John le Carré

David John Moore Cornwell[1] (born 19 October 1931), better known by the pen name John le Carré (/ləˈkær/),[2] is a British author of espionage novels. During the 1950s and 1960s, he worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works. Following the success of this novel, he left MI6 to become a full-time author. Several of his books have been adapted for film and television, including The Constant Gardener, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager. In 2011, he was awarded the Goethe Medal.

John le Carré
John le Carré in Hamburg, 2008
BornDavid John Moore Cornwell
(1931-10-19) 19 October 1931
Poole, Dorset, England
former intelligence officer
EducationSherborne School
University of Bern
Alma materLincoln College, Oxford
GenreSpy fiction
Notable worksThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Honourable Schoolboy
Smiley's People
A Perfect Spy
The Night Manager
The Constant Gardener
The Little Drummer Girl
Alison Sharp
(m. 1954; div. 1971)

Valerie Eustace
(m. 1972)

Early life

Cornwell was born on 19 October 1931 in Poole, Dorset, England. His father was Ronald Thomas Archibald (Ronnie) Cornwell (1906–75), and his mother was Olive Moore Cornwell (née Glassey, b. 1906). His older brother, Tony (1929–2017), was an advertising executive and former county cricketer (for Dorset), who lived in America.[3][4] His younger half-sister is the actress Charlotte Cornwell. His younger half-brother, Rupert Cornwell, is a former Washington bureau chief for the newspaper The Independent.[5][6] Cornwell said he did not know his mother, who abandoned him when he was five years old, until their re-acquaintance when he was 21 years old.[7] His father had been jailed for insurance fraud, was an associate of the Kray twins, and was continually in debt. Their father/son relationship was difficult.[7] 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 le Carré's fascination with secrets."[8]

The scheming con-man character, Rick Pym, Magnus Pym's father in A Perfect Spy, was based on Ronnie. When his father died in 1975, Cornwell paid for a memorial funeral service but did not attend it.[7]

Cornwell's schooling began at St Andrew's Preparatory School, near Pangbourne, Berkshire, and continued at Sherborne School. He proved to be unhappy with the typically harsh English public school régime of the time and disliked his disciplinarian housemaster, Thomas, and so withdrew.[9]

From 1948 to 1949, he studied foreign languages at the University of Bern in Switzerland. 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 covertly for the British Security Service, MI5, spying on far-left groups for information about possible Soviet agents.[9]

When his father was declared bankrupt in 1954, Cornwell left Oxford to teach at Millfield Preparatory School;[10] however, a year later he returned to Oxford, and graduated in 1956 with a first class degree in modern languages. He then taught French and German at Eton College for two years, becoming an MI5 officer in 1958. He ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped telephone lines and effected break-ins.[11] Encouraged by Lord Clanmorris (who wrote crime novels as "John Bingham"), and whilst being an active MI5 officer, Cornwell began writing his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961). Cornwell has identified Lord Clanmorris as one of two models for George Smiley, the spymaster of the Circus, the other being Vivian H. H. Green.[12] As a schoolboy, Cornwell first met the latter when Green was the Chaplain and Assistant Master at Sherborne School (1942–51). The friendship continued after Green's move to Lincoln College, where he tutored Cornwell.[13]

In 1960, Cornwell transferred to MI6, the foreign-intelligence service, and worked under the cover of Second Secretary at the British Embassy at Bonn; he was later 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" (le Carré is French for "the square"[11])—a pseudonym required because Foreign Office officers were forbidden to publish in their own names.

In 1964, le Carré left the service to work full-time as a novelist, his intelligence-officer career at an end as the result of the betrayal of British agents' covers to the KGB by Kim Philby, the infamous British double agent (one of the Cambridge Five).[9][14] Le Carré depicts and analyses Philby as the upper-class traitor, code-named "Gerald" by the KGB, the mole George Smiley hunts in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974).[15][16]

Personal life

In 1954, Cornwell married Alison Ann Veronica Sharp; they had three sons—Simon, Stephen and Timothy—and divorced in 1971.[1] In 1972, Cornwell married Valérie Jane Eustace, a book editor with Hodder & Stoughton;[17] they have one son, Nicholas, who writes as Nick Harkaway.[18] Le Carré has lived in St Buryan, Cornwall for more than 40 years; he owns a mile of cliff near Land's End.[19]


In 1998, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Letters) from the University of Bath.[20] In 2008 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Berne. In 2012, he was awarded the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, by Oxford University.[21]

In 1964, le Carré won the Somerset Maugham Award (established to enable British writers younger than 35 to enrich their writing by spending time abroad).

