John le Carre, the spy-turned-novelist best known for the Cold War thrillers Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, has died. He was 89.
His literary agent said in a statement that Le Carre died after a short illness in Cornwall, southwestern England, on Saturday evening.
“His like will never be seen again, and his loss will be felt by every book lover, everyone interested in the human condition,” said Jonny Geller, CEO of The Curtis Brown Group.
Le Carre was survived by his wife, Jane, and four sons. The family said in a brief statement that he had died of pneumonia.
The author, whose real name was David John Moore Cornwell, wrote 25 novels and one memoir in a career spanning 60 years, selling some 60 million books worldwide.
By exploring treachery at the heart of British intelligence in spy novels, le Carre challenged Western assumptions about the Cold War by defining for millions the moral ambiguities of the battle between the Soviet Union and the West.
Unlike the glamour of Ian Fleming’s unquestioning James Bond, le Carre’s heroes were trapped in the wilderness of mirrors inside British intelligence which was reeling from the betrayal of Kim Philby who fled to Moscow in 1963.
“It’s not a shooting war anymore, George. That’s the trouble,” Connie Sachs, British intelligence’s resident alcoholic expert on Soviet spies, tells spy catcher George Smiley in the 1979 novel Smiley’s People.
“It’s grey. Half angels fighting half devils. No one knows where the lines are,” Sachs says in the final novel of Le Carre’s Karla trilogy.
Such a bleak portrayal of the Cold War shaped popular Western perceptions of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States that dominated the second half of the 20th century until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Cold War, for le Carre, was A Looking Glass War – the name of his 1965 novel – with no heroes and where morals were up for sale, or betrayal, by spymasters in Moscow, Berlin, Washington and London.
Betrayal of family, lovers, ideology and country run through le Carre’s novels which use the deceit of spies as a way to tell the story of nations, particularly Britain’s sentimental failure to see its own post-imperial decline.
Such was his influence that le Carre was credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with introducing espionage terms such as “mole”, “honey pot” and “pavement artist” to popular English usage.
“John le Carre has passed at the age of 89. This terrible year has claimed a literary giant and a humanitarian spirit,” tweeted novelist Stephen King. Margaret Atwood said: “Very sorry to hear this. His Smiley novels are key to understanding the mid-20th century”.
David John Moore Cornwell was born on October 19, 1931 in Dorset, England, to Ronnie and Olive, though his mother, despairing at the infidelities and financial impropriety of her husband, abandoned the family when he was five years old.
Mother and son would meet again decades later though the boy who became le Carre said he endured “16 hugless years” in the charge of his father, a flamboyant businessman who served time in jail.
At the age of 17, Cornwell left Sherborne School in 1948 to study German in Bern, Switzerland, where he came to the attention of British spies. After a spell in the British Army, he studied German at Oxford, where he informed on his left-wing students for Britain’s MI5 domestic intelligence service.
Le Carre was awarded a first-class honours degree before teaching languages at Eton College, Britain’s most exclusive school. He also worked at MI5 in London before moving in 1960 to the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6.
Posted to Bonn, then capital of West Germany, Cornwell fought on one of the toughest fronts of Cold War espionage: 1960s Berlin.
As the Berlin Wall went up, le Carre wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, where a British spy is sacrificed for an ex-Nazi-turned-Communist who is a British mole.
“What the hell do you think spies are?” asks Alec Leamas, the British spy who is finally shot on the Berlin Wall. “They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.”
By casting British spies as every bit as ruthless as their Communist foes, le Carre defined the dislocation of the Cold War that left broken humans in the wake of distant superpowers.
His other works included Smiley’s People, The Russia House, and, in 2017, the 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.
Big Pharma to Brexit
After the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving Russia’s once-mighty spies impoverished, le Carre turned his focus to what he perceived as the corruption of the US-dominated world order.
From corrupt pharmaceutical companies, Palestinian fighters and Russian oligarchs to lying US agents and, of course, perfidious British spies, le Carre painted a depressing – and at times polemical – view of the chaos of the post-Cold War world.
“The new American realism, which is nothing other than gross corporate power cloaked in demagogy, means one thing only: that America will put America first in everything,” he wrote in the foreword to The Tailor of Panama.
He opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and his anger at the US was evident in his later novels, which sold well and were turned into popular films but did not match the mastery of his Cold War bestsellers.
They included The Constant Gardener, which was about the pharmaceutical industry’s machinations in Africa. And A Most Wanted Man, published in 2008, which 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 Carre reportedly turned down an honour 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.
An avowed Europhile, he was also an outspoken critic of Brexit, and at the last general election in 2019, told the AFP news agency that Britons should “join the resistance” against Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“My England would be the one that recognises its place in the EU,” he told a US interviewer in 2017.
“The jingoistic England that is trying to march us out of the EU, that is an England I don’t want to know.”