During a 1996 interview with Andrew Ross, the British writer David Cornwell, better known by his nom de plume John Le Carré, was asked the secret behind his prolific output—he had been churning out a book every two years since the 1960s. The then-65-year-old Le Carré replied, “When you’re my age and you see a story, you better go for it pretty quickly. I'd just like to get a few more novels under my belt.” It was a typically self-effacing reply from the man who would finish with 28 books in a 60-year-long writing career.
Le Carré was widely considered to be the master of the spy thriller, and among the greatest British novelists since World War II. His third novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) put Le Carré on the literary map, going on to become his first-ever international bestseller. Over the next five decades, books like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Night Manager (1993), The Tailor of Panama (1996) and The Constant Gardener (2001) achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success, not to mention memorable film and TV adaptations starring the likes of Alec Guinness, Rachel Weisz, Gary Oldman and Hugh Laurie.
Le Carré’s most famous character, the Cold War-era British spymaster George Smiley, was developed as “an antidote to James Bond” by the author’s own admission. He felt that the reading public’s ideas about the ethics and the day-to-day realities of spying had been warped by the over-the-top aesthetics of the James Bond stories.
If James Bond was supposed to be the acme of British masculinity (even though he has now been canonically retconned into Scottish ancestry), George Smiley was a deliberate converse—bespectacled, rotund, submissive and seemingly frozen in stasis in his mid-60s, all of which served to cloak his “inner cunning”, encyclopaedic knowledge and unmatched talent for spycraft. To drive this point home, most of the ‘action’ (running, chasing, shooting, killing) in Le Carré’s novels happened ‘offscreen’. Instead, Smiley and company were left to ponder the political and moral consequences of these actions alongside the reader.
Smiley, like Le Carré’s other British intelligence officers, was patriotic but also possessed with a sense of righteous fury about the pettiness of governments and bureaucrats everywhere. (According to the author, Smiley hoped to see a truly united Europe during his lifetime, which is why we see him confused, alienated and struggling to make sense of Brexit in the 2017 novel A Foreign Place.) Through a combination of geopolitical rhetoric and some typically dry British humour, they made this contrarian stance clear, unlike Bond and company who continued to pledge their un-ironic fealty to queen and country.
A recurring bit of dialogue from the Jason Bourne film franchise, arguably the most popular American spy series of all time, goes: “Look at us, look what they (referring to the CIA) make you give”. Bourne could have been paraphrasing George Smiley. Although Smiley continued to feature in several Le Carré books up until 2017’s A Legacy of Spies, his peak as a protagonist was the so-called “Karla Trilogy”—which includes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979)—named after Smiley’s arch-nemesis, the eponymous KGB chief.
Karla was also the source of a rare Indian connection for Le Carré fans: according to the internal chronology of the Smiley books, Karla was arrested in Delhi in 1951 and interrogated by Indian authorities for a good few months before he contrived to get himself transported back to Moscow. Because the Indian government was more likely to listen to a request from the Soviet Union in those days (as opposed to Smiley’s bosses in the UK, the colonial power ruling India until literally four years ago at that point in time), Karla successfully evades Smiley here.
Le Carré had no shortage of childhood inspiration when it came to sketching his supervillains. While he never knew his mother (she abandoned him when he was five), his father Ronald “Ronnie” Cornwell was an incorrigible, superficially charming con artist who later exploited his son’s fame for his confidence tricks. Pretending to be his son’s business manager, Ronnie would swindle people out of their money.
On one occasion, Le Carré was confronted by a woman who claimed that the author had slept with, and then ran out on, her; Le Carré eventually realised it was Ronnie impersonating him. Outside of Le Carré’s own experience as a British spy (1958-1964), Ronnie was the primary model for a lot of his villains, like the suave arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper in The Night Manager (played by Hugh Laurie in the BBC miniseries), described as “the worst man in the world”.
In the introduction to a 1991 edition of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Le Carré wrote: “I knew what it was like (…) to be brought up by a man so oversized that your only resort as his child was to subterfuge and deceit. And I knew, or thought I knew, how easily the anger and inwardness thus born could turn themselves into a love-hate relationship with the father images of society, and finally with society itself.”
It’s a common mistake to view Le Carré as a spy novelist alone—as journalist and writer Ian Buruma wrote in The Nation in 2016, his books were also a part of another genre “at which British writers tend to excel: the comedy of manners”. So much of a spy’s success depends, after all, on the details of what people of different classes wear, how they talk, what they eat, and so on. Good spies aren’t just chameleons, they’re people who feel entirely at ease in a wide range of socio-economic settings.
Le Carré himself, during his time at Oxford, regularly wined and dined with his upper-class friends—and also infiltrated leftist student organisations that he deemed to be a potential threat to national security (he later expressed regret over his actions, but maintained he was acting to safeguard British interests).
On the very first page of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, for example, we meet a character named Thursgood who’s reasonably wealthy but not very well-read. While spelling out the name “Prideaux”, therefore, he pronounces it correctly, having an inkling that it’s French. But as Le Carré shows us, he is forced to consult the piece of paper again while spelling out the e-a-u-x.
Le Carré’s descriptive sentences burst at the seams with kinetic energy while never compromising on elegance or visual details. As a result, very few writers were better at communicating a sense of place and time. Here, for instance, is another sentence from the aforementioned opening page of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: “The rain rolled like gun-smoke down the brown combes of the Quantocks, then raced across the empty cricket fields into the sandstone of the crumbling façades.”
In the last 20-odd years of his life, Le Carré grew increasingly disenchanted with both his own country and the United States of America. In January 2003, months before the Iraq war began, he denounced America’s decision to go to war in no uncertain terms in “The United States Has Gone Mad”, a fiery essay published by The Times. He called the planned invasion of Iraq “worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War”. By 2017, he was among those pointing out the parallels between contemporary authoritarian governments (Trump, Bolsonaro,et al) and 1930s Europe.
It would have been fascinating to see how Le Carré negotiated the realities of this fractured new world. But then, reading his novels isn’t always about finding the right answers. In fact, a typical Le Carré novel was far more likely to be about asking the right questions. For this reader at least, such an approach feels as worthy in life as in literature. As the man himself wrote in A Perfect Spy,“Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.”