John le Carré obituary

Writer whose spy novels chronicle how people’s lives play out in the corrupt setting of the cold war era and beyond
John le Carré in 1979. He had begun writing fiction as a commuter from his home in Buckinghamshire to the London offices of MI5, the counter-intelligence service.
John le Carré in 1979. He had begun writing fiction as a commuter from his home in Buckinghamshire to the London offices of MI5, the counter-intelligence service. Photograph: Monty Fresco/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock
John le Carré in 1979. He had begun writing fiction as a commuter from his home in Buckinghamshire to the London offices of MI5, the counter-intelligence service. Photograph: Monty Fresco/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

Last modified on Wed 13 Jan 2021 11.00 EST

John le Carré, who has died aged 89 of pneumonia, raised the spy novel to a new level of seriousness and respect.

He was in his late 20s when he began to write fiction – in longhand, in small red pocket notebooks, on his daily train journey between his home in Buckinghamshire and his day job with MI5, the counter-intelligence service, in London. After the publication of two neatly crafted novels, Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962), which received measured reviews and modest sales, he hit the big time with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963).

Its publisher, Victor Gollancz, secured a puff from Graham Greene (“the best spy story I have ever read”), and the widely rumoured belief that the author was an insider in the secret world of intelligence helped his third novel become one of the great bestsellers of the postwar period.

Le Carré’s subject was the human and political ambiguities of the cold war. His book was gritty, stripped of glamour. Reviewers talked of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as a grown-up answer to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. It was more than that. His taut, complex plot, strong storytelling gifts, and distinctive characterisation made his book a memorable literary achievement.

Yet Le Carré believed that literary London, with its longstanding apartheid separating literary fiction from its commercial ugly sister, genre fiction, never quite accepted his success. He was not a comfortable player in the metropolitan literary scene. When he was nominated for the Booker prize in 2011, within 45 minutes his agent issued a statement from the author: “I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn.”

David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, at home with his sons Stephen, left, and Simon, 1964.
David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, at home with his sons Stephen, left, and Simon, 1964. Photograph: Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

He was born David Cornwell, in Poole, Dorset, and adopted the pen name John le Carré when his first novel was published. His paternal grandfather was a respectable nonconformist bricklayer who became a house builder and served as mayor of Poole. Family life, with hovering Cornwell aunts, was dominated by piety and decorum, leavened by David’s black-sheep father, Ronnie, a noted con man and maestro of bankruptcies, financial crises and repeated brushes with the law. His explosive temper led to beatings for David, “but only a few times and not with much conviction”.

In 1937, when his mother, Olive (nee Glassy, and known as Wiggly in the family), ran off with an estate agent, David was told that she had died. He tracked her down years later, and they met on a platform of Ipswich train station. There was nothing to heal in their broken relationship, and, as he reported in his 2016 memoir The Pigeon Tunnel, she did not think very much of his novels.

He was raised in a bookless household, and left to find his own way to Sapper, the creator of Bulldog Drummond, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Sent away to prep school, St Andrew’s, Pangbourne, and then to Sherborne school in Dorset, David became a modern linguist with a special interest in German. He detested the Anglican piety and rampant bullying at his public school, quickly learning the survival value of creating a legend that he had a normal family life.

He never knew when he went home for school holidays which of his father’s mistresses would be waiting to greet him, and deception and lying were the ways adult life seemed to work. He and his older brother, Tony, developed skills in observation and reading between the lines, targeted at their father. They read Ronnie’s letters, and rifled through his filing cabinets in the hope of uncovering their father’s complex web of lies. Passionate in devotion to his children, Ronnie in turn kept his boys under constant surveillance, listening to their phone calls, searching their rooms, opening their mail. Life with Ronnie was an apprenticeship in espionage.

In Single & Single (1999), Le Carré revisited the experience of fathers and sons spying on each other. The struggle against his father continued far beyond Ronnie’s death in 1975. “Until I die the father-son relationship will obsess me,” Le Carré commented in an interview in 1999. His 1986 novel A Perfect Spy, praised by Philip Roth as “the best English novel since the war,” opened a window upon his family life.

