John le Carré, the British intelligence agent turned enigmatic author of such iconic espionage novels as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, has died. He was 89.
Le Carré died Saturday evening in Cornwall, England, after a short illness that was not COVID-19 related, his literary agent, Jonny Geller of The Curtis Brown Group, reported.
“I represented [le Carré] for almost 15 years,” Geller said. “I have lost a mentor, an inspiration and most importantly, a friend. We will not see his like again.”
In a career that spanned from 1961’s Call for the Dead to 2013’s A Delicate Truth, le Carré penned 23 novels, several books of nonfiction and short stories and three screenplays. Many centered on his fictional Cold War character George Smiley, an officer at the British overseas intelligence agency known as “the Circus.”
“With the possible exception of J.K. Rowling, no living writer exerts quite the same grip on the British imagination as John le Carré and his Smiley novels,” The Guardian wrote in 2014.
His breakout was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), and his most prolific period came in the the ‘70s and ‘80s, when he wrote Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), Smiley’s People (1979), The Little Drummer Girl (1983), A Perfect Spy (1986), The Russia House (1989) and The Secret Pilgrim (1990).
His other well-known novels include The Tailor of Panama (1996), The Night Manager (1993) and The Constant Gardener (2001).
Le Carré’s work was adapted into eight movies, including Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), starring Richard Burton in an Oscar-nominated turn; The Looking Glass War (1969), with Anthony Hopkins; The Little Drummer Girl (1984), featuring Diane Keaton; Russia House (1990), starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), with Gary Oldman receiving an Oscar nom for playing Smiley; and A Most Wanted Man (2014), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles.
The BBC adapted for television and/or radio Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People — with Alec Guinness as Smiley — A Perfect Spy, A Murder of Quality and The Night Manager, with those broadcasts making their way to the U.S.
(The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, debuted as an AMC miniseries in 2016.)
Robert Gottlieb, his longtime American editor at Knopf, dismissed suggestions that le Carré was simply a genre hack. “He’s a brilliant writer for whom spies are merely subject matter. Calling him a spy writer is like calling Joseph Conrad a sea writer or Jane Austen a domestic-comedy writer,” Gottlieb said for a 2013 piece in The New York Times.
Le Carré eschewed screenplay writing, with the exception of the 1991 adaptation of A Murder of Quality and “The End of the Line,” a 1970 episode of the BBC anthology series Armchair Theatre. But he did make several cameos in the features based on his work, including in The Little Drummer Girl, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and A Most Wanted Man, and could be seen as a diner in The Night Manager.
Le Carré was born David John Moore Cornwell on Oct. 19, 1931, in Poole, England. His mother abandoned the family when he was 5, and he had a difficult relationship with his father, who served jail time for fraud, was an associate of the famous British gangsters the Kray twins and was in financial trouble constantly. On his website, le Carré described his father as a “a confidence trickster and a gaolbird.”
After a year studying foreign languages in Switzerland, le Carré joined the British Army’s intelligence service and then, while at Oxford in 1952, MI5. After graduating in 1956, he taught languages at Eton and became a full-time MI5 officer two years later. In 1960, he transferred to MI6, where he served as an undercover agent at the British Embassy in West Germany.
Le Carré downplayed his spy career. “In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer,” he said. “I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence.”
He wrote his first novel, A Call for the Dead, while stationed in Germany. MI6 wouldn’t let him publish it under his own name, so he came up with John le Carré, rejecting his editor’s suggestion for a simple, monosyllabic name.
“I chose le Carré. God alone knows why or where I had it from,” he told The New York Times.
After The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, about double agents and double-crossers in Cold War Germany, became a huge best-seller, le Carré quit MI6 in 1964 to write full time, living for the next 40 years in remote Cornwall, England, near Land’s End.
Le Carré married Alison Sharp in 1954, and they had sons Simon, Stephen and Timothy. After they divorced in 1971, he wed book editor Valerie Eustace. Their son, Nicholas, is a novelist who writes under the pen name Nick Harkaway. He had a total of 13 grandchildren.
Survivors also include his half-sister Charlotte Cornwell, an actress.