John le Carré

From New World Encyclopedia

John le Carré
John le Carre.jpg
Le Carré in 2008
Born: October 19 1931(1931-10-19)
Poole, Dorset, England, UK
Died: December 12 2020 (aged 89)
Truro, Cornwall, England, UK
Occupation(s): Novelist
intelligence officer
Nationality: British
Literary genre: Spy fiction
Website: Official website

David John Moore Cornwell (October 19, 1931 - December 12, 2020), better known by his pen name John le Carré (pronounced /ləˈkæreɪ/), was a British author of espionage novels. During the 1950s and 1960s, he worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). His third novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works.

Following the success of this novel, he left MI6 to become a full-time author. His books include Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Little Drummer Girl (1983), The Night Manager (1993), The Tailor of Panama (1996), The Constant Gardener (2001), A Most Wanted Man (2008), and Our Kind of Traitor (2010), all of which have been adapted for film or television.

He wrote a very different kind of spy story from the familiar glamour of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, instead revealing the real dark and seedy life of the professional spy. Le Carré portrayed his agents such as George Smiley, the spymaster of "the Circus," as he called British Intelligence, as unattractive political functionaries, well aware of the moral ambiguity of their espionage work. His writing nonetheless captured the imagination of his audience world wide, and brought a greater awareness of the challenges human society faces in its efforts to a establish peaceful world.


David John Moore Cornwell was born on October 19, 1931 in Poole, Dorset, England.[1][2] His father was Ronald Thomas Archibald (Ronnie) Cornwell (1905–1975), and his mother was Olive Moore Cornwell (née Glassey, b. 1906). His older brother, Tony (1929–2017), was an advertising executive and county cricketer (for Dorset), who lived in the U.S.[3] His younger half-sister is the actress Charlotte Cornwell, and his younger half-brother, Rupert Cornwell (1946-2017), was a former Washington bureau chief for the newspaper The Independent.[4] His uncle was Liberal MP Alec Glassey.[5]

Cornwell said he did not know his mother, who abandoned him when he was five years old, until their re-acquaintance when he was 21 years old.[6] His father had been jailed for insurance fraud, was an associate of the Kray twins, and was continually in debt. The father–son relationship was difficult. Rick Pym, Magnus Pym's father, a scheming con man in A Perfect Spy, was based on Ronnie. When his father died in 1975, Cornwell paid for the cremation and memorial service but did not attend.[3]

Cornwell's schooling began at St Andrew's Preparatory School, near Pangbourne, Berkshire, and continued at Sherborne School. He grew unhappy with the typically harsh English public school regime of the time and disliked his disciplinarian housemaster, Thomas, and so withdrew.[7] From 1948 to 1949, he studied foreign languages at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

In 1950, he joined the Intelligence Corps of the British Army garrisoned in Allied-occupied Austria, working as a German language interrogator of people who crossed the Iron Curtain to the West. In 1952, he returned to England to study at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he worked covertly for the British Security Service, MI5, spying on far-left groups for information about possible Soviet agents. During his studies, he was a member of a college dining society known as The Goblin Club.[7]

When his father was declared bankrupt in 1954, Cornwell left Oxford to teach at Millfield Preparatory School;[5] however, a year later he returned to Oxford, and graduated in 1956 with a first class degree in modern languages. He then taught French and German at Eton College for two years.

Cornwell became an MI5 officer in 1958. He ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped telephone lines, and effected break-ins.[8] Encouraged by Lord Clanmorris (who wrote crime novels as "John Bingham"), and whilst being an active MI5 officer, Cornwell began writing his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961).

He identified Lord Clanmorris as one of two models for George Smiley, the spymaster of "the Circus," as he called British Intelligence, the other being Vivian H.H. Green.[9] As a schoolboy, Cornwell first met the latter when Green was the Chaplain and Assistant Master at Sherborne School (1942–51). The friendship continued after Green's move to Lincoln College, where he tutored Cornwell.[10]

In 1960, Cornwell transferred to MI6, the foreign-intelligence service, and worked under the cover of Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Bonn; he was later transferred to Hamburg as a political consul. There, he wrote the detective story A Murder of Quality (1962) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), as "John le Carré" (le Carré being French for "the square"[8])—a pseudonym required because Foreign Office officers were forbidden to publish in their own names.[11]

In 1964, Cornwell's career as an intelligence officer came to an end as the result of the betrayal of British agents' covers to the KGB by Kim Philby, the infamous British double agent (one of the Cambridge Five).[7] He left the service to work as a full-time novelist. Le Carré depicted and analyzed Philby as the upper-class traitor, code named "Gerald" by the KGB, the mole hunted by George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974).[6]