He toyed with the idea of writing an autobiography long before the publication of The Pigeon Tunnel, more an engaging collection of reminiscences than an exploration of his inner life – what was left out of his memoirs was striking. Yet the chapter titled Son of the Author’s Father, first published as In Ronnie’s Court in the New Yorker in 2002, is a troubled, brilliant and unforgettable portrait of his parents. His father’s judgment of other people, he wrote, “depended entirely on how much they respected him”.

Le Carré studied German at the University of Berne in 1947-48. A young Englishman from the right social background, approaching fluency in German, inevitably came to the attention of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, familiarly MI6), and he was recruited by a talentspotter in the British embassy in Berne.

John le Carré receiving an honorary doctorate in Oxford, 2012. He had gained a first in modern languages there in 1956.
John le Carré receiving an honorary doctorate in Oxford, 2012. He had gained a first in modern languages there in 1956. Photograph: Robert Judges/REX/Shutterstock

Called up for national service in 1949, Le Carré spent time as an intelligence officer in Graz, interviewing defectors from the wrong side of the iron curtain. He found no heroes even among the most daring escapees from East Germany. After two years, his father persuaded Lincoln College, Oxford, to allow his son to be interviewed, although the college had already filled its quota for freshers, and he was accepted to read modern languages in 1952.

At Oxford he resumed work as an intelligence agent. He contributed drawings to Oxford Left magazine and compiled dossiers for MI5 on fellow students suspected of leftwing activity. Le Carré recalled these years with lighthearted irony in A Perfect Spy, but he accepted that communist subversion was a real danger to Britain.

In 1954 he married Ann Sharp. After his father’s spectacular bankruptcy that year, Le Carré was forced to leave Oxford, and taught briefly at Edgarley Hall, a prep school near Glastonbury, before returning to Oxford, and being awarded a first in 1956. He became a schoolmaster at Eton, where he taught German language and literature for two years, and found life laden with complexities. “I found I was involved in a kind of social war. One lived midway between the drawing room and the servants’ green baize door.” In a Paris Review interview he suggested that the worst pupils at Eton provided him with “a unique insight into the criminal mind”.

Le Carré’s CV became more interesting in the years after 1958. Officially, he qualified for a late entrants’ scheme at the Foreign Office, and in 1961 was sent to the Bonn embassy. He made frequent visits to Berlin in that summer, and accompanied Germans who attracted the attention of the Foreign Office on visits to Britain. He continued to scribble away at his novels, until the success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold enabled him to resign.

Le Carré’s own later accounts of his career in British intelligence veered from flat denials to sharply limited acknowledgments that yes, he had been in British intelligence, but no, he would say nothing about it. His lifelong commitment to the omertà demanded of his counter-espionage work in MI5, and his time as an SIS old boy (“I am bound by the vestiges of old-fashioned loyalty to my former services”), could scarcely be sustained. The details began to leak out, and with the publication of Adam Sisman’s substantial biography of Le Carré in 2015, such denials were untenable. This cat was out of the bag, but the precise details of his work have never been spoken of.

He was a protege of the spy-catcher Maxwell Knight. His principal mentor at MI5 was the senior agent-runner “Jack” Bingham (who in 1961 succeeded as seventh Baron Clanmorris). Their relationship did not long survive Bingham’s resentment that Le Carré was cashing in on his secret service. Why, he demanded, would any decent person soil the good name of the service and provide encouragement for the KGB?

Le Carré devoted himself in MI5 to the patriotic duty of giving the Communist party in Britain a hard time. He ran long-term informants (“joes”) who were active trade unionists and Communist party members, disillusioned by Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s crimes. There were interrogations to be conducted, phones to tap, and break-ins to authorise. It was all small-bore stuff, and he did not much enjoy it.

In 1960, for reasons never publicly stated, he applied to transfer to MI6, completing an initiation course in intelligence tradecraft the following spring. He was sent under Foreign Office cover to Bonn as second secretary (political). He was not declared to the BND (the German Intelligence Service). Bonn was an important posting, and his fluency in German made him a coming man.

