Photograph: Monty Fresco/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

John le Carré, the spy novelist, breathed his last on Saturday night, December 12th, in Cornwall, England. He had settled in a secluded home which he procured with his second wife. It goes to his credit that he created spy novels which were more realistic and intelligent than those that previously characterised the genre and flooded the market. In the process, he showed that they could be regarded as serious literature.

At the civil status office his name reads David Moore Cornwell. He was born in the town of Poole, Dorsetshire on October 19, 1931, the son of Ronald Thomas Archibald Cornwell and Olive Glassy. His mother left the family when John was still at a tender age. Due to the early loss of his mother, the major theme of all le Carré’s fiction has to do with betrayal. His semiautobiographical novel A Perfect Spy (1986) depicts a lonely, hypersensitive boy who is not too appreciative of his father’s manners.

Proficiency in European Languages

Le Carré attended Berne University, Switzerland, for a year. He perfected his knowledge of German there. His fluency in the language made it possible for him to spend his obligatory period of military service as an intelligence officer in occupied Austria after World War II. A lot of information about his life can be gathered from A Perfect Spy which, in the words of Bill Delaney, “is the most comprehensive source of information about his real life”. After his military service, Le Carré joined the University of Oxford where he specialised in modern languages. After graduation he was appointed German instructor at Eton. His proficiency in European languages enabled him to join the British Foreign Service in 1960 and it is widely believed that he continued to work as a spy using his diplomatic cover to recruit agents in foreign countries.


Le Carré was still in the Foreign Service when he wrote his first three novels. The authorities requested him to use a pseudonym and he opted for John le Carré. The first two novels, Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) feature a protagonist, George Smiley by name, who behaves more as a private detective than a secret Intelligence officer. Both books were praised by critics but had only modest sales. It was with the publication of The Spy who came in from the Cold (1963) that he achieved fame both in the United Kingdom and in America. He began to earn enough money to devote his whole time to writing.

He has the reputation of ranking among the world’s most successful writers and many of his novels have been made into motion pictures. The productions which were most appreciated were the adaptations of The Little Drummer Girl (1983) starring Diane Keaton and The Russia House (1989) with Sean Connery in the lead role. The most faithful and most aesthetically satisfying adaptations were the British productions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and Smiley’s People (1980), both starring the talented actor Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

The Exploration of Serious Issues

Through his works Le Carré demonstrates how a popular genre can be used to explore serious issues in a realistic manner. Though his first two novels were impeccably written, they are considered rather inhibited and conventional detective-type novels.

Before Le Carré’s time, most spy thrillers featured impossibly patriotic, courageous heroes who were constantly involved in violent action. The hero’s country was always right and the other side always wrong. The hero used ethical methods and acted in self-defence while the villains had recourse to murder most foul and physical or psychological torture. One of the rare exceptions was W. Somerset Maugham’s intellectual spy-hero who appeared in a series of short stories collected under the title Ashenden: Or, The British Agent (1928). These realistic stories tried to depict spies and counterspies as human beings in flesh and blood with their strengths and weaknesses. Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, who is well-known for his sea stories, also exercised a major influence on Le Carré with the only spy story he wrote and which turned out to be a memorable one – The Secret Agent (1907).

Harsh Realities of Espionage

The best representative of the romantic spy heroes before Le Carré appeared on the scene was indubitably Ian Fleming’s James Bond. The 007 stories such as From Russia, with love (1957) and Dr. No (1958) have given readers and moviegoers hours of escapist entertainment. Le Carré, for his part, exposed his readers to the harsh realities of espionage in the years of government service. In The Spy Who Came in form the Cold, Le Carré reveals to the readers what Phillip Knightley has called “the sordid world of espionage with its easily bought loyalists, loose morals, mind-boggling complexities, and, if it were not for its murderous consequences, comic inanity”.

He ultimately found the right formula for his spy fiction by focusing on the character of George Smiley and giving him a formidable counterpart on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Le Carré’s character closely resembles the sedentary, hyper-intellectual Sherlock Holmes. While James Bond was appropriately portrayed on screen by the handsome Roger Moore or Sean Connery, among others, George Smiley was portrayed, equally appropriately, by the pudgy, soft-spoken Sir Alec Guinness. While James Bond is a man of action, Smiley is an intellectual. The comparison between the characters goes well beyond these two facts.

The Quest for Karla represents the apex of Le Carré’s career. The Lenin-like Karla becomes one of fiction’s great characters even though he remains offstage until the last chapter of the last book. The rivalry between George Smiley and Karla, two strong-willed, brilliant antagonists resembles nothing in literature so much as the classic rivalry between Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty (The First Problem in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes 1894).

It took an author with Le Carré’s intelligence, creativity and insider knowledge to capture in fictional form the essence of the worldwide ideological, propagandistic, diplomatic, economic, technological and military struggle referred to as the Cold War. Le Carré, in the process, unlike his predecessors, admits the reader to the highest levels of spying and diplomacy.

A Minor Theatre of The Cold War

A Perfect Spy reads like an addendum to The Quest for Karla, dealing with a minor theatre of the Cold War but focusing with revealing autobiographical detail on the personality of a British spy who has changed sides. The hero, Magnus Pym, resembles George Smiley as he is a man who relies on his brain and his powers of persuasion rather than on brawn and athletic ability. The novel reveals the psychological stress experienced by the British as well as the Europeans in general, and even members of the Third World, as they were crushed between the enormous economic, military and ideological pressure which was exerted by the United States and the former Soviet Union, with the threat of nuclear annihilation facing humankind.

Le Carré was endowed with the creative genius which enabled him to see that the spy, living from day to day in paranoid terror, was the ideal representative of the contemporary individual living in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. He elevates the spy-thriller to the level of enduring literature. His best works will outlive many contemporary novels and will, no doubt, enlighten future readers more about the psychological and moral issues of the Cold War than any number of history books.

As I am about to end this tribute to an author I still appreciate, the name of Francis Gary Powers emerges from the recesses of my subconscious. We are in the sixties. He was on board an American spy plane, the U-2, which was shot over Soviet territory when Nikita Khrushchev was the Soviet Supremo. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history. Those were the days…


•Wolfe, Peter, Corridors of Deceit: The World of Johan Le Carré, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University, Popular Press ,1987

•Bill Delaney, MaGill’s Survey of World Literature, Marshall Cavendish Corporation, North Bellmore, New York 11710,1993.

•Lewis, Peter, John Le Carré, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985.

•Maughan, David, The Novels of John Le Carré, Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1985.

•Homberger, Eric, John Le Carré, London, Methuen, 1986.