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John le Carré
John le Carré in Hamburg (10 November 2008)
John le Carré in Hamburg (10 November 2008)
Born David John Moore Cornwell
19 October 1931 (1931-10-19) (age 78)
Poole, Dorset, England
Occupation Novelist
Nationality British
Genres Spy fiction
Notable work(s) The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Official website

John le Carré is the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell, a British author of espionage novels. During the 1950s and the 1960s, Cornwell worked for MI5 and MI6, and began writing novel under the pseudonym "John le Carré". His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) was an international best-seller, and remains his best known work to date. Following the novel's success, he left the MI6 to become a full-time author.

Le Carré has since written several novels that have established him as one of the finest writers of espionage fiction in 20th century literature. In 2008, The Times ranked le Carré #22 on their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".[1]


Early life and career

On the 19th of October of 1931, David John Moore Cornwell was born to Richard Thomas Archibald (Ronnie) Cornwell (1906–75) and Olive (Gassy) Cornwell, in Poole, Dorset, England, UK. He was the second son to the marriage, the first being Tony, two years his elder, a retired advertising executive; his younger sister is the actress Charlotte Cornwell, and Rupert Cornwell, a former Independent newspaper Washington bureau chief, is a younger half-brother.[2][3] John le Carré said he did not know his mother, who abandoned him when he was five years old, until their re-acquaintance when he was twenty-one years old. His relationship with his father was difficult, given he had been jailed for insurance fraud, and was continually in debt; a biographer reports:

His father, Ronnie, made and lost his fortune a number of times due to elaborate confidence tricks and schemes which landed him in prison on at least one occasion. This was one of the factors that led to his fascination with secrets.[4]

Later, in the novel A Perfect Spy (1986), father Ronnie featured as ‘Rick Pym’ the scheming con-man father of protagonist ‘Magnus Pym’.

Cornwell’s formal schooling began at St. Andrew’s preparatory school, at Pangbourne, Berkshire, then continued at Sherborne School; he proved unhappy with the typically harsh English public school régime of the time, and disliked his disciplinarian housemaster, Thomas, and so withdrew. From 1948 to 1949, he studied foreign languages at the University of Berne. In 1950 he joined the Intelligence Corps of the British Army garrisoned in 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 for MI5, spying upon far-left groups for information about possible Soviet agents.[5]

When Ronnie declared bankruptcy in 1954, Cornwell quit Oxford to teach at a boy's preparatory school; however, a year later, he returned to Oxford and graduated with a First Class Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in 1956. He then taught French and German at Eton College for two years, afterwards becoming an MI5 officer in 1958; he ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped telephone lines, and effected break-ins.[6] Encouraged by Lord Clanmorris (who pseudonymously wrote crime novels as ‘John Bingham’), whilst an active MI5 officer, Cornwell began writing Call for the Dead (1961), his first novel. Moreover, Lord Clanmorris was one of two inspirations — Vivian H. H. Green being the other — for George Smiley, the master spy of the Circus. As a schoolboy, Cornwell first met Green when he was the Chaplain and Assistant Master at Sherborne School (1942–51), and then later as Rector at Lincoln College.

In 1960, Cornwell transferred to MI6, the foreign-intelligence service, and worked under ‘Second Secretary’ cover in the British Embassy at Bonn; he later 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, a pseudonym required because Foreign Office officers were disallowed publishing in their names; in the event, Cornwell left the service in 1964 to work full-time as the novelist ‘John le Carré’ — ‘John the Square’, in French.[6] His intelligence officer career was ended by the betrayal of the covers of British agents to the KGB, by Kim Philby, a British double agent (of the Cambridge Five).[5] Le Carré depicts and analyses Philby as ‘Bill Haydon’, the upper-class traitor, code-named Gerald by the KGB, the mole George Smiley hunts in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); after publication, the novelist revealed that spymaster Smiley’s model was Vivian H. H. Green.

In 1964 he won the Somerset Maugham Award, established to enable British writers younger than thirty-five, to enrich their writing by spending time abroad.

In 1954, Cornwell married Alison Ann Veronica Sharp; they had three sons, Simon, Stephen, and Timothy; they divorced in 1971. In 1972, Cornwell married Valérie Jane Eustace, a book editor with Hodder & Stoughton; they had one son, Nicholas, who writes as Nick Harkaway. Le Carré has resided in St Buryan, Cornwall, UK, for more than forty years where he owns a mile of cliff close to Land’s End.