John le Carré with film fans in Berlin, 2016
John le Carré with film fans in Berlin, 2016 Photograph: Action Press/REX/Shutterstock

In the immediate aftermath of the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, Le Carré was sent to assess its consequences. As with his time at Eton, familiarity with the FO and MI6 seemed to deepen his contempt for such institutions and their ethos. The harsh portrayal of the Bonn embassy in A Small Town in Germany (1968) gave serious offence to old colleagues.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold announced a new voice in the rich British tradition of espionage writing. Nothing in Le Carré’s previous novels had suggested he had the skill to create such a tense and richly nuanced portrayal of an espionage operation. It remains the most perfectly plotted of his books.

In an introduction written for a 1978 reissue of the novel, Le Carré explained that, despite the intricate complexity of his plots, he did not work with a written plan. “I never made a ‘skeleton’ and seldom planned beyond the chapter. I knew that, because I still don’t. I reach a point, sleep on it, go on to the next, or tear up and go back a step till the continuity feels organically right.” Even basic aspects of the plot were discovered en route. After sending Alec Leamas to prison, he had no idea what would become of him on his release.

He spoke of the way he ended the novel in an interview with Melvyn Bragg in 1976: “I reversed the plot quite arbitrarily, and right at the end of the book turned the whole thing inside out. Quite often, you have that feeling of revelation: how ridiculous, I’ve been straining to make this character sympathetic when actually he is an identifiable beast.”

The novel deeply impressed the professionals. Markus Wolf, chief of the East German espionage service, was gripped by Le Carré’s insight into the tensions in his own service between the espionage and counter-espionage. He feared that Le Carré possessed a mole, an informant, within Wolf’s agency. Richard Helms, later director of the CIA, hated the book for undermining the bedrock of secrecy and trust on which intelligence work depended. He did not just dislike Le Carré’s work, he “detested it”.

MI6 bigwigs were not best pleased with the success of his novel and the lively publicity it generated. The festering suspicion that Kim Philby was a Soviet agent and Philby’s disappearance in 1963 brought to boiling point the spy hysteria in the press and in the security services. Fearing that the publicity surrounding his novel would reveal his true role, Le Carré was asked to leave the service.

Mikhail Lyubimov, the “most brilliant and level-headed” of the large KGB contingent at the London residency from 1960 to 1964, and who served as chief of the British department of the KGB in the 1970s, claimed that it was Philby who betrayed Le Carré’s identity as a spy to the KGB. His departure from MI6 followed Philby’s flight to Moscow. Le Carré believed this to be the case, and repeatedly expressed his “unqualified contempt” for Philby. While in Moscow on a writerly visit in 1983, he flatly refused to meet him.

In October 1965 Le Carré was denounced in the Literary Gazette in Moscow as an agent of British intelligence and an apologist for the cold war. Le Carré stated in a BBC interview that “I wasn’t a spy, and I didn’t meet spies during my Foreign Office work.” His artfully crafted reply to the Russians, published in Encounter in 1966, similarly rejected the accusation. It was a denial he maintained at least until 1983. Meanwhile, until the 1980s he continued to send the manuscripts of his novels to SIS for pre-publication vetting.

Claire Bloom and Richard Burton in the film version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965, directed by Martin Ritt.
Claire Bloom and Richard Burton in the film version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965, directed by Martin Ritt. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

The harsh Martin Ritt movie of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, won four Bafta awards, including best British film. Le Carré’s account of the making of the movie appears in The Pigeon Tunnel.

After leaving the Foreign Office, he took his family to live in Crete, where he wrote A Small Town in Germany. It was a novel steeped in the hesitant British engagement in the European Economic Community, and the rise of demagogic rightwing populist movements in Germany. The world of British diplomacy has rarely seemed more threadbare, and in the aggressive, lower-class Alan Turner, Le Carré created a perfect foil for the self-deluded upper-class diplomats who proved easy prey for a mole.

American sales made Le Carré a wealthy man, as writers go, but his marriage did not long survive his transition to the life of a full-time writer. In 1964 he began an intense friendship with the novelist James Kennaway, and then an affair with Kennaway’s wife, Susan. The relationship is portrayed in Kennaway’s novel Some Gorgeous Accident (1967), Le Carré’s The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971), and in The Kennaway Papers, edited by Susan Kennaway in 1981. Everyone came away with a trophy book from this complicated relationship.

