John Le Carré

(1931 – 2020)

John Le CarréBiographical Sketch

David John Moore Cornwell (Poole, Dorset, UK, October 19, 1931 – Truro, Cornwall, UK, December, 12 2020), better known by his pen name John le Carré, was a British author, best known for his espionage novels. During the 1950s and 1960s, he worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). His third novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works. Due to his growing disillusionment with modern British society and politics, towards the end of his life Le Carré researched his family’s Irish roots, and he obtained Irish citizenship shortly before his death.

Unhappy with his public school education at St Andrew’s Preparatory School, near Pangbourne, Berkshire, and at Sherborne School, Cornwell left early to study foreign languages at the University of Bern in Switzerland, from 1948 to 1949. As part of his National Service duties, he then served in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army in Allied-occupied Austria, working as a German language interrogator of people who crossed the Iron Curtain to the West. In 1952, he returned to England to study at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he worked covertly for the British Security Service, MI5, spying on far-left groups for information about possible Soviet agents. In 1954, Cornwell briefly left Oxford for a teaching position, but returned and graduated two years later with a first class degree in modern languages. He then taught French and German at Eton College for two years, becoming an MI5 officer in 1958. Encouraged by Lord Clanmorris (who wrote crime novels as “John Bingham”), and while still serving as an active MI5 officer, Cornwell began writing his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961). Cornwell identified Lord Clanmorris as one of two models for the book’s protagonist George Smiley, the other being Lincoln College Rector Vivian H.H. Green, whom Le Carré had first met at Sherborne School.

In 1960, Cornwell transferred to MI6, the foreign-intelligence service, and worked under the cover of Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Bonn;  later he was transferred to Hamburg as a political consul. There, he wrote the detective story A Murder of Quality (1962) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), as “John le Carré”, pseudonym required because Foreign Office employees were forbidden to publish in their own names. In 1964, le Carré’s career as an intelligence officer came to an end as the result of the betrayal of British agents’ covers to the KGB by Kim Philby (one of the so-called “Cambridge Five”). Le Carré depicted and analysed Philby as the upper-class traitor, codenamed “Gerald” by the KGB, the mole hunted by George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974).

Le Carré’s third novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works. Following its publication, he left MI6 to become a full-time writer. Most of le Carré’s books are spy stories set during the Cold War (1945–91) and portray British Intelligence agents as unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work and engaged more in psychological than physical drama. The novels emphasise the fallibility of Western democracy and of the secret services protecting it. Their heroes experience little of the violence typically encountered in action thrillers; rather, much of the conflict is psychological and internal. The recurring character George Smiley, who plays a central role in five novels and appears as a supporting character in four more, was written as an “antidote” to James Bond, a character le Carré called “an international gangster” rather than a spy and who he felt should be excluded from the canon of espionage literature. In contrast, he intended Smiley, who is an overweight, bespectacled bureaucrat, and who uses cunning and manipulation to achieve his ends, as an accurate depiction of a spy.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1979) (collectively known as the Karla Trilogy) brought Smiley back as the central figure in a sprawling espionage saga depicting his efforts first to root out a mole in the Circus (the British Secret Service) and then to entrap his Soviet rival and counterpart, code-named Karla. Smiley’s People marked the last time Smiley featured as the central character in a le Carré story, although he brought the character back in The Secret Pilgrim (1990) and A Legacy of Spies (2017).

Although most of the books that Le Carré wrote during the Cold War are focused on the political East-West conflict, he also used other topics and settings, such as the Middle East in The Little Drummer Girl (1983). With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, le Carré’s writing shifted to portrayal of the new multilateral world once and for all, in books such as The Night Manager (1993), The Tailor of Panama (1996), and The Constant Gardener (2001). As a journalist, le Carré wrote The Unbearable Peace (1991), a nonfiction account of Brigadier Jean-Louis Jeanmaire (1911–1992), the Swiss Army officer who spied for the Soviet Union from 1962 until 1975.

Credited under his pen name, le Carré wrote the screenplays for the 1979 and 1982 TV adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People starring Alec Guinness, Ian Richardson, Bernard Hepton, Michael Jayston, Ian Bannen, Anthony Bate, and Michael Byrne and appears as an extra in the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds and John Hurt), among the guests at the Christmas party in several flashback scenes. He allegedly coined the espionage terms “mole” and “honey trap” (the latter referring to the use of female agents by both sides to blackmail male civil servants). Le Carre records a number of incidents from his period as a diplomat in his autobiographical work, The Pigeon Tunnel. Stories from My Life (2016), including, inter alia, translating at a meeting between a senior German politician and Harold Macmillan. He also gives his perspective on Kim Philby and the “Cambridge Five” and relates a meeting with Yassir Arafat, as well as the extraordinary security measures involved in the latter.

