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 Sunday that the author died in Cornwall, southwest England, on Saturday after a short illness. The death was not related to COVID-19.
In such classics as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker 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 in works including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
“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 Soldier Spy, featuring Alec Guinness as Smiley.
Antithesis of Ian Fleming’s James Bond
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.
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Digital Archives12:03John Le Carré brings realism to spy fiction
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 Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.
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 Oxford University ecclesiastical historian Vivian Green, “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 mould 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.”
Le Carré reportedly turned down an honour from Queen Elizabeth — though he accepted Germany’s Goethe Medal in 2011 — and said he did not want his books considered for literary prizes.