Spy-turned-author John le Carré dies aged 89 – video
01:26
Spy-turned-author John le Carré dies aged 89 – video

The Naive and Sentimental Lover was poorly received. (“The book is a disastrous failure” – TLS.) Reviewers and readers knew what kind of book they wanted from Le Carré, and he was henceforth ruefully prepared to accept the reading public’s judgment.

Le Carré and his wife divorced in 1971 (“I think we should dissolve our marriage,” he wrote from Malibu), and he subsequently married Jane Eustace, an editor with his publishers.

The mole-hunting years, from the unmasking of George Blake to the uncovering of the treason of Anthony Blunt, left the intelligence community battered and discredited. Le Carré had certainly contributed to a new realism about spying, giving readers the strong impression that when spies went about their business they tended to leave their dinner jackets at home. Despite voting Labour and feeling despair at the war in Vietnam, he was not a natural fellow-traveller or much of a man of the left. He politely turned down being made a CBE from the government of Margaret Thatcher. But however clearly he saw the human and institutional failings of the guardians of western liberty, that did not make the KGB and its values any less loathsome.

The pursuit of the KGB spymaster Karla, who has penetrated the “Circus” and ruthlessly exploited its core values of liberal humanism, is conducted by George Smiley through Le Carré’s trilogy of novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979). Smiley is an unexpected sort of a hero, “a committed doubter”, who has “sacrificed his life to institutions” but who is determined to protect what is worth protecting in a world of disintegrating values.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley in the TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1979.
Alec Guinness as George Smiley in the TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1979. Photograph: Allstar/BBC/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

John Irvin directed the celebrated BBC/Paramount adaptation, starring Alec Guinness, in 1979. In 2009-10, BBC Radio 4 broadcast adaptations of the Smiley novels starring Simon Russell Beale. The Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s austere remake, with Gary Oldman as Smiley (and in which Le Carré had a walk-on part, lustily singing the Soviet national anthem), was released in 2011.

Le Carré went about the business of being a novelist with journalistic care. Every potential location was visited and conversations, tones, accents, dress and the feel of a location found a place in his travel notebooks. The immediacy of his observations gave his novels an extraordinary visual precision. The publication of those notebooks would provide an extraordinary insight into the way he wrote. While working on Tinker Tailor in the early 1970s he made photographic studies of locations he planned to use (“partly to give me documentary help”), but in later years travel notebooks sufficed. When he visited Lebanon and Israel, doing research for The Little Drummer Girl (1983), he talked to Israeli generals and senior intelligence figures. A knowledgable raconteur with an operational background, Le Carré found unexpected doors open to him.

An account in The Pigeon Tunnel places Le Carré in Beirut, being driven blindfolded to an anonymous building, and then taken into a room to wait. Yasser Arafat enters. “Mr David, why have you come to see me?” I have come, Le Carré said, to put my hand on the Palestinian heart. At which, Arafat seized Le Carré’s hand, placing it on his chest. “It is here, it is here.”

He came to see a moderation in Arafat which confounded western propaganda. Arafat and other Palestinian leaders were unexpectedly forthcoming. The experience of visiting the Palestinian camps in Lebanon enabled Le Carré to see the Palestinians as victims, and not as terrorists. He was accused in Israel of being antisemitic, a claim heartily rejected by Le Carré, and by independent commentators. A review of The Tailor of Panama in the New York Times in 1996, implying that Le Carré was an antisemite, led to an ill-tempered exchange of letters with Salman Rushdie in the Guardian in 1997.

He had been writing for decades about the disintegration of cold war simplicities. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 confirmed his sense that both sides were equally exhausted. The Secret Pilgrim (1990) introduces the first of a new variety of villain: Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw, a smooth-tongued amoral capitalist for whom the Thatcherite and Reaganite theology of free markets proved highly serviceable.

