John le Carre, U.K. Author of Cold War Spy Novels, Dies at 89
Colin Firth signs autographs at the Venice Film Festival, in Venice, Italy. (Photographer: Farah Nayeri/Bloomberg)

John le Carre, U.K. Author of Cold War Spy Novels, Dies at 89

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John le Carre, the British novelist who captured the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of Cold War espionage in best-selling books such as “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” has died. He was 89.

Le Carre died Saturday evening in Cornwall, where he lived, said his agent, Jonny Geller of the Curtis Brown Group. His publisher, Penguin, said the cause of death was pneumonia, citing le Carre’s family.

Geller called the author “an undisputed giant of English literature.”

John le Carre, U.K. Author of Cold War Spy Novels, Dies at 89

A former spy with U.K. intelligence agency MI6, le Carre wrote more than 20 books in a career spanning six decades. His tales of treachery, betrayal and duplicity made George Smiley one of the genre’s most well-known secret agents through novels by “the pre-eminent spy writer of the 20th century,” as le Carre was once described in the New York Times.

An unwilling recipient of numerous awards, le Carre didn’t compete for literary prizes, while accolades flowed from his peers. American writer Philip Roth called “A Perfect Spy” (1986) “the best English novel since the war,” and U.K. author Graham Greene said his 1963 breakthrough work, “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” was “the best spy story I ever read.”

Author First

“In the old days, it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer,” le Carre wrote on his website. “I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British intelligence.”

Le Carre’s characters chronicled the amoral methods employed by Western and Communist-bloc intelligence services to expose double agents during the Cold War. The author, who made espionage terms such as “mole” and “honey trap” popular, adapted his plots after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, giving them more contemporary settings. “The Constant Gardener” in 2001 linked corporate corruption to the murder of a U.K. diplomat’s wife in Kenya, while 2008’s “A Most Wanted Man” addressed the war on terrorism and money laundering after the Sept. 11 attacks.

His works produced for cinema or television include the 1965 film “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” starring Richard Burton, “The Russia House,” a 1990 movie starring Sean Connery, and 2014’s “A Most Wanted Man,” with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

TV Adaptation

Alec Guinness starred as Smiley in the BBC’s seven-part television adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in 1979 and its “Smiley’s People” three years later.

In his final work, “Agent Running in the Field” published in 2019, le Carre’s writing was more angry than in past novels. He channeled his deep indignation at Brexit and visceral dislike of the British government that enabled it to happen. Leaving the European Union was, according to the book, “an act of self-immolation” led by a “bunch of rich, elitist carpetbaggers posing as men of the people.”

And in describing the foreign secretary in the book as an “Etonian narcissistic elitist without a decent conviction in his body bar his own advancement,” Le Carre left little to the imagination about whom he was describing. Shortly before the book was published, Boris Johnson was U.K. foreign secretary.

David John Moore Cornwell was born Oct. 19, 1931, in Poole, a coastal town in the southern English county of Dorset. John le Carre was a nom de plume adopted while he was working in diplomatic postings for the British government, which prohibited him from publishing under his own name.

His mother, Olive, abandoned the family when he was 5 and they didn’t meet again until he was 21, when he tracked her down after his father had told him she was dead. His father, Ronnie, was a confidence man who mixed in London’s criminal circles, according to a 2011 article in the Telegraph newspaper.

He and his older brother, Tony, were forced to help his father elude the law, sparking the future author’s interest in secrets and deception.

‘Badly Born’

“I act like a gent, but I am wonderfully badly born,” the eloquently spoken author wrote on his website.

Le Carre attended Sherborne School, a boarding school in Dorset, before studying German literature at the University of Bern in Switzerland for a year and earning a degree in modern languages at the University of Oxford’s Lincoln College.

After teaching French and German at Eton College, le Carre became an intelligence officer for MI5, the domestic secret service. In 1960, he transferred to MI6, the foreign arm of British intelligence, serving under cover as second secretary at the embassy in Bonn and then as a political consul in Hamburg. While working as a spy in the early 1960s, le Carre wrote his first three Smiley books: “Call for the Dead,” “A Murder of Quality” and “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.”

“For some of us, this bleak and witty thriller was an introduction to grownup reality,” David Denby wrote in the New Yorker magazine in 2014 about le Carre’s third novel. “No pessimistic book ever gave as much pleasure.”

Leaves MI6

Le Carre, who penned his books by hand, quit his post in 1964 to write full time. Titles that followed included “The Looking Glass War” (1965), “The Honourable Schoolboy” (1977), “The Little Drummer Girl” (1983), “The Tailor of Panama” (1996) and “A Delicate Truth” (2013).

He won the British Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger in 1963 for “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters award in France in 2005 and the Goethe Medal from Germany’s Goethe Institute in 2011.

With his first wife, the former Alison Sharp who died in 2009, le Carre had three sons, Simon, Stephen and Timothy. After divorcing in 1971, he married Valerie Eustace the following year and had another son, Nicholas, who became a writer under the name Nick Harkaway.

“Artists, in my experience, have very little center,” he wrote on his website. “They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.”

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