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John le Carré (pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell, born 19 October 1931) is an English author of espionage novels, several of which have been adapted for film and television. He worked for MI5marker and MI6marker in the 1950s and 1960s, before leaving the secret service to devote himself to writing after the success of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Early life and career

The son of Richard Thomas Archibald (Ronnie) Cornwell (1906–1975) and Olive (Gassy) Cornwell, John le Carré was born in Poolemarker, Dorsetmarker, England on 19 October 1931. He has a brother Tony, a retired advertising executive, who is 2 years older. The actress Charlotte Cornwell is his younger sister, and the former Washington bureau chief of the Independent newspaper, Rupert Cornwell, is his younger half-brother. Le Carré states he did not know his mother, who abandoned him at the age of five, until he was reacquainted with her at the age of 21. He had a difficult relationship with his father, who had been jailed for insurance fraud and was constantly in debt. According to one biography:

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. His father was also the inspiration for the lead character in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).

Rick Pym, father of Magnus, the central character of A Perfect Spy, is also a con-man and schemer.

He began his formal schooling at St. Andrew's preparatory school near Pangbournemarker, Berkshire, and continued at Sherborne Schoolmarker but he was unhappy there with the harsh regime typical of English public schools at that time, and dropped out. He also disliked his housemaster, Thomas, who was a strong disciplinarian. From 1948–49, he studied foreign languages at the University of Bernemarker.

In 1950 le Carré joined the British Army's Intelligence Corps in Austria, where his German proved useful in interrogating people who had fled westward across the Iron Curtain. In 1952 he returned to England to study at Lincoln Collegemarker, Oxfordmarker where he carried out secret assignments for MI5marker, which included joining far-left groups in order to collect information about possible Soviet agents.

When his father went bankrupt in 1954, le Carré had to leave Oxford to teach at a boy's prep school. However, he was able to return to Oxford a year later, where he graduated with a First Class Honours B.A. degree in 1956. He then taught French and German at Eton Collegemarker for two years before joining MI5 as a full-time official in 1958. His work in MI5 consisted of running agents, conducting interrogations, tapping phones, and performing authorized break-ins.Garton Ash, Timothy. - Life and Letters: "'The Real le Carre'". - The New Yorker. - March 15, 1999.

He started his first novel, Call for the Dead, while employed in the operational section of MI5, encouraged by Lord Clanmorris (who wrote crime novels under the pen-name of John Bingham). Lord Clanmorris was one of the two men—Vivian H. H. Green was the other—who inspired le Carré's most famous character, George Smiley. Green first met Cornwell as a schoolboy when he was the Chaplain and Assistant Master at Sherborne School (1942–1951), and then later as Rector at Lincoln's College.

In 1960, le Carré transferred to the foreign-intelligence service, MI6marker, working under the diplomatic cover of the Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonnmarker. Then he was transferred to Hamburgmarker as a political consul. There le Carré wrote his next 2 books: A Murder of Quality, a detective story, and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which became an all-time best-seller after its publication in 1963. Cornwell wrote under his pseudonym of John le Carré because it was not acceptable for members of the Foreign Office to publish under their own names. He left the service in 1964 to focus on writing full-time. John is Le Carré's second forename, whilst the words "le carré" mean "the square" in French.

His work was affected by Kim Philby, a British double agent (one of the Cambridge Five), who blew the cover of dozens of British agents to the KGBmarker, David Cornwell among them. Years later, le Carré carefully depicted and analysed Philby's weakness and deceit in the guise of "Gerald" the mole, who is hunted by George Smiley in the central novel of le Carré's work, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Then followed the revelation that fictional spymaster George Smiley was modeled on Vivian H. H. Green.

In 1954, he married Alison Ann Veronica Sharp; they had three sons, Simon, Stephen and Timothy. They divorced in 1971. In 1972, he married Valérie Jane Eustace, a book editor with Hodder & Stoughton; this marriage produced one son, Nicholas, who writes as Nick Harkaway.

In 1964 he won the Somerset Maugham Award, an award established by Maugham to enable British authors under the age of 35 to enrich their writing by spending time abroad.

