Spy author John le Carré has died - here are his best books and movies

By Alex Nelson
Monday, 14th December 2020, 9:58 am
Updated Monday, 14th December 2020, 10:47 am

Cold War espionage author John le Carré has died aged 89 after a battle with pneumonia.

Le Carré drew on his experience working for the British intelligence services including MI6 during the Cold War in his writing, but later in life said he was irked at the extent to which his fiction was portrayed as representing real-world spying.

A statement shared on behalf of the author’s family said: “We all grieve deeply his passing. Our thanks go to the wonderful NHS team at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro for the care and compassion that he was shown throughout his stay. We know they share our sadness.”

Here is everything you need to know.

Most Popular

    What was John le Carré’s real name?

    Born David Cornwell in 1931, le Carré was first educated at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, where he studied German.

    He studied further at Oxford before teaching at Eton, then embarking on his undercover intelligence career, in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British embassy at Bonn, in western Germany.

    Asked if he considered himself an Englishman, he told 60 Minutes: “Yes of course I’m born and bred English, I’m English to the core.

    “My England would be the one that recognises its place in the EU. The jingoistic England that is trying to march us out of the EU, that is an England I don’t want to know.”

    Throughout his career, le Carré turned down literary honours, saying in a 2017 US interview that he was “so suspicious of the literary world that I don’t want its accolades.”

    He even turned down a knighthood, telling the same interviewer: “least of all do I want to be called Commander of the British Empire or any other thing of the British Empire, I find it emetic.

    “I don’t want to posture as someone who’s been honoured by the state and must therefore somehow conform with the state, and I don’t want to wear the armour.”

    What were his best books?

    Le Carré's most famous character - George Smiley - appeared for the last time in the author's final novel A Legacy of Spies, released in 2017 (Photo: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

    In his near 60-year career as a writer, le Carré published 25 novels, among them acclaimed best-sellers including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and The Night Manager.

    His first thriller, Call For The Dead, was published in 1961. Two years later, the publication of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a story about an assignment to confront East German Intelligence, brought him world-wide acclaim, and he left MI6 to pursue writing full time.

    Writing in the Guardian in 2013, le Carré recalled watching it climb the best-seller list with “a kind of frozen awe” which then gave way to a “kind of impotent anger”.

    “Anger, because from the day my novel was published, I realised that now and forever more I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world, and written about it,” he wrote.

    What’s his most famous book?

    Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman as George Smiley in 2011's big screen adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Photo: StudioCanal)

    His most well-known character was the career intelligence officer George Smiley – made even more famous by Alec Guinness in the TV series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

    The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood tweeted that le Carré’s Smiley novels were the “key to understanding the mid-20th century”, and US comedian and talk show host Seth Meyers posted a tribute calling Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the “gold standard for espionage fiction”.

    That novel was also turned into a critically acclaimed big-screen adaptation in 2011 starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, along with Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

    Oldman posted a tribute saying Cornwell was “a very great author, the true ‘owner’ of the serious, adult, complicated, spy novel – he actually owned the genre… He was generous with his creativity and always a true gentleman.”

    Some of le Carré’s other novels made into films included The Tailor Of Panama, filmed in 2001 and starring Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush and Jamie Lee Curtis, and The Constant Gardener, filmed in 2005 and starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz.

    A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title, the Scotsman