On October 19, 1931, John le Carré was born. Le Carré is a master of the spy novel, writing stories rooted in his own years as a British intelligence agent.
Le Carré had a difficult childhood. His mother left when he was five, and he didn’t meet her again until adulthood; his father was a con man who was convicted of insurance fraud and was frequently in debt. And le Carré struggled with the harsh discipline of English boarding schools.
After completing school, he studied foreign languages at the University of Bern for two years, then joined the Army Intelligence Corps in 1950. Le Carré was stationed in Austria, where he interrogated German speakers who had crossed the Iron Curtain into the West. He returned to England in 1952, and began studying at Oxford, graduating in 1956 with a degree in modern languages.
Le Carré hadn’t entirely given up intelligence work during his years at Oxford; he was working undercover for MI5—the domestic intelligence service—spying on left-wing student organizations and looking for Soviet agents. He joined MI5 full time in 1958, and in 1960, transferred to MI6, the foreign intelligence service.
He began writing his first novel during his time at MI5, adopting the pseudonym “John le Carré”—he was born David Cornwell—because agents in the Foreign Office were not allowed to publish under their own names. Le Carré’s first two novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, were closer to murder mysteries than spy novels, though they did feature le Carré’s best known character, George Smiley.
Smiley worked for “The Office,” le Carré’s fictional version of British foreign intelligence, and le Carré meant him to be an “antidote” to James Bond and other glamorous fictional spies. Intelligence work, in le Carré’s books, is not about exciting international travel, beautiful women, and thrilling action; it’s about bureaucracy and intellect, and the action is primarily psychological, not physical. Most important, le Carré refused to portray the opposing sides in stark “we’re right, they’re wrong” terms; espionage is a morally ambiguous enterprise, and while his characters work on behalf of western democracy, they aren’t necessarily convinced of its moral superiority.
Smiley’s third outing, 1963’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was le Carré’s first novel fully rooted in espionage and intelligence work, and it was an international bestseller, allowing le Carré to take up writing full time. The timing couldn’t have been better, because his intelligence career was abruptly ended in 1964, when double agent Kim Philby revealed the identities of several British agents, including le Carré, to the KGB.
Le Carré had intended The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as a depiction of espionage as inherently corrupt and was surprised that so many readers saw its protagonist as a heroic figure. His next novel, The Looking Glass War, was even blunter, a satire about an espionage operation that is violent and leads to many deaths, ultimately to no real end.
In his next novels, le Carré began to move away from Smiley. He didn’t appear in A Small Town in Germany, about the problem of former Nazis returning to political power in West Germany, and The Naive and Sentimental Lover wasn’t a spy novel at all. In Le Carré’s only departure from the genre, he wrote a semi-autobiographical story about a man going through a personal crisis after his divorce.
Smiley returned in the next three books, known as the “Karla trilogy.” In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People, Smiley is trying to locate and entrap his Soviet counterpart, known only as Karla. Tinker, Tailor is generally considered to be one of le Carré’s finest books, and it features a British double agent modeled on Kim Philby.
Smiley’s People was published in 1979. In the same year, the BBC aired a television miniseries based on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which became an enormous success. After that, le Carré found that he was less interested in writing about Smiley; the pop culture icon was getting in the way of his own creative impulses, and Smiley made only minor appearances in two more novels.
1983’s The Little Drummer Girl was a rare early departure from le Carré’s usual Cold War background, set instead against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And A Perfect Spy, from 1986, was very autobiographical; while le Carré had never betrayed his country, as the novel’s protagonist does, the character’s father is a con man much like le Carré’s own.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, le Carré’s focus shifted to more international stories. The Night Manager is set primarily in Switzerland and Egypt; The Tailor of Panama is set against the backdrop of corruption in Central America; and The Constant Gardener is inspired by the actual murder of a British diplomat’s wife in Africa.
Le Carré wasn’t entirely done with the Cold War, though. In 2017’s A Legacy of Spies, he returned to the characters from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold including a brief appearance from George Smiley, telling a story that was both sequel and prequel to the earlier novel.
Agent Running in the Field, le Carré’s most recent novel, is often described as his “Brexit novel.” It’s an exploration of the changing relationship between Europe and the United Kingdom, in which a veteran British intelligence agent wonders if Britain’s importance in the world is coming to an end.
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