Cornwell married Alison Ann Veronica Sharp in 1954. They had three sons, Simon, Stephen, and Timothy,[2] and divorced in 1971.[12] In 1972, Cornwell married Valérie Jane Eustace, a book editor with Hodder & Stoughton;[13] they had a son, Nicholas, who writes as Nick Harkaway.[14]

Cornwell lived in St Buryan, Cornwall, for more than 40 years, owning a mile of cliff near Land's End.[15]

David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, died from pneumonia at Royal Cornwall Hospital, Truro, on December 12, 2020, at age 89.[16]


Le Carré's first two novels, Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962), are mystery fiction. Each features a retired spy, George Smiley, investigating a death; in the first book, the apparent suicide of a suspected communist, and in the second volume, a murder at a boy's public school. Le Carré's third novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works. Following its publication, he left MI6 to become a full-time writer. Although le Carré had intended The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as an indictment of espionage as morally compromised, audiences widely viewed its protagonist, Alec Leamas, as a tragic hero.

Most of le Carré's books are spy stories set during the Cold War (1945–1991) and portray British Intelligence agents as unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work and engaged more in psychological than physical drama. There was none of the glamour and romance that were a feature of the James Bond novels, instead the real dark and seedy life of the professional spy was revealed.

Italian cover of The Russia House (1989)

The novels emphasize the fallibility of Western democracy and of the secret services protecting it, often implying the possibility of east–west moral equivalence. They experience little of the violence typically encountered in action thrillers and have very little recourse to gadgets. Much of the conflict is internal, rather than external and visible. The recurring character George Smiley, who plays a central role in five novels and appears as a supporting character in four more, was written as an "antidote" to James Bond, a character le Carré called "an international gangster" rather than a spy and whom he felt should be excluded from the canon of espionage literature.[17] In contrast, he intended Smiley, who is an overweight, bespectacled bureaucrat who uses cunning and manipulation to achieve his ends, as an accurate depiction of a spy.[18]

A Perfect Spy (1986), which chronicles the boyhood moral education of Magnus Pym and how it leads to his becoming a spy, is the author's most autobiographical espionage novel, reflecting the boy's very close relationship with his con man father.[19] Biographer LynnDianne Beene describes the novelist's own father, Ronnie Cornwell, as "an epic con man of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values."[20] Le Carré reflected that "writing A Perfect Spy is probably what a very wise shrink would have advised."[21] He also wrote a semi-autobiographical work, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), as the story of a man's midlife existential crisis.[22]

With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, le Carré's writing shifted to portrayal of the new multilateral world. His first completely post-Cold War novel, The Night Manager (1993), deals with drug and arms smuggling in the murky world of Latin American drug lords, shady Caribbean banking entities, and western officials who look the other way.[23]


In January 2003, two months prior to the invasion of Iraq, The Times published le Carré's essay "The United States Has Gone Mad" criticizing the buildup to the Iraq War and President George W. Bush's response to the September 11 attacks terrorist attacks, calling it "worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War" and "beyond anything Osama bin Laden could have hoped for in his nastiest dreams".[24] Le Carré participated in the London protests against the Iraq War. He said the war resulted from the "politicisation of intelligence to fit the political intentions" of governments and "How Bush and his junta succeeded in deflecting America's anger from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein is one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history."[24]

He was critical of Tony Blair's role in taking Britain into the Iraq War:

I can't understand that Blair has an afterlife at all. It seems to me that any politician who takes his country to war under false pretences has committed the ultimate sin. I think that a war in which we refuse to accept the body count of those that we kill is also a war of which we should be ashamed.[25]

John le Carré giving his keynote speech at an award ceremony at the German Embassy in London for German teachers on June 12, 2017

He gave the keynote speech at an award ceremony for German teachers in 2017 on the importance of learning German.[26] Later that year, he expressed concerns over the future of liberal democracy, saying:

I think of all things that were happening across Europe in the 1930s, in Spain, in Japan, obviously in Germany. To me, these are absolutely comparable signs of the rise of fascism and it's contagious, it's infectious. Fascism is up and running in Poland and Hungary. There's an encouragement about.[27]

He suggested that the end of the Cold War had left the West without a coherent ideology, in contrast to the "notion of individual freedom, of inclusiveness, of tolerance – all of that we called anti-communism" prevailing during that time.[28]

