Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. John le Carré, novelist and former spy

John le Carré
John le Carré
Photo: Andreas Rentz (Getty Images)

According to The Hollywood Reporter, British novelist John le Carré—best known for his many spy novels, including The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—has died. The news was confirmed by his literary agency, Curtis Brown, which said he died after a “short illness” that was reportedly unrelated to COVID-19. He was 89.

Le Carré, born David John Moore Cornwell in 1931, famously worked as an actual spy in addition to just writing about them. In the ‘50s, after studying foreign languages, he got a job with the British military interrogating German people who had crossed from the East into the West. With the Cold War still in full-swing, he later started working with MI5 to investigate far-left Soviet sympathizers at a college in Oxford. He eventually became a full-blown MI5 officer, albeit covertly, running various clandestine operations and working as a teacher.

He started writing his first novel, Call For The Dead, around this time, and in 1960 he was transferred to MI6, England’s foreign intelligence service. Subsequent books like A Murder Of Quality and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold had to be written under a pseudonym, then, as per the government’s rules against foreign agents publishing with their own name to protect their identities. It didn’t matter, though, because in 1964 a KGB double agent named Kim Philby exposed le Carre’s cover (along with a number of other British agents) and his spy career came to an end. This event was dramatized a decade later in le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in which his recurring protagonist George Smiley hunts a high-level Soviet mole within The Circus—spy jargon for MI6's London headquarters, either coined or simply popularized by le Carre’s books.


After his work in espionage came to an end, le Carré became a full-time novelist. His spy books, which were more about internal conflicts and moral drama rather than violence and action, were often regarded as a rejection of James Bond—who le Carre’s himself once referred to as a “neo-fascist gangster.” Le Carré continued writing after the end of the Cold War, and while the character George Smiley was largely retired (he was, after all, a regular human and not a superhero), le Carré stuck with spies and spy-adjacent stories for books like The Night Manager, The Tailor Of Panama, and The Constant Gardener. His most recent novel, Agent Running In The Field, came out in 2019 and concerns a Cold War veteran reckoning with with life in a world where something like Brexit can happen.

Le Carre’s books have also been reliable source material for adaptations, like The Little Drummer Girl, Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie’s version of The Night Manager or the 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Gary Oldman as Smiley (and a whole host of famous faces alongside him).

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