Writing style

Stylistically, the first two novels, Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) are mystery fiction wherein the hero George Smiley (of the SIS, the Circus) resolves the riddles of the deaths investigated; the motives are more personal than political.[7]

The spy novel œuvre of John le Carré is a dispassionate response to the high adventure of the James Bond thriller genre established by Ian Fleming (1906–64) in the mid nineteen-fifties; the le Carré Cold War features unheroic men, spies aware of the amorality of their work, for being mere political function. They experience few action thriller occasions, have few gadgets, and practice only the violence necessary to propel the plot — the dramatic conflict being among the characters’ motives.[8]

Unlike the manichean moral certainty of Fleming’s British Secret Service adventures, le Carré‘s Circus spy stories are morally complex, and apprise the reader of the fallibility of Western democracy and of the secret services protecting it, oft implying East–West moral equivalence.[8]

A Perfect Spy (1986), chronicling the boyhood moral education of Magnus Pym, as it leads to his becoming a spy, is the author’s most autobiographic espionage novel — especially the boy’s very close relationship with his confidence man father. Biographer Lynndianne Beene, describes the novelist’s father, Richard Cornwell as ‘an epic con man of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values’; le Carré reflected that ‘writing A Perfect Spy is probably what a very wise shrink would have advised’.

Most of John le Carré’s novels are spy stories usually occurring during the Cold War (1945–91); the notable exception is The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), an autobiographic, stylistically uneven, mainstream novel of a man’s post-marital existential crisis. As a journalist, he wrote The Unbearable Peace (1991), a non-fiction account of Brigadier Jean-Louis Jeanmaire (1911–92), the Swiss Army officer who spied for the USSR from 1962 until 1975.[9] In 2009, he donated the short story ‘The King Who Never Spoke’ to the Oxfam ‘Ox-Tales’ project, comprising four short-story collections, based upon the four elements of Earth, Fire, Air, and Water, written by thirty-eight British authors; le Carré’s story was published in the Fire book of short stories.[10]


In January of 2003, John le Carré published the essay ‘The United States Has Gone Mad’ in The Times, protesting the impending Iraq War, saying:

How Bush and his junta succeeded in deflecting America’s anger, from Bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, is one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history.[11]

He is the author of a testimonial in The Future of the NHS (2006) (ISBN 1858113695) edited by Dr. Michelle Tempest.

Best novels list

In an interview of John le Carré, broadcast 5 October 2008 on BBC Four, Mark Lawson asked him to name a Best of le Carré list of books; the novelist answered:

  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  • The Tailor of Panama
  • The Constant Gardener



In 1965, Martin Ritt directed the first film adaptation of a John le Carré novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with Richard Burton as protagonist Alec Leamas. In 1966, Sidney Lumet directed The Deadly Affair, an adaptation of Call for the Dead, with James Mason as Charles Dobbs (George Smiley in the novel). In 1969, Frank Pierson directed The Looking Glass War, with Anthony Hopkins as Avery, and Christopher Jones as Leiser.

In 1984, George Roy Hill directed The Little Drummer Girl, with Diane Keaton as Charlie. In 1990, Fred Schepisi directed The Russia House, with Sean Connery as Barley Blair.

In 2001, John Boorman directed The Tailor of Panama, with Pierce Brosnan as Andy Osnard, a disgraced spy. In 2005, Fernando Meirelles directed The Constant Gardener, with Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, set in the slums in Kibera and Loiyangalani, Kenya. The poverty so affected the film crew that they established the Constant Gardener Trust to provide basic education to those villages. John le Carré is a patron of the charity.


In 1979, the BBC adapted Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to television, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Two years later, in 1981, he reprised the role in Smiley's People. The BBC did not adapt The Honourable Schoolboy, featuring Jerry Westerby (Joss Ackland in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), because production in East Asia was prohibitively expensive.

In 1987, Peter Smith directed the television adaptation of A Perfect Spy, with Peter Egan as Magnus Pym, and Ray McAnally as Rick. In 1991, Gavin Millar directed A Murder of Quality, with Denholm Elliott as George Smiley, and Joss Ackland as Terence Fielding.


The 1994 BBC radio adaptation of The Russia House, features Tom Baker as Barley Blair. The Complete Smiley is an eight radio-play series, based upon the novels featuring George Smiley, that commenced broadcast on 23 May 2009 on BBC Radio 4, beginning with Call for the Dead, with Simon Russell Beale as “George Smiley”, and concluding with The Secret Pilgrim, in June 2010 .[12]





  • The Unbearable Peace (1991)

Short stories

  • Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn? (1967) published in the Saturday Evening Post January 28, 1967.
  • What Ritual is Being Observed Tonight? (1968) published in the Saturday Evening Post November 2, 1968.
  • The Writer and The Horse (1968) published in The Savile Club Centenary Magazine and later The Argosy.
  • The King Who Never Spoke (2009) published in Ox-Tales: Fire July 2, 2009.


  • The Incongruous Spy (1964) (containing Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality)
  • The Quest for Karla (1982) (containing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People)


  • End of the Line (1970) broadcast June 29, 1970
  • A Murder of Quality (1991)
  • The Tailor of Panama (2001) with John Boorman and Andrew Davies

Executive producer

  • The Tailor of Panama (2001)


  • The Little Drummer Girl (1984, as David Cornwell)


  • Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol. 33, pp. 94–99.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 3 (1975); Vol. 5 (1976); Vol. 9 (1978); Vol. 15 (1980); Vol. 28 (1984).
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 87: British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940, First Series, (Detroit: Gale, 1989).
  • Lynndianne Beene, John le Carré (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992).


