John le Carré, Dead at 89, Defined the Modern Spy Novel

In 25 novels, the former British intelligence officer offered a realistic alternative to Bond, using the spy genre as a vehicle for imperial critique

English novelist John le Carré in March 1965. (Terry Fincher / Express / Getty Images)
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In 1947, a 16-year-old David Cornwell left the British boarding school system where he'd spent many unhappy years and ended up in Switzerland, where he studied German at the University of Bern—and caught the attention of British intelligence. As the restless child of an estranged mother and a con-man father, and a precocious student of modern languages to boot, the young wayfarer was a natural recruitment target for the security services, which scooped him up in the late 1940s to be “a teenaged errand boy of British Intelligence,” as he put it in his 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. Over the next 15 years, those little errands would continue and grow, furnishing Cornwell with the material that would fill the whopping 25 spy novels he wrote under the pen name John le Carré.

It would be true to say that he was the finest spy novelist of all time, but in fact he was one of the greatest novelists of the last century. In a blow to his millions of readers, le Carré died of pneumonia on Sunday, at the age of 89.

“I spend a lot of odd moments these days wondering what my life would have looked like if I hadn't bolted from my public school, or if I had bolted in a different direction,” le Carré wrote in his memoir. “It strikes me now that everything that happened later in life was the consequence of that one impulsive adolescent decision to get out of England by the fastest available route and embrace the German muse as a substitute mother.”

During his parentless, wandering days in Switzerland and Germany, and indeed throughout his life, German was more than a mere second language to le Carré. He was fond of quoting the axiom, often attributed to Charlemagne, that “To possess another language is to possess another soul.” Among his adored German authors, le Carré was particularly fierce in his love for Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; the latter is a love that le Carré shared with his most famous creation, the portly, diffident, all-seeing George Smiley, who appears in nine of le Carré's novels.

In part as a result of his youthful devotion to Goethe, a strain of romanticism runs through nearly all of le Carré’s books: an idealism and an affinity for tragic beauty that serves as a natural counterpoint to his pessimism and career-long obsession with betrayal. These two impulses, the sentimental and the cynical, were fundamental to his fictional world. His uncanny ability to harmonize them in a witty, lyrical style marked by a fatigued but spry irony redefined what the modern spy thriller could be: ambivalent, complicated, unflashy and capable of sophisticated humanitarian argument, with rich characters and a literary depth one doesn’t find in (say) Ian Fleming.

Le Carré’s own intelligence career, typical for men of his education, race and class during this period, was on and off, with the two often blending together. His most serious work seems to have been abroad, running clandestine operations in Bonn and Hamburg around 1960. “In all, I don’t suppose that I spooked around for more than seven or eight years,” he told writer George Plimpton in a 1997 interview. He was apparently well liked in MI-5 and MI-6, both of which he served in. The quality of “clubbability” mattered a great deal at this time, and le Carré had no shortage of the requisite pedigree: He had earned a degree from Oxford and taught at Eton, where he spotted potential talent and reported suspected dissidents on behalf of Her Majesty.

During a period of active service, he began his literary career in 1961 with the short novel Call for the Dead. (He adopted his famous pseudonym at the behest of his bosses at MI-6, who didn’t want one of their boys’ names plastered across the covers of a spy thriller.) He wrote his next two novels under similar operational circumstances and made his fortune with the third, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold—a barbed wire of a spy novel, plotted with virtuosic tightness and narrated with a weary irony befitting the gray areas its characters so tragically inhabit.

Le Carré left the service after one of the most embarrassing moments in its history: Kim Philby, the former head of MI-6’s anti-Soviet desk, was revealed in 1963 to have been a double-agent for the Soviet Union, and an investigation showed he had blown the covers of many British officers and agents across Europe, including the young novelist. In 1964, le Carré was reportedly asked to leave MI-6. Luckily for him, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was on its way to becoming an international bestseller. He now had the cash to devote himself full-time to writing, an arrangement he had desired for at least a decade.

