Novelist who turned the spy thriller into a fine art

Novelist who turned the spy thriller into a fine art

“David Cornwell, who wrote under the pen name John le Carré, virtually created a new school of fiction,” said The Times – “not so much spy stories as anti-spy stories, convoluted tales of disillusionment and betrayal.” His most famous book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a bleak and brilliantly plotted story about Cold War defectors and double agents, was conceived as a kind of riposte to Ian Fleming’s glossy James Bond thrillers. 

Spies, declares its main character Alec Leamas, are “a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too... pansies, sadists, and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives”. Le Carré’s own early life was the perfect preparation for writing about this shadowy “secret world”. David John Moore Cornwell was born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset. His grandfather was a builder who had been the town’s mayor, and was a lay preacher. 

His father, Ronnie, was the black sheep of a pious family: “a charming, colourful, larger-than-life confidence trickster, a fantasist and a womaniser, briefly imprisoned in several parts of the world, who left a trail of unpaid debts, false names, bogus letterheads, perplexed women, unsuccessful racehorses, luxurious motor cars and dubious financial schemes”. During the War, Ronnie ran for Parliament to avoid being called up to fight, and in later life he sometimes posed as his famous son in order to seduce women. Le Carré’s mother, Olive, abandoned the family when her son was young, eloping with an estate agent; he was told she had died, and didn’t meet her again until he was 21. 

Le Carré had an outwardly conventional and well-to-do upbringing: he was sent to board at a prep school and then to Sherborne School. But he had to learn early on how to disguise his father’s appalling behaviour, when school fees went unpaid or tradesmen called for money they were owed. “We shared his lies,” he said later. “I became a little spy.” Early in life, too, he became an actual spy, said Eric Homberger in The Guardian. Repelled by the “Anglican piety and rampant bullying” at Sherborne, he walked out and, an excellent linguist, studied German at the University of Bern in Switzerland. There he was recruited by an SIS (or MI6) talent spotter at the British embassy. During national service, he worked as an intelligence officer in Austria, interviewing defectors from the other side of the Iron Curtain. When le Carré went to Lincoln College, Oxford in 1952 to study modern languages, he “compiled dossiers for MI5 on fellow students suspected of left-wing activity”. But when his father went spectacularly bankrupt again in 1954, he had to leave Oxford and teach at a prep school; he also married Ann Sharp, with whom he would have three children. In 1956, he returned to Oxford, took a first-class degree and after a short stint working at Eton, left for a job at MI5. He did mostly frustrating, low-grade work vetting civil servants and running informants (“joes”): trade unionists and disillusioned Communist Party members. 

While commuting from Buckinghamshire into London to work at MI5, le Carré wrote his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961), which introduced his tubby, bespectacled intelligence officer George Smiley, who investigates the suicide of a civil servant. By the time of its publication, le Carré had transferred to MI6, and had been posted to Bonn under Foreign Office cover. As a serving officer, he had to find a pseudonym. He kept the origin of the name John le Carré a secret, said The Daily Telegraph, only decades later admitting that it meant nothing: it had been “cold-bloodedly constructed” to sound “mysterious”. (His publishers had suggested “Chunk Smith”.) His time in the secret services left him deeply disillusioned: he would afterwards “express astonishment at the doubt and disarray” he found there, as they struggled with the aftershocks of the exposure of the Cambridge spies, and with Britain’s diminished global role. In Germany, he monitored neo-Nazis, but his operational experience was limited. 

One colleague later remarked: “The thing about David is that he was never involved in a successful case.” The building of the Berlin Wall, which he witnessed first-hand, and his disenchantment with MI6 inspired his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). Graham Greene called it the best spy novel he had ever read; it became a massive bestseller, and was made into a film starring Richard Burton. It allowed him to become a full-time writer, living first in Crete and then Vienna with his young family. After two less well-received spy novels, he tried to break free of the genre with The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), which drew on his own marriageending entanglement with another couple. 

It was panned, and le Carré withdrew to espionage, drawing on Kim Philby’s defection to write his second masterpiece, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), in which Smiley is brought back from retirement to root out a “mole”. Readers were bewitched by the glimpses it gave of espionage “tradecraft”, with its (frequently invented) jargon: “honeytraps”, “lamplighters”, “babysitters”. Two further books followed in that trilogy, their success cemented by Alec Guinness’s “definitive portrayal of Smiley in two outstanding BBC television series”. 

Le Carré’s next major novel was A Perfect Spy (1986), a semi-autobiographical “attempt to exorcise the spirit of his father”. In his later career, he “adapted to a post-Cold War world”, covering subjects from the arms trade, in The Night Manager (1993), to the abuses of the pharmaceutical industry, in The Constant Gardener (2001), to Islamist terrorism, in A Most Wanted Man (2008). His books always sold well and were often adapted for film and TV. “They had the familiar le Carré flourishes,” said The New York Times: complex chess game-type plots; deeply researched detail; biting characterisation. But where he “painted his Cold War world in shades of grey”, his later books “seemed increasingly black and white”. He became something of a radical in later life, railing against perceived moral outrages, such as the invasion of Iraq and, more recently, Brexit. Le Carré married Valerie Jane Eustace, a book editor, in 1972. They had one son, the writer Nick Harkaway, and lived mostly in a clifftop house in Cornwall. He was charming to visiting journalists – “dryly funny, patrician, a great mimic, a seasoned anecdotalist” – but fiercely protective of his privacy. He sued one would-be biographer, and agonised for years over whether to give access to his papers, accustomed as he was to “so many layers of secrecy”. “I’m horrified at the notion of autobiography,” he once said, “because I’m already constructing the lies I’m going to tell.”