Le Carré’s disillusionment with both post-Brexit Great Britain and the United States under Donald Trump comes to the fore in his final novel Agent Running in the Field (2019), whose plotline involves the U.S. and British intelligence services colluding to subvert the European Union; a course of action that Le Carré said in a 2020 Guardian interview he believed “horribly possible.”

Read more about John Le Carré on Wikipedia.


Major Awards and Honors

Society of Authors (UK)
  • 1964: Somerset Maugham Award – “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”
Crime Writers Association (UK)
  • 1963: Gold Dagger (Best Crime Novel of the Year) – “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”
  • 1977: Gold Dagger (Best Crime Novel of the Year) – “The Honourable Schoolboy”
  • 1988: Diamond Dagger Lifetime Achievement Award
  • 2005: Dagger of Daggers – “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”
James Tait Black Memorial Prize (Scotland / UK)
  • 1977: Best Work of Fiction – “The Honourable Schoolboy”
University of Oxford (UK)
  • 1984: Honorary Fellow, Lincoln College
  • 2012: Honorary D.Litt.
University of Bath (UK)
  • 1998: Honorary D.Litt.
University of Exeter (UK)
  • 1990: Honorary D.Litt.
University of Southampton (UK)
  • 1997: Honorary degree
University of St. Andrews (UK)
  • 1996: Honorary degree
The Times (UK)
  • 2008: Inclusion in list of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945 (no. 22)
Mystery Writers of America
  • 1965: Edgar Award, Best Novel – “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”
  • 1984: Edgar Grand Master Award
Tulsa Library Trust (USA)
  • 1990: Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award
Ordre des Arts et des Lettres France)
  • 2005: Commander of the Order
Goethe Institute (Germany)
  • 2011: Goethe Medal
Bern University (Switzerland)
  • 2008: Honorary doctorate
Olof Palme Memorial Fund (Sweden)

2019: Olof Palme Prize
– Donated the US$100,000 winnings to Médecins Sans Frontières.

Premio Malaparte (Italy)
  • 1988
Japan Adventure Fiction Association
  • 1983: Japan Adventure Fiction Association Prize – “The Little Drummer Girl”



George Smiley Cycle
  • The Incongruous Spy (1964)
    • Call for the Dead (1961)
    • A Murder of Quality (1962)
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
  • The Looking Glass War (1965)
  • The Quest for Karla (1982)
    (AKA Smiley Versus Karla and John Le Carré: Three Complete Novels)

    • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)
    • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
    • Smiley’s People (1979)
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • A Legacy of Spies (2017)
Stand-Alone Novels
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968)
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983)
  • A Perfect Spy (1986)
  • The Russia House (1989)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
  • Agent Running in the Field (2019)
Short Stories
  • Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn?
    – In: Saturday Evening Post, 28 January 1967
  • What Ritual is Being Observed Tonight?
    – In: Saturday Evening Post, 2 November 1968.
  • A Writer and A Gentleman (1968)
    – In: The Savile Club Centenary Magazine, The Argosy, and The Saturday Review.
  • The King Who Never Spoke
    – In: Ox-Tales: Fire, 2 July 2009.
  • The Good Soldier (1991)
    – In Granta 35: The Unbearable Peace.
  • The United States Has Gone Mad (2003)
    – In Not One More Death (2006)
  • Afterword to Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends (2014)
    – On Kim Philby.
  • The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016)
Film and TV
  • End of the Line (1970)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)
  • Smiley’s People (1982)
  • A Murder of Quality (1991)
  • The Tailor of Panama (2001)
    – With John Boorman and Andrew Davies.
Executive Producer
  • The Tailor of Panama (2001)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2014)
  • The Night Manager (2016)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
  • The Little Drummer Girl (2018)
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1984)
    – As David Cornwell.
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
    – As John le Carré
  • The Night Manager (2016)
    – As David Cornwell
  • The Little Drummer Girl (2018)


A Selection of Quotes

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life

“These are true stories told from memory – to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life? To the lawyer, truth is facts unadorned. Whether such facts are ever findable is another matter. To the creative writer, fact is raw material, not his taskmaster but his instrument, and his job is to make it sing. Real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance.”