In 2008, The Times ranked him 22nd on its list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".[22]

In 2011, he won the Goethe Medal, a yearly prize given by the Goethe Institute.


Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962), le Carré's first two novels, are mystery fiction. Both feature a retired spy, George Smiley, investigating a death: first, the apparent suicide of a suspected communist; second, a murder at a boy's public school. Although Call for the Dead evolves into an espionage story, Smiley's motives are more personal than political.[23] Le Carré's third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works; following its publication, he left MI6 to become a full-time writer. Although le Carré intended Spy as an indictment of espionage as morally compromised, audiences widely viewed its protagonist, the alcoholic spy Alec Leamas, as a tragic hero; in response, le Carré's next book, The Looking Glass War, was a satire about an increasingly deadly espionage mission which ultimately proves pointless.[24]

Most of le Carré's books are spy stories set during the Cold War (1945–91) and portray British Intelligence agents as unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work and engaged more in psychological than physical drama.[25] The novels emphasise the fallibility of Western democracy and of the secret services protecting it, often implying the possibility of East-West moral equivalence.[25] Moreover, they experience little of the violence typically encountered in action thrillers and have very little recourse to gadgets. Much of the conflict is internal, rather than external and visible.[25] The recurring character George Smiley, who plays a central role in five novels and appears as a supporting character in four more, was written as an "antidote" to James Bond, a character le Carré called "an international gangster" rather than a spy and whom he felt should be excluded from the canon of espionage literature.[26] In contrast, he intended Smiley, who is an overweight, bespectacled bureaucrat who uses cunning and manipulation to achieve his ends, as an accurate depiction of a spy.[27]

A departure from the use of the Cold War as a backdrop in this era is the spy novel The Little Drummer Girl (1983), which is set against the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People (The Karla trilogy) brought Smiley back as the central figure in a sprawling espionage saga depicting his efforts first to root out a mole in the Circus and then entrap his Soviet rival and counterpart, code named Karla. The trilogy was originally meant to be a long-running series that would find Smiley dispatching agents after Karla all around the world. Following the success of the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor, le Carré no longer felt that he could properly write Smiley, feeling he had gone from a literary character to an English icon.[28] Smiley's People marked the last time Smiley would feature as the central character in a le Carré story, though he would bring the character back for supporting roles in The Secret Pilgrim and A Legacy of Spies.

A Perfect Spy (1986), which chronicles the boyhood moral education of Magnus Pym and how it leads to his becoming a spy, is the author's most autobiographical espionage novel, reflecting the boy's very close relationship with his con-man father. Biographer Lynndianne Beene describes the novelist's own father, Ronnie 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". Le Carré's only non-genre novel, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), is the story of a man's postmarital existential crisis.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, le Carré's writing shifted to portrayal of the new multilateral world. His first completely post-Cold War novel, The Night Manager (1993), deals with drug and arms smuggling in the murky world of Latin America drug lords, shady Caribbean banking entities, and western officials who look the other way.

As a journalist, le Carré wrote The Unbearable Peace (1991), a nonfiction account of Brigadier Jean-Louis Jeanmaire (1911–1992), the Swiss Army officer who spied for the Soviet Union from 1962 until 1975.[29]

In 2009, he donated the short story "The King Who Never Spoke" to the Oxfam "Ox-Tales" project, which included it in the project's Fire volume.[30]

In a September 2010 TV interview with Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, le Carré remarked on his own writing style that, since the facts that inform his work were widely known, he felt it was his job to put them into a context that made them believable to the reader.[31]