  1. ^ Staff writer (5 January 2008). "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945". Times Newspapers (London). Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  2. ^ "Rupert Cornwell". Independent News and Media (London). Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  3. ^ Staff writer (25 September 1989). "Espionage: The Perfect Spy Story". Time Inc (New York).,9171,958645,00.html. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  4. ^ "John Le Carre biography, plus links to book reviews and excerpts.". BookBrowse. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  5. ^ a b Anthony, Andrew (1 November 2009). "Observer Profile: John le Carré: A man of great intelligence". Guardian News and Media. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  6. ^ a b Garton Ash, Timothy. - Life and Letters: "'The Real le Carre'". - The New Yorker. - March 15, 1999.
  7. ^ Tayler, Christopher (25 January 2007). "Belgravia Cockney". London Review of Books (London: LRB) 29 (2): 13-14. ISSN 0260-9592. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  8. ^ a b Holcombe, Garan (2006). "John le Carré". British Council. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  9. ^ "Granta 35: The Unbearable Peace". Sigrid Rausing. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  10. ^ "Ox-Tales". Oxfam. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  11. ^ le Carre, John (15 January 2003). "Opinion: The United States of America has gone mad". The Times (Times Newspapers). Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  12. ^ "The Complete Smiley". BBC - Radio 4 - Drama. Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  13. ^ "Performance 2009". Pearson. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 

Further reading

  • Hindersmann, Jost (2005). "The right side lost, but the wrong side won: John le Carré's Spy Novels before and after the End of the Cold War". Clues: A Journal of Detection 23 (4): 25–37. ISSN 07424248. 
  • Bruccoli, Matthew J.; Baughman, Judith S., eds. (2004), Conversations with John le Carré, University Press of Mississippi, ISBN 1-57806-669-7 

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

John le Carré is the pen-name of David John Moore Cornwell (born 19 October 1931), a British writer of spy novels, and a former spy himself.



The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963)

  • "This is a war," Leamas replied. "It's graphic and unpleasant because it's fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it's nothing, nothing at all beside other wars – the last or the next."

Tinker (1974)

  • He worked for 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.

Smiley's People (1979)

  • Blackmail is more effective than bribery.
  • So odd to think of the Devil as a fumbler!
  • Against stupidity, the gods themselves fight in vain.
  • The neglected are too easily killed.
  • Balls, the lot of it. It's death, that's what I'm suffering from. The systematic encroachment of the big D.
  • You see a lot - your eyes get very painful.
  • There's one thing worse than change and that's the status quo.

The Constant Gardener (2001)

  • [She] reports that [the company] recently donated fifty million dollars to a major U.S. teaching hospital, plus salaries and expenses for three top clinicians and six research assistants. Corruption of university Common Room affiliations is even easier: professorial chairs, biotech labs, research foundations, etc. 'Unbought scientific opinion is increasingly hard to find.'

The Mission Song (2006)

  • Savages...are by nature rash. They have no middle gear. The middle gear of any man is self-discipline.
  • Luck's just another word for destiny...either you make your own or you're screwed.
  • If you're in a hole, don't dig, they say.
  • When you assimilate, you choose.
  • Elections are a Western jerk-off.
  • Why is it that so many men of small stature have more courage than men of size?
  • Peace, gentlemen, it is well known, does not come of its own accord, and neither does freedom. Peace has enemies. Peace must be won by the sword.
  • The friends of my friends are my friends.
  • Never trade a secret, you'll always get the short end of the bargain.
  • We were both hybrids: I by birth, he by education. We had both taken too many steps away from the country that had borne us to belong anywhere with ease.
  • No problem exists in isolation, one must first reduce it to its basic components, then tackle each component in turn.
  • A good man knows when to sacrifice himself, a bad man survives but loses his soul.
  • Nothing in life... even a few broken bones, is without its reward.

Radio Interview (November 2008)

Interview with Ramona Koval. The Book Show, Australian Broadcasting Commission Radio National. (19 November 2008)

  • There are some Arabs who think that the Germans did the right thing by the Jews. This makes it easy to recruit Arab terrorist.
  • There is a big difference between fighting the cold war and fighting radical Islam. The rules have changed and we haven't.
  • We were not faced (in the cold war) in a conflict with people who are prepared to die for their cause. We weren't in conflict with people whose idea is to kill as many as they could.
  • In the war on terror we did everything wrong that we could have done.
  • You can't make war against terror. Terror is a technique of battle. It's a tactic that has been employed since time immemorial. You can conduct clandestine action against terrorists, and that must be done.
  • To operate an intelligence network against the Islamist terror is terribly difficult because they don't have a central command and control center such as we would understand. Therefore you cannot penetrate at the top and find out what will happen on the ground.
  • Because we are so unfamiliar with the motivation of the people we are dealing with, we are more afraid of them than we need to be.
  • On one hand we go like hell for every terror cell we can find, we penetrate it, we destroy it. On the other hand, there is a much bigger need for a political solution.

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