John le Carré and his wife, Jane, at the Berlin film festival, 2001.
John le Carré and his wife, Jane, at the Berlin film festival, 2001. Photograph: Franziska Krug/Getty Images

A new terrain was opened up by the worldwide typhoon of deregulation that followed the end of the cold war. Le Carré wrote with indignation about the international arms trade and drugs dealers (The Night Manager, 1993, adapted for BBC television in 2016 by David Farr and directed by Susanne Bier), the exploitation of Africa by the pharmaceutical industries (The Constant Gardener, 2001), and the sinister competition by capitalists worldwide to exploit the valuable natural resources of Africa (The Mission Song, 2006).

He found rich ambiguities in the world of private banking in Single & Single and of post-9/11 espionage in A Most Wanted Man (2008). The fate of the disaffected Muslim immigrant Issa Karpov, torn to shreds by competing intelligence agencies, British, American and German, did not fit into the emerging western discourses of terrorism. Alan Furst in the New York Times said A Most Wanted Man was Le Carré’s “strongest, most powerful novel” with “near perfect narrative pace”. The diatribes against Tony Blair and the British role in the invasion of Iraq in Absolute Friends (2003) were more enthusiastically received in Britain than in the US.

Le Carré always wanted to talk to the real spies, arms dealers, gangsters and crooked financiers. While visiting Moscow to do background work for Our Game (1995), he met a Russian mafia boss named Dima, in the nightclub “which he owned and which was guarded by young men with Kalashnikovs and grenades strapped to their belts. He came in wearing Ray-Bans with his hookers and his men and his people.” In Our Kind of Traitor (2010), he achieved the near-impossibility of making his fictional Dima, a Russian gangster and money launderer, into a complex and sympathetic figure.

The real enemies for Le Carré were not the Russian gangsters, for all their brutality, but the western, and particularly British, enablers and louche House of Lords and City corruptionists, with palms extended to take a share of the money, however obtained and from whatever source. The upper-class rogues who control “Great Britain plc” come quite high in Le Carré’s ranking of evil men. The Mossack Fonseca revelations of 2016 gave his novels of the past several decades a sharp timeliness.

A Delicate Truth, Le Carré’s 23rd novel, published in 2013, belongs to the brave new world of outsourcing, extraordinary rendition, and the war on terror. It is written with a ferocious anger. His bitter disappointment at New Labour, and its free market theology, made A Delicate Truth a testament to the continuing power of a writer by then in his 80s.

Hector Meredith, a security service trouble-maker, describes himself in Our Kind of Traitor as “a late-onset, red-toothed radical with balls”. It’s a good a self-description of Le Carré. “Now we had defeated communism, we were going to have to set about defeating capitalism,” reflects a character in The Secret Pilgrim. Virtually the same words were used by Le Carré in an interview in America.

A Legacy of Spies (2017) looks back to the world of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Agent Running in the Field (2019), set in the upheavals of Brexit, sustains the radical fury. When he was awarded the Olof Palme prize in January 2020 – he donated the resulting $100,000 to Médecins Sans Frontières – the Swedish organisers cited his “extraordinary contribution to the necessary fight for freedom, democracy and social justice”.

Since the 1970s Le Carré had lived near St Buryan, Cornwall, “a tiny, desolate part of England, where the real effects of what I see as terrible misgovernment – central misgovernment – can be felt in detail upon agriculture, fishing, communication, and transport, all of those things”. His sense of the indifference of the rich and the pervasive philosophy of greed in Britain aligned him with the great tradition of Victorian radicals and moralists. Like Dickens, he was a serious novelist, and a profoundly entertaining one.

He donated his archive of personal papers, letters and manuscripts (“filling the space of a Cornish barn”) to the Bodleian library in Oxford.

Le Carré is survived by Jane and their son, Nicholas (who writes as Nick Harkaway), three sons, Simon, Stephen and Timothy, from his first marriage, and a half-sister, the actor Charlotte Cornwell (upon whom Charlie in his 1983 novel The Little Drummer Girl was based).

• This article was amended on 13 January 2021. An earlier version said The Night Manager was adapted for TV by Susanne Bier. It was David Farr who should have been credited in that regard. Bier was the director.

John le Carré (David John Moore Cornwell), novelist, born 19 October 1931; died 12 December 2020

comments (0)

Sign in or create your Guardian account to join the discussion.

comments (0)

Sign in or create your Guardian account to join the discussion.