Le Carré has resided in St Buryanmarker, Cornwallmarker, Great Britain, for more than forty years where he owns a mile of cliff close to Land's End.

As an author

Nearly all of his novels fall in the spy-thriller genre, with a particular emphasis on the Cold War. One notable exception is The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, which has autobiographical elements based on the author's relationship with James and Susan Kennaway following the breakdown of his first marriage.

Le Carré's first two novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, closely follow the mystery fiction approach, where the emphasis is on a complex riddle that hero George Smiley must solve. In later, longer works, such as The Honourable Schoolboy and The Night Manager, Le Carré approaches his material more as novelist and less as a mystery writer, focusing on the in-depth development of his characters.

Le Carré's work is in many ways a critical and reasoned response to the lurid sensationalism of the James Bond genre of spy writing. His heroes are three-dimensional, their engagement with the world is more realistic, and their circumstances are markedly unglamorous. There is little of the action thriller in his stories, no high-tech gadgetry and only a limited degree of violence; the drama comes primarily in the intensive mental activity of his protagonists. In some novels, such as A Small Town in Germany, almost the entire story unfolds in the form of dialogue between the major characters. Le Carré is widely hailed as writing some of the most literary and philosophically significant genre fiction of the 20th century.

His works also differ from the Bond books in that they are morally complex; there are constant reminders of the fallibility of western espionage systems and western countries in general, often with the implication that the Sovietmarker bloc and the NATOmarker bloc are essentially two sides of the same coin. The simplicity of the good-versus-SMERSH or SPECTRE world of Ian Fleming has no place in Le Carré's work, where the spies seem to serve espionage more than any ideology. Le Carré is more interested in the uncertainty inherent in spycraft—the most unimpeachable information from the enemy might always prove to be bait or a trap, a logic that tends to render the information obtained far less useful. In short, his books leave behind an unmistakable air of scepticism.

A Perfect Spy, Le Carré's most autobiographical novel, deals with the author's peculiar relationship with his father. Lynndianne Beene, the author of a biography of le Carré, describes Richard Cornwell as "an epic con man of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values". Beene quotes le Carré's reflection on the novel that "writing A Perfect Spy is probably what a very wise shrink would have advised".

Le Carré is also the author of The Unbearable Peace, a lengthy non-fiction account of Jean-Louis Jeanmaire. [27021]

In 2009, he donated the short story The King Who Never Spoke to Oxfam's 'Ox-Tales' project, four collections of UK stories written by 38 authors. His story was published in the 'Fire' collection.

Film, television, and radio

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

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

In 1984, Diane Keaton was “Charlie”, The Little Drummer Girl, directed by George Roy Hill. The 1987 television adaptation of A Perfect Spy, featured Peter Egan as “Magnus Pym” and Ray McAnally as “Rick”, and was directed by Peter Smith. In 1990, Sean Connery was "Barley Blair" in Fred Schepisi’s film of The Russia House.

In 1991, Gavin Millar adapted A Murder of Quality for television, featuring Denholm Elliott as “George Smiley” and Joss Ackland as “Terence Fielding”, yet another friend of Smiley.

The BBC radio adaptation of The Russia House, features Tom Baker as "Barley Blair"; the first broadcast was in 1994.

In 2001, Pierce Brosnan was the disgraced spy “Andy Osnard” in The Tailor of Panama, directed by John Boorman. In 2005, Fernando Meirelles’s film of The Constant Gardener, featuring Ralph Fiennes as “Justin Quayle”, is set in the slums in Kiberamarker and Loiyangalanimarker, Kenyamarker. 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.

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 April of 2010 .

Politics and honours

Le Carré published an essay entitled "The United States has gone mad" in The Times in January 2003, protesting against the war in Iraq, saying:

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

"Best of le Carré"

In an interview with Mark Lawson broadcast on 5 October 2008 on BBC 4, le Carré was asked what works he might put in a hypothetical "Best of le Carré". His answer was:

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




  • 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. - Rupert Cornwell's Independent newspaper profile
  2. - Time Magazine page citing Rupert Cornwell as le Carré's half-brother
  3. John le Carre Biography. - BookBrowse LLC. -
  4. Oxfam: Ox-Tales

Further reading

External links

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