John le Carré, the British author and former intelligence officer who won global renown for his series of spy novels, has died at the age of 89.
David Cornwell, who was better known to the world by his pen name, passed away after a short illness in Cornwall on Saturday evening, his agent confirmed on Sunday night.
His celebrated novels, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, were international best-sellers and introduced the world to the much-loved character of George Smiley, his self-effacing spymaster.
Announcing the death of “one of the world’s great writers”, Jonny Geller, of Curtis Brown, who had represented Le Carré for 15 years, shared a statement from the author’s family.
It said: “It is with great sadness that we must confirm that David Cornwell – John le Carré – passed away from pneumonia last Saturday night after a short battle with the illness.
“David is survived by his beloved wife of almost 50 years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon.
“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.”
Mr Geller said Le Carré’s death was not related to Covid-19, adding that he would be mourning the loss of a “friend, a mentor and an inspiration”.
His statement continued: “His like will never be seen again, and his loss will be felt by every book lover, everyone interested in the human condition.
“We have lost a great figure of English literature, a man of great wit, kindness, humour and intelligence. I have lost a friend, a mentor and an inspiration.”
Links to Kray Twins
Born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset, Le Carré endured a difficult upbringing as his father, Ronnie Cornwell, struggled with debt and his reputation as a fraudster saw him associating with notorious figures in the criminal underworld such as the Kray Twins.
Le Carré would later write of his father: “When my half sister Charlotte was playing in a film about a notorious gangland family in East London called the Kray brothers, she consulted the eldest brother, Charlie, in order to collect material for the part.
“Over a nice cup of tea, Charlie Kray dug out the family photo album, and there was Ronnie with an arm round the two younger brothers.”
His mother would walk out of the family home when he was just five.
He attended Sherborne School and went on to the University of Berne to study foreign languages.
It was at the age of 18 that he began developing an intimate knowledge of the trade that would become his main subject matter in years to come when he started working in intelligence.
Starting out with the army’s intelligence corps in Austria in 1950, his career in espionage evolved into work for MI5 before he even left Oxford University, where he tried to sniff out Soviet spies in left-wing groups.
From spy to writer
By the end of the decade he was working with the Security Service as a full-time agent and would later transfer to MI6, during which time he first began to pursue his passion for writing.
His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was published under a pseudonym, which was a necessity because he was still working for the Foreign Office.
It was around this time that his career had been irreparably sabotaged by the defection of the infamous double agent, Kim Philby, to Russia.
Philby had passed Le Carré’s name to Moscow when he defected in the early 1960s. The author would later use Philby as the inspiration for the mole “Gerald” in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Fortuitously, however, Le Carré’s debut novel was a storming success that brought him global acclaim and he left the service to pursue writing full time.
He said his manuscript was approved by the secret service because they “rightly if reluctantly” concluded it was “sheer fiction from start to finish” and posed no security risk.
But he said the world’s press took a different view, deciding the book was “not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side”.
George Smiley, the character that would become his best-loved, was everything that James Bond was not: bespectacled, overweight and balding, with a serially unfaithful wife to boot.
A secretive existence
Le Carré who turned down literary honours and a knighthood, would ultimately write 10 books related to the world of George Smiley and the character has enjoyed several portrayals on the big and small screen.
The author would continue to lead a secretive existence despite the end of his espionage career, guarding his personal life closely and refusing for many years to even admit to his background.
The portrayal of the world of spycraft in his books would not always win him praise, however, with his former mentor, the Second World War spy John Bingham, said to be hurt by it.
In a letter to this newspaper in 2014, using his real name, he said: “I had, and shall always have, unqualified admiration for his intelligence skills and achievements. He was a most honourable, patriotic and gifted man, and we had wonderful times together.
“And surely there can be few better tributes to a friend and colleague than to create – if only from some of his parts – a fictional character, George Smiley, who has given pleasure and food for thought to an admiring public.”
He added: “John Bingham may indeed have detested this notion. I equally detest the notion that our spies are uniformly immaculate, omniscient and beyond the vulgar criticism of those who not only pay for their existence, but on occasion are taken to war on the strength of concocted intelligence.”
His final novel Agent Running in the Field, was published in October 2019.
Tributes paid to ‘a humanitarian spirit’
Author Stephen King paid tribute to Le Carré as “a literary giant”.
The British author Robert Harris told Sky News that Le Carré was “one of the great post-war British novelists”, adding: “He was a terrific man.
“I think he will be one of those writers who will be read a century from now, long after a lot of the rest of us I’m afraid are forgotten. He was a giant.
“With The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, he really invented a new genre of spy fiction, that is a classic of popular fiction.
“It’s an incredibly engrossing tale and also very bleak, and it completely transformed really the writing of spy fiction.
“He’s one of those writers who… also penetrated popular culture. That’s a great rarity and I’m not sure we’ll see the like of him again.”
Actor Gary Oldman, who starred in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 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”.
Margaret Atwood tweeted that Cornwell’s Smiley novels were the “key to understanding the mid-20th century”, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore called him “the titan of English literature up there with the greats … in person, captivating and so kind and generous to me and many others”, while Brazilian author Paulo Coelho said: “John Le Carre, you were not only a great writer, but a visionary. Enjoy your new home. Rip.”
Stephen Fry tweeted that “if there is a contemporary writer who’s given me richer pleasure I can’t for the moment name them”, while quiz show host Richard Osman called Cornwell “the finest, wisest storyteller we had”.