Credited by his pen name, le Carré appeared as an extra in the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, among the guests at the Christmas party in several flashback scenes. He records a number of incidents in his autobiographical The Pigeon Tunnel. Stories from My Life (2016) from his period as a diplomat; including escorting six visiting German parliamentarians to a London brothel[32] and translating at a meeting between a senior German politician and Harold Macmillan.[32]


Le Carré feuded with Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses, stating that "nobody has a God-given right to insult a great religion and be published with impunity".[33]

In January 2003, The Times published le Carré's essay "The United States Has Gone Mad".[34] Le Carré contributed it to a volume of political essays titled Not One More Death (2006). Other contributors include Richard Dawkins, Brian Eno, Michel Faber, Harold Pinter, and Haifa Zangana.[35][36]

In 2017, le Carré stated,

I think of all things that were happening across Europe in the 1930s, in Spain, in Japan, obviously in Germany. To me, these are absolutely comparable signs of the rise of fascism and it’s contagious, it’s infectious. Fascism is up and running in Poland and Hungary. There’s an encouragement about.[37]



  • Call for the Dead (1961), ISBN 0-143-12257-6
  • A Murder of Quality (1962), ISBN 0-141-19637-8
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), ISBN 0-143-12475-7
  • The Looking Glass War (1965), ISBN 0-143-12259-2
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968), ISBN 0-143-12260-6
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), ISBN 0-143-11975-3
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), ISBN 0-143-12093-X
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), ISBN 0-143-11973-7
  • Smiley's People (1979), ISBN 0-340-99439-8
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983), ISBN 0-143-11974-5
  • A Perfect Spy (1986), ISBN 0-143-11976-1
  • The Russia House (1989), ISBN 0-743-46466-4
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990), ISBN 0-345-50442-9
  • The Night Manager (1993), ISBN 0-345-38576-4
  • Our Game (Hodder & Stoughton 1995), ISBN 0-345-40000-3
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996), ISBN 0-345-42043-8
  • Single & Single (1999), ISBN 0-743-45806-0
  • The Constant Gardener (2001), ISBN 0-743-28720-7
  • Absolute Friends (2003), ISBN 0-670-04489-X
  • The Mission Song (2006), ISBN 0-340-92199-4
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008), ISBN 1-416-59609-7
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010), ISBN 0-143-11972-9
  • A Delicate Truth (2013), ISBN 0-143-12531-1
  • A Legacy of Spies (Penguin 2017), ISBN 978-0-735-22511-4[38]
  • Agent Running in the Field (Viking 2019), ISBN 1984878875


  • The Good Soldier (1991), collected in Granta 35: The Unbearable Peace
  • The United States Has Gone Mad (2003), collected in Not One More Death (2006), ISBN 1-844-67116-X
  • Afterword (2014), an essay on Kim Philby, published in A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre[39]
  • The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016)[40]

Short stories

  • "Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn?" (1967), in Saturday Evening Post, 28 January 1967
  • "What Ritual is Being Observed Tonight?" (1968), in Saturday Evening Post, 2 November 1968
  • "The Writer and The Horse" (1968), in The Savile Club Centenary Magazine and later The Argosy (and The Saturday Review under the title "A Writer and a Gentleman")
  • "The King Who Never Spoke" (2009), in Ox-Tales: Fire, 2 July 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 (republished in 1995 as Smiley Versus Karla in the UK; and John Le Carré: Three Complete Novels in the U.S.), ISBN 0-394-52848-4


Executive producer



After many years of working with various producers who made film adaptations of his novels, two of Cornwell's sons, Simon and Stephen, founded the production company Ink Factory in 2010. This was to produce adaptations of his works as well as other film productions. The Ink Factory has produced the films A Most Wanted Man and Our Kind of Traitor, and the TV series The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl.