He spent the next half-century and more between homes in Cornwall and Switzerland, writing some of the most ambivalent, moving, psychologically deft thrillers about the Cold War—and, eventually, about much more. It's fair to say that he blew the possibilities of spy fiction wide open with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), with its shambling, middle-aged hero George Smiley patiently chasing a mole placed in British intelligence by Smiley's KGB counterpart, the mysterious, omniscient-seeming Karla. Still, le Carré's fictional world was much bigger than the Cold War. Some critics liked to say that he lost his muse when the Iron Curtain fell (“Since the [Berlin Wall] came down, his writing has often seemed a little uncertain,” a New York Times reviewer wrote in 2004), but le Carré never depended on one metaphor, or one war, for his livelihood. A post-Glasnost world saw le Carré telling tales of Ingush rebels in Chechnya (Our Game, 1995); addressing the erosion of civil liberties and the entrapment of Muslim refugees in A Most Wanted Man (2008); and dramatizing the brutal, world-spanning consequences of pharmaceutical corruption (The Constant Gardener, 2001).

In his later life, le Carré took greater creative control of film adaptations of his novels, even co-writing the screenplay for 2001’s The Tailor of Panama. But with or without his oversight, his novels have been keeping movie audiences reliably rapt for decades. Actors who starred in le Carré adaptations include some of the most famous of the last 50 years: Richard Burton, James Mason, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Richardson, Gary Oldman, Sean Connery and Alec Guinness, who brought Smiley to vivid life in the 1979 BBC miniseries of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” (After that character-defining performance, even le Carré couldn’t think of Smiley without picturing Guinness: “George Smiley, whether I liked it or not, was from then on Alec Guinness—voice, mannerisms, the whole package,” he wrote in an introduction to Smiley’s People.)

Throughout his career, le Carré was never content to research his subjects from a chair, or to settle for government reports—though, thanks to abiding connections within the intelligence services, he had access to various official secrets. The novelist sometimes treated his work as though he was a wartime journalist. To build characters and scenes for The Honourable Schoolboy, set in southeast Asia in the mid-1970s, le Carré visited perilous zones throughout the region and reportedly dodged bullets in Cambodia by diving under a car. (I happen to know the African correspondent who served as one of le Carré's consultants for his 2006 novel about the Congo, The Mission Song; she came away impressed with his punctiliousness.)

Even people who haven’t read his novels are likely familiar with the many words and phrases from the world of intelligence that le Carré introduced: “honeytrap,” for instance, and, most famously, “mole.”

Le Carré lived a bit like the characters in his books: He traveled widely, skied at speeds beyond his own capacity, had affairs, and dined with eminences and kings while remaining suspicious of ostentation and charm—perhaps because, after the Philby affair, le Carré said he could never trust charisma again.

He sometimes chafed at being dismissed as a simple spy novelist, or else would deny that he cared about those who considered his work to be pulp: “I honestly believe that critics will gradually come round to what the public has long recognized, that the spy novel is as flexible, as valid a theme in our time as any other major theme, as valid as the love story,” he told the Washington Post in 1977.

He’s largely been proven right. Philip Roth has called A Perfect Spy (1986) “the best English novel since [World War II].” In 2013, Ian McEwan echoed this sentiment, saying le Carré would “be remembered as perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the 20th century in Britain.” The critical consensus has largely moved in the same direction. Like Graham Greene, le Carré crafted stories that evoke the alienation of having to move through worlds shaped by secret forces beyond our control. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or J.R.R. Tolkien, he created a host of recurring characters whom his readers could follow through new books as old friends (or enemies). Like Joseph Conrad, he was deeply attuned to the human capacity for casual barbarism, and to the bloody consequences of colonialism. His novels are as much anti-spy novels as they are spy novels, standing indictments of genteel imperial bureaucracy. Despite this lack of apparent glamour, the world never stopped reading.

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