Le Carré was an outspoken advocate of European integration and sharply criticized Brexit.[29] Le Carré criticized Conservative politicians such as Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, and Nigel Farage in interviews, claiming that their "task is to fire up the people with nostalgia [and] with anger." He further opined in interviews that "What really scares me about nostalgia is that it's become a political weapon. Politicians are creating a nostalgia for an England that never existed, and selling it, really, as something we could return to."[30] He noted that with "the demise of the working class we saw also the demise of an established social order, based on the stability of ancient class structures." On the other hand, he said that in the Labour Party "they have this Leninist element and they have this huge appetite to level society."[31]

Speaking to The Guardian in 2019, le Carré commented:

I've always believed, though ironically it's not the way I've voted, that it's compassionate conservatism that in the end could, for example, integrate the private schooling system. If you do it from the left you will seem to be acting out of resentment; do it from the right and it looks like good social organisation. ... I think my own ties to England were hugely loosened over the last few years. And it's a kind of liberation, if a sad kind.[31]

Le Carré opposed both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, arguing that their desire to seek or maintain their countries' superpower status caused an impulse "for oligarchy, the dismissal of the truth, the contempt, actually, for the electorate and for the democratic system."[32] He said Russia was moving "backwards into her dark, delusional past," with Britain following a short way behind.[33] Le Carré later said that he believed the plotline of his final novel Agent Running in the Field, involving the U.S. and British intelligence services colluding to subvert the European Union, to be "horribly possible."[31]


Le Carré presented international espionage in a very different light from the romanticized world of James Bond, with darkness and moral ambiguity present on all sides. This, he argued, was "a necessary democratic function. To hold up a mirror, however distorted, to the secret world and demonstrate the monster it could become."[1]

Upon his death, many authors, actors, and admirers paid tribute to the "literary giant" who brought the genre of spy fiction "into the realm of literature" and, as Susanne Bier, who directed the 2016 TV adaptation of his 1993 thriller The Night Manager, noted: "Even his old novels have totally current resonance."[1]

John le Carré won numerous awards throughout his lifetime as an author: In 1964, le Carré won the Somerset Maugham Award (established to enable British writers younger than 35 to enrich their writing by spending time abroad).[34]

In 1984, he was awarded Mystery Writers of America Edgar Grand Master. In 1988, he received the Crime Writers Association Diamond Dagger Lifetime Achievement Award, and The Malaparte Prize, Italy.[12] In 1990, he received the Helmerich Award of the Tulsa Library Trust.[35]

In 2005, he was made Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, France[12] In 2011, he won the Goethe Medal, a yearly prize given by the Goethe Institute.[36] He won the Olof Palme Prize in 2019 and donated the US$100,000 winnings to Médecins Sans Frontières.[37]

He also won awards for specific novels, including:

  • For The Spy Who Came in from the Cold he received the British Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger (1963), the Somerset Maugham Award (1964), and Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award (1965).
  • For The Honourable Schoolboy he was awarded the British Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger (1977), and James Tait Black Memorial Prize Fiction Award (1977)[38]
  • For The Little Drummer Girl he received the Japan Adventure Fiction Association Prize (1983)[39]

Le Carré was made Honorary Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford in 1984, [12] and was also awarded several honorary degrees and honorary doctorates:

  • Honorary degree, University of St. Andrews (1996); and Honorary degree, University of Southampton (1997).
  • Honorary Doctor of Letters University of Exeter (1990);[40] Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Bath (1998); Honorary doctorate, University of Bern (2008);[41] and the Degree of Doctor of Letters (D.Litt), honoris causa, by the University of Oxford (2012).[42]

In 2011, le Carré donated his literary archive to Oxford University's Bodleian Library. The initial 85 boxes of material deposited included handwritten drafts of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener. The library hosted a public display of these and other items to mark World Book Day in March 2011.[43]

