Master spy writer le Carre leaves treacherous world

Top News | 15 Dec 2020

John le Carre, the spy-turned-novelist whose elegant and intricate narratives defined the Cold War espionage thriller and brought acclaim to a genre critics had once ignored, has died. He was 89.

Le Carre died in Cornwall, southwest England on Saturday, after a short illness's, his literary agency, Curtis Brown, said.

The agency said his death was not related to Covid-19. His family said he died of pneumonia.

In classics such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy, Le Carre combined terse but lyrical prose with the kind of complexity expected in literary fiction.

His books grappled with betrayal, moral compromise and the psychological toll of a secret life. In the quiet, watchful spymaster George Smiley, he created one of 20th-century fiction's iconic characters - a decent man at the heart of a web of deceit.

In 1977, the The Honourable Schoolboy - "A portrait of Hong Kong as a Cold War listening post for the West and a stopping-off point for correspondents covering Southeast Asia," according to the BBC - won the Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

The Honourable Schoolboy is the second novel in the omnibus titled either Smiley Versus Karla or The Quest for Karla.

"This terrible year has claimed a literary giant and a humanitarian spirit," tweeted novelist Stephen King. Margaret Atwood said: "Very sorry to hear this. His Smiley novels are key to understanding the mid-20th century.''

His other works included Smiley's People, The Russia House, and, in 2017, the Smiley farewell, A Legacy of Spies. Many novels were adapted for film and television, notably 1965's Smiley's People and Tinker Tailor, featuring Alec Guinness as Smiley.

Le Carre was a former British intelligence officer whose real name was David Cornwell. He wrote 25 novels and one memoir in a career spanning six decades, selling 60 million books worldwide.

He is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Jane, and sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon.

Le Carre's friend, the novelist Robert Harris, called him "one of those writers who really was not only a brilliant writer but he also penetrated popular culture - and that's a great rarity."

Le Carre's life could have been the stuff of fiction, and he once said he owed his career in the shadows and later literary success to an "impulsive adolescent decision" to flee an unhappy home life.

It involved a spell in Bern, Switzerland, learning German, where he took his first steps in British intelligence, doing odd jobs across the border in Austria.

From Switzerland he returned to Britain to study at Oxford University then went on to teach at the elite Eton school before joining MI5, the country's domestic intelligence agency, in the late 1950s. He later transferred to the overseas spy agency MI6, serving in the West

German capital Bonn, where he witnessed the building of the Berlin Wall. It was as an MI6 officer that he had his first success with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" in 1963. For obvious reasons, he had to use a pseudonym.

If Cold War intrigue and its tense, often bleak backdrop made his name and his books best-sellers, le Carre found new subject matter and a litany of characters and causes as the world changed. They included arms dealers, Russian gangsters, financiers and Big Pharma, which he portrayed in the 2001 novel The Constant Gardener, later adapted into a film starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz.

Despite his establishment education and career, le Carre - a traditionalist who admitted he could not type and wrote by hand - often railed against it. He turned down a knighthood and was suspicious of literary honors.

An avowed Europhile, he was also an outspoken critic of Brexit, and at the last general election in 2019 said Britons should "join the resistance" against Prime Minister Boris Johnson.


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