The writer comes in from the cold
The legendary British spy author John le Carré died on Saturday from pneumonia. He was 89 years old. le Carré’s novels provided a dry counterpoint to the amazing gadgetry of British superspy James Bond. His novels featured the meticulous, no-frills, ways of George Smiley and his cohorts at “The Circus,” members of a fictional MI6 who gradually discern the truth through plodding guesswork, often at great cost to their loved ones and to themselves.
Born David Cornwell in 1931, le Carré first began writing fiction in the early Sixties, when his career as a spy ended abruptly after notorious double agent Kim Philby exposed him as an employee of MI6. In an atmosphere of unease and uncertain Cold War loyalties, le Carré would perfect his craft. Using a pen name while still a spy because the government didn’t allow him to write under his own name, le Carré had already penned a couple of detective novels but found his voice and his calling with his third book, The Spy Who Came in from The Cold (1963), which became a film two years later.
Though he would write other novels set in the shadowy world of espionage, his George Smiley secured his reputation as a master of espionage thrillers with realistic characters who straddle the line between heroes and villains. Paid to devote their lives to clandestine activities, these men and women would never be sure who they could trust. The Smiley saga would get the trilogy treatment in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and “Smiley’s People” (1979). Alec Guinness (whom le Carré had indicated he’d envisioned as his spy), brought Smiley to life, and then Gary Oldman played him in the 2011 film.
But le Carré did write outside of the Smiley series, penning later works like The Tailor of Panama (1996), The Little Drummer Girl (1983), and The Night Manager (1993), that were later adapted into film or television projects. His most recent novels, A Legacy of Spies (2017) and Agent Running In the Field (2019) proved that he hadn’t lost his ability to pen a great story at his advanced age. Le Carré’s fictional universe was primarily a British one, and he took a dim view of American efforts to dictate the course of events on a world stage. He opposed the Iraq War and also the Brexit initiative that led to the UK’s exit from the European Union.
Le Carré married twice, and had four children (including the novelist Nick Harkaway). His writings include an autobiographical novel (A Perfect Spy, 1986), and a proper memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016).