“What in Britain is called the Special Relationship, in Germany is called treason.”

“[A]n old writer’s memory is the whore of his imagination. We all reinvent our pasts, I said, but writers are in a class of their own.”

“Germany’s emergence as a self-confident, non-aggressive, democratic power – not to speak of the humanitarian example it has set – is a pill too bitter for many of us Brits to swallow. That is a sadness that I have regretted for far too long.”

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

“The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.”

“There was nothing dishonourable in not being blown about by every little modern wind. Better to have worth, to entrench, to be an oak of one’s own generation.”

“‘We’ve had enough.’ He took back the report and jammed it under his arm. ‘We’ve had a bellyful, in fact.’
‘And like everyone who’s had enough,’ said Control as Alleline noisily left the room, ‘he wants more.'”

“Smiley was soaked to the skin and God as a punishment had removed all taxis from the face of London.”

“Martindale had no valid claim on Smiley either professionally or socially. He worked on the fleshy side of the Foreign Office and his job consisted of lunching visiting dignitaries whom no one else would have entertained in his woodshed. He was a floating bachelor with a grey mane and that nimbleness which only fat men have.”

The Honourable Schoolboy

“Home’s where you go when you run out of homes.”

“‘Wives?’ she asked, interrupting him. For a moment, he had assumed she was tuning to the novel. Then he saw her waiting, suspicious eyes, so he replied cautiously, ‘None active,’ as if wives were volcanoes.'”

“A lot of people see doubt as legitimate philosophical posture. They think of themselves in the middle, whereas of course really, they’re nowhere.”

“Yet it’s not for want of future that I’m here, he thought. It’s for want of a present.”

“Gerald Westerby, he told himself. You were present at your birth. You were present at your several marriages and at some of your divorces, and you will certainly be present at your funeral. High time, in our considered view, that you were present at certain other crucial moments in your history.”

Call for the Dead

“But gossip must see its characters in black and white, equip them with sins and motives easily conveyed in the shorthand of conversation.”

“Everything he admired or loved had been the product of intense individualism. … [W]hen had mass philosophies ever brought benefit or wisdom?”

“Give a man a car of his own and he leaves humility and common sense behind him in the garage.”

“Can’t you see it’s the same? The same guns, the same children dying in the streets? Only the dream has changed, the blood is the same colour. Is that what you want?”

“Society is unconcerned with the aftermath of sensation.”

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

“I am afraid that as a nation we tend to over organize. Abroad that passes for efficiency.”

“To the hard-liners of East and West the Second World War was a distraction. Now it was over, they could get on with the real war that had started with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and had been running under different flags and disguises ever since.”

The Looking Glass War

“Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.”

A Most Wanted Man

“The fact that you can only do a little is no excuse for doing nothing.”

The Night Manager

“Guns have their own silence. It is the silence of the dead to come.”

The Tailor of Panama

“What that judge did is immoral. Here in Panama when we bribe somebody we expect loyalty.”

“I always say South America’s the only place where you cut a gentleman his suit one week and see his statue wearing it the next.”

A Delicate Truth

“And from there, he wandered off into an argument with Friedrich Schiller’s grandiose statement that human stupidity was what the gods fought in vain. Not so, in Toby’s opinion, and no excuse for anybody, whether god or man. What the gods and all reasonable humans fought in vain wasn’t stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.”

“Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, dear man. In an imperfect world, I fear it’s the best we can manage.”

Our Kind of Traitor

“‘You’ll just have to take our word for it.’
‘Your Service’s word?’
‘For the time being, yes.’
‘On the strength of what? Aren’t you supposed to be the gentlemen who lie for the good of their country?’
‘That’s diplomats. We’re not gentlemen.’
‘So you lie to save your hides.’
‘That’s politicians. Different game entirely.'”

The Russia House

“Merridew might not have been the slenderest of men or the tallest. But he had grip, he had cunning and like many fat men he had unexpected resources of indignation which he was able to turn on like a flood when they were needed.”

A Murder of Quality

“Only adults had nervous breakdowns in those days, so the methods of survival for boys who refused to join the system were animal cunning, ‘internal immigration’ as the Germans call it, or simply getting the hell out. I practised the first two, then opted for the third and took myself to Switzerland.”

Find more quotes by John Le Carré on Wikiquote and Goodreads.