  • The Russia House (1994), BBC Radio 4, featuring Tom Baker as Barley Blair
  • The Complete Smiley (2009–2010) BBC Radio 4, an eight-part radio-play series, based on the novels featuring George Smiley, commencing with Call for the Dead, broadcast on 23 May 2009, with Simon Russell Beale as George Smiley, and concluding with The Secret Pilgrim in June 2010[41]
  • A Delicate Truth (May 2013), BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime, recorded by Damian Lewis[42]
  • Abridged excerpts from The Pigeon Tunnel, broadcast as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week, commencing on 12 September 2016[43]



In 2010, le Carré donated his literary archive to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The initial 85 boxes of material deposited included handwritten drafts of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener. The library hosted a public display of these and other items to mark World Book Day in March 2011.[44][45]

Awards and honours


In February 1999, le Carré was the guest in an episode of BBC Radio 4's Bookclub broadcast with presenter James Naughtie and an audience in Penzance.[59]

In October 2008, a television interview on BBC Four was broadcast, in which 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 and The Constant Gardener.[60]

In September 2010, le Carré was interviewed at his house in Cornwall by the journalist Jon Snow for Channel 4 News. The conversation involved several topics: his writing career generally and processes adopted for writing (specifically about his latest book, Our Kind of Traitor, involving Russia and its current global influences, financial and political); his SIS career, discussing why – both personally and more generally – one did such a job then, as compared to now; and how the earlier fight against communism had now moved to the hugely negative effects of certain aspects of excessive capitalism. During the interview he said that it would be his last UK television interview. While reticent about his exact reasons, those he was willing to cite were that of slight self-loathing (which he considered most people feel), a distaste for showing off (he felt that writing necessarily involved a lot of this anyway) and an unwillingness to breach what he felt was the necessarily solitary nature of the writer's work. He was also wary of wasting writing time and dissipating his talent in social success, having seen this happen to many talented writers, to what he felt was the detriment of their later work.[61]

A week after this appearance, le Carré was interviewed for the TV show Democracy Now! in the United States. He told the interviewer, Amy Goodman, "This is the last book about which I intend to give interviews. That isn't because I'm in any sense retiring. I've found that, actually, I've said everything I really want to say, outside my books. I would just like—I'm in wonderful shape. I'm entering my eightieth year. I just want to devote myself entirely to writing and not to this particular art form of conversation."[62][63]

The December 2010 Channel 4 broadcast John Le Carre: A Life Unmasked was described as his "most candid" television interview.[64]

In the February 2013 edition of Sunday Morning, at the end of his conversation for CBC's Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel, le Carré told her, "You do it better than anyone I know" and that this would be his last interview.[65]

Le Carré was interviewed at the Hay on Wye festival on 26 May 2013. The video of the event is offered for sale by le Carré to raise money to keep Hay Library open.[66]

Le Carré appeared on 60 Minutes with Steve Kroft in September 2017.[67][68]

When interviewed by Marian Finucane on RTÉ Radio 1 on 26 October 2019, le Carré stated that he has taken an Irish passport; qualifying through his grandmother Olive Wolfe who was born in Rosscarbery.[69]


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  27. Parker, James (26 October 2011). "The Anti–James Bond".
  28. le Carré, John (2011). Introduction to Smiley's People. Penguin Books Reprint edition. ISBN 978-0143119777
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Further reading

  • Aronoff, Myron J. The Spy Novels of John le Carre: Balancing Ethics and Politics. Palgrave. ISBN 0-312-21482-0 (HB), ISBN 0-312-23881-9 (PB).
  • Beene, LynnDianne (1992). John le Carré. New York: Twayne Publishers.
  • "British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940, First Series". Dictionary of Literary Biography. 87. 1989.
  • Bruccoli, Matthew J.; Baughman, Judith S., eds. (2004). Conversations with John le Carré. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-57806-669-8.
  • 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).
  • 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. doi:10.3200/CLUS.23.4.25-37. ISSN 0742-4248.
  • le Carré, John (15 April 2013). "The Spy Who Liked Me; on the set with Richard Burton and Martin Ritt". The New Yorker. pp. 28–32. (contains a 1965 photograph of actor Richard Burton and author John le Carré sitting together on the movie set of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold")
  • Monaghan, David (1986). Smiley's Circus: A guide to the Secret World of John le Carre. Orbis Book Publishing. ISBN 978-0-85613-916-1.
  • Sisman, Adam (2015). John le Carré: The Biography (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781408827932.
  • Snyder, Robert Lance. John le Carré's Post-Cold War Fiction. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2017.

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