that would serve him well in his future profession.

"These were very early experiences, actually, of clandestine survival," le Carré said in 1996. "The whole world was enemy territory."

After university — which was interrupted by his father's bankruptcy — he taught at the prestigious boarding school Eton before joining the foreign service.

Officially a diplomat, he was in fact a "lowly" operative with the domestic intelligence service MI5 — he'd started as a student at Oxford — and then its overseas counterpart MI6, serving in Germany, then on the Cold War front line, under the cover of second secretary at the British Embassy.

His first three novels were written while he was a spy, and his employers required him to publish under a pseudonym. He remained "le Carré" for his entire career. He said he chose the name — square in French — simply because he liked the vaguely mysterious, European sound of it.

Call For the Dead appeared in 1961 and A Murder of Quality in 1962. Then in 1963 came The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a tale of an agent forced to carry out one last, risky operation in divided Berlin. It raised one of the author's recurring themes — the blurring of moral lines that is part and parcel of espionage, and the difficulty of distinguishing good guys from bad.

Le Carré said it was written at one of the darkest points of the Cold War, just after the building of the Berlin Wall, at a time when he and his colleagues feared nuclear war might be imminent.

"So I wrote a book in great heat which said 'a plague on both your houses,'" le Carré told the BBC in 2000.

It was immediately hailed as a classic and allowed him to quit the intelligence service to become a full-time writer.

His depictions of life in the clubby, grubby, ethically tarnished world of The Circus — the books' code-name for MI6 — were the antithesis of Ian Fleming's suave action-hero James Bond, and won le Carré a critical respect that eluded Fleming.

Smiley appeared in le Carré's first two novels and in the trilogy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyThe Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People.

"I made him, I suppose, a most improbable figure. One of the meek who inherit the earth. The kind of man you wouldn't give a second look to; I took trouble to make him anonymous. This wasn't his cover, but it was his nature. It's the reason why many people take up the secret life — for some people it's a refuge," he told Eleanor Wachtel on Writers & Company in 2017. "For some people it's the comradeship, the sense you are working in a good cause in a secret place, unacknowledged. Which, in itself, is a kind of safety." 

Less than a year after his 1963 novel <em>The Spy Who Came in From the Cold</em> made him famous, Le Carr&eacute; talks to CBC Radio about his new-found success.

Le Carré said the character was based on John Bingham — an MI5 agent who wrote spy thrillers and encouraged le Carré's literary career — and the ecclesiastical historian Vivian Green, the chaplain of his school and later his Oxford college, "who became effectively my confessor and godfather." The more than 20 novels touched on the sordid realities of spycraft but le Carré always maintained there was a kind of nobility in the profession. He said in his day spies had seen themselves "almost as people with a priestly calling to tell the truth."

"We didn't shape it or mold it. We were there, we thought, to speak truth to power."

The Perfect Spy, his most autobiographical book, looks at the formation of a spy in the character of Magnus Pym, a boy whose criminal father and unsettled upbringing bear a strong resemblance to le Carré's own. His writing continued unabated after the Cold War ended and the front lines of the espionage wars shifted. Le Carré said in 1990 that the fall of the Berlin Wall had come as a relief. "For me, it was absolutely wonderful. I was sick of writing about the Cold War. The cheap joke was to say, 'Poor old le Carré, he's run out of material; they've taken his wall away.' "The spy story has only to pack up its bags and go where the action is."

That turned out to be everywhere. The Tailor of Panama was set in Central America. The Constant Gardener, which was turned into a film starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, was about the pharmaceutical industry's machinations in Africa.

In this interview from 2017, the former British intelligence officer and master of the political thriller talks to Eleanor Wachtel about A Legacy of Spies, his latest novel to feature the iconic character, George Smiley.

A Most Wanted Man, published in 2008, looked at extraordinary rendition and the war on terror. "Our Kind of Traitor," released in 2010, took in Russian crime syndicates and the murky machinations of the financial sector.

Le Carré reportedly turned down an honor from Queen Elizabeth II — though he accepted Germany's Goethe Medal in 2011 — and said he did not want his books considered for literary prizes.

In later years he was a vocal critic of the government of Tony Blair and its decision — based partly on hyped-up intelligence — to go to war in Iraq, and criticized what he saw as the betrayals of the post-World War II generation by successive British governments.

Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel has interviewed John le Carré three times. (Jane Eustace)

"The changes that I was promised since I was about 14 — I remember being told when Clement Atlee became prime minister and (Winston) Churchill was slung out after the war that that would be the end of the (private) school system and the monarchy," he said, in 2008.

"How can we have achieved the poverty gap that we have in this country? It's simply unbelievable."

Le Carré spoke to Wachtel on Writers & Company three times: in 2010, 2013 and 2017.

In 1954, le Carré married Alison Sharp, with whom he had three sons before they divorced in 1971. In 1972 he married Valerie Eustace, with whom he had a son, the novelist Nick Harkaway.

Although he had a home in London, le Carré spent much of his time near Land's End, England's southwesternmost tip, in a house overlooking the sea. He was, he said, a humanist but not an optimist.

"Humanity — that's what we rely on. If only we could see it expressed in our institutional forms, we would have hope then," he told the Associated Press. "I think the humanity will always be there. I think it will always be defeated."

With files from CBC Books.

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