Major works

George Smiley and related novels


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Obituary: John le Carré BBC, December 13, 2020. Retrieved January 13, 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Eric Homberger, John le Carré obituary The Guardian, December 14, 2020. Retrieved January 13, 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Joseph Lelyveld, Le Carré's Toughest Case The New York Times Magazine, March 16, 1986. Retrieved January 13, 2020.
  4. Espionage: The Perfect Spy Story TIME Magazine, September 25, 1989. Retrieved January 13, 2021.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Terry Coleman, Scholar, linguist, story-teller, spy... The Guardian, July 17, 1993. Retrieved January 13, 2021.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Zoe Brennan, What Does John Le Carré Have to Hide? The Daily Telegraph, April 2, 2011. Retrieved January 13, 2021.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Andrew Anthony, Observer Profile: John le Carré: A Man of Great Intelligence The Guardian, October 31, 2009. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Timothy Garton Ash, The Real le Carré The New Yorker, March 8, 1999. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
  9. The Reverend Vivian Green The Daily Telegraph, January 26, 2005. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
  10. Anita Singh, John le Carré: The Real George Smiley Revealed The Daily Telegraph, February 24, 2011. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
  11. John le Carré: Espionage writer dies aged 89 BBC News, December 14, 2020. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Daniel Sefton (ed.), Debrett's People of Today Debrett's Ltd, 2007, ISBN 978-1870520959).
  13. Tim Walker, Le Carré pays tribute to his first love The Daily Telegraph, June 4, 2009. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
  14. Richard Lea, Interview Nick Harkaway: ‘I have a firework going off in my head and I have to describe it’ The Guardian, November 11, 2017. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
  15. Geoffrey Gibbs, Spy writer fights for clifftop paradise The Guardian, July 24, 1999. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
  16. Richard Lea and Sian Cain, John le Carré, author of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dies aged 89 The Guardian, December 13, 2020. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
  17. Anita Singh, James Bond was a neo-fascist gangster, says John Le Carré The Telegraph, August 17, 2010. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  18. James Parker, The Anti–James Bond The Atlantic, December, 2011. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  19. Dwight Garner, John le Carré Has Not Mellowed With Age The New York Times, April 18, 2013. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  20. LynnDianne Beene, John le Carré (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992, ISBN 978-0805770131).
  21. John Le Carre Novels: A Selection Agence France-Presse, December 13, 2020. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  22. John L. Cobbs, Understanding John Le Carré (University of South Carolina Press, 1998, ISBN 978-1570031687).
  23. The Night Manager: le Carré's 'unexpected miracle' The Telegraph, February 19, 2016. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  24. 24.0 24.1 John le Carré, The United States of America has gone mad The Times, January 15, 2003.
  25. Exclusive: British Novelist John le Carré on the Iraq War, Corporate Power, the Exploitation of Africa and His New Novel, "Our Kind of Traitor" Democracy Now!, October 11, 2010. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  26. John le Carré, Why we should learn German The Guardian, July 1, 2017. Retrieved December 22, 2020.
  27. Mark Brown, John le Carré on Trump: 'Something seriously bad is happening' The Guardian, September 7, 2017. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  28. Novelist John Le Carré Reflects On His Own 'Legacy' Of Spying NPR, December 28, 2017. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  29. John le Carré, John le Carré on Brexit: 'It's breaking my heart' The Guardian, February 1, 2020. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  30. James Naughtie, John le Carré: 'Politicians love chaos - it gives them authority' BBC News, October 14, 2019. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 John Banville, 'My ties to England have loosened': John le Carré on Britain, Boris and Brexit The Guardian, October 11, 2019. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  32. Simon Scott, John Le Carré Fears For The Future In 'Agent Running In The Field' NPR, October 19, 2019. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  33. Sophie Gilbert, John le Carré's Scathing Tale of Brexit Britain The Atlantic, October 26, 2019. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  34. Previous winners of the Somerset Maugham Awards Society of Authors. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  35. John le Carré Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  36. Alison Flood, Germany honours Le Carré with Goethe Medal The Guardian, June 21, 2011. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  37. Alison Flood and Sian Cain, John le Carré wins $100,000 prize for 'contribution to democracy' The Guardian, January 10, 2020. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  38. Fiction winners The University of Edinburgh. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  39. 日本冒険小説協会大賞リスト (Japan Adventure Fiction Association Grand Prize List) Japan Adventure Fiction Association.
  40. Previous honorary graduates: Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) University of Exeter. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  41. Bern University Honours John le Carre SWI, December 6, 2008. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  42. Oxford announces honorary degrees for 2012 University of Oxford, January 19, 2012. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
  43. Katherine Sellgren, John le Carre donates archive to Bodleian Library BBC News, February 24, 2011. Retrieved January 15, 2021.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aronoff, Myron. The Spy Novels of John Le Carré. Palgrave Macmillan, 1998. ISBN 978-0312214821
  • Beene, Lynn Dianne. John le Carré. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. ISBN 978-0805770131
  • Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Judith S. Baughman (eds.). Conversations with John le Carré. University Press of Mississippi, 2004. ISBN 978-1578066698
  • Cobbs, John L. Understanding John Le Carré. University of South Carolina Press, 1998. ISBN 978-1570031687
  • Manning, Toby. John le Carré and the Cold War. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. ISBN 978-1350036390
  • Sefton, Daniel (ed.). Debrett's People of Today. Debrett's Ltd, 2007. ISBN 978-1870520959
  • Sisman, Adam. John le Carré: The Biography. Harper, 2015. ISBN 978-0062106278

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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