To categorize John le Carré as a writer of espionage thrillers is not so much inaccurate as it is restrictive. Certainly, his spy novels are the gold standard against which all others are compared, but he writes with such literary elegance and philosophical complexity that his readership extends far beyond genre fans.
What we know of this famously taciturn author's life comes from official records (date of birth, education, marriages, etc.) and whatever biographical tidbits he has seen fit to divulge. He was born David John Moore Cornwell in England in 1931. His mother deserted the family early on, and his father (a charming con artist) floated in and out of jail. Cornwell attended the universities of Berne and Oxford, taught school for a while, then joined the British Foreign Service in 1959 at the height of the Cold War. From there, he was recruited into M16, the UK's secret service. (On his website, he self-effacingly claims to have "spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence.")
Although his spying career ended abruptly when British double agent Kim Philby blew his cover to the KGB, Cornwell was still working for M16 when he began writing novels. He adopted the nom de plume John le Carré for his first book, 1961's Call for the Dead, whose memorable first chapter introduced British intelligence officer George Smiley. Quiet, mild-mannered, and morally complex, Smiley offered a stark contrast to James Bond, the glamorous jet-setting spy of Ian Fleming's popular pulp novels. He would also turn out to be the most famous of le Carré's fictional creations.
Le Carré's debut was well received, but it was his third novel, 1963's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, that proved to be his breakthrough book. This suspense classic recounts the harrowing story of a burnt-out operative, desperate to retire, who is given one last, perilous assignment. Embodying le Carré's cynical, morally ambiguous view of Cold War espionage, the novel won rapturous reviews (Graham Greene called it "The best spy story I have ever read."), received a Gold Dagger and an Edgar Award, and was turned into an award-winning motion picture starring Richard Burton.
The Cold War may have ended, but its demise has done nothing to diminish the power of Le Carrés novels. He continues to craft thrillers filled with intrigue, if not espionage; and his books continue to deeply satisfy readers around the world.
Good to Know
Back to Top
Le Carrés sister is British actress Charlotte Cornwell, who describes him as "the best brother ever."
The author's most autobiographical novel is 1986's A Perfect Spy, dealing with his tangled relationship with his mostly absent father.
In September of 2008, an interview appeared in The Sunday Times in which le Carré was [mis]quoted as saying that he had considered defecting to the Russians during his stint with M16. In fact, in his conversation with the interviewer, he had admitted to nothing more than curiosity about life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. "I wasn't tempted ideologically," he says.
Back to Top
|John le Carré Home
Good to Know
|In Our Other Stores|
|John le Carré Movies
|Call for the Dead, 1960|
|A Murder of Quality, 1962|
|The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, 1963|
|The Looking Glass War, 1965|
|A Small Town in Germany, 1968|
|The Naive and Sentimental Lover, 1971|
|Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1974|
|The Honourable Schoolboy, 1977|
|Smiley's People, 1980|
|The Little Drummer Girl, 1983|
|A Perfect Spy, 1986|
|The Russia House, 1989|
|The Secret Pilgrim, 1991|
|The Night Manager, 1993|
|Our Game, 1995|
|The Tailor of Panama, 1996|
|Single & Single, 1999|
|The Constant Gardener, 2000|
|Absolute Friends, 2004|
|The Mission Song, 2006|