The novelist John le Carre, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, dies on the age of 89

© Reuters. The author David Cornwell, known under the pseudonym John Le Carre, receives the Olof Palme Prize in Stockholm

By Guy Faulconbridge

(Reuters) – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy writer John le Carre, who tossed flawed spies on the bleak chessboard of Cold War rivalry, has died at the age of 89.

His agent said in a statement that David Cornwell, known to the world as John le is Carre died on Saturday evening after a brief illness in Cornwall in the south west of England.

“His like will never be seen again and his loss will be felt by any book lover, anyone interested in the human condition,” said Jonny Geller, CEO of the Curtis Brown Group.

Le Carre was survived by his wife Jane and four sons. The family said in a brief statement that he died of pneumonia.

In investigating the betrayal at the heart of British intelligence in spy novels, Le Carre challenged Western assumptions about the Cold War by defining for millions the moral ambiguities of the struggle between the Soviet Union and the West.

In contrast to the glamor of Ian Fleming’s unquestionable James Bond, the heroes of le Carre were trapped in the wilderness of the mirror of British intelligence, haunted by the betrayal of Kim Philby, who fled to Moscow in 1963.

“It’s no longer a gun warfare, George. That’s the problem,” says Connie Sachs, the British secret service alcoholic for Soviet spies, the spy catcher George Smiley in the 1979 novel “Smiley’s People”.

“It’s gray. Half angels fight half devils. Nobody knows where the lines are,” says Sachs in the last novel in Le Carre’s Karla trilogy.

Such a bleak portrayal of the Cold War shaped the Western perception of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States that ruled the second half of the 20th century until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

For Le Carre, the Cold War was “A Mirror War” (the name of his 1965 novel) without heroes and where morality was for sale – or treason – by spy masters in Moscow, Berlin, Washington and London.

The betrayal of family, lovers, ideology and land runs through Le Carre’s novels, in which the deception of spies is used to tell the history of the nations, particularly Britain’s sentimental failure to see its own post-imperial decline.

Such was his influence that Le Carre was credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with introducing espionage terms such as “mole”, “honey pot” and “street performer” into popular English usage.

British spies were furious that Le Carre portrayed MI6 intelligence as incompetent, reckless and corrupt. But they still read his novels.

Other fans have been Cold War warriors such as former US President George HW Bush and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.


David John Moore Cornwell was born in Dorset, England, on October 19, 1931, to Ronnie and Olive, although his mother, desperate over her husband’s infidelity and financial inappropriateness, left the family at the age of five.

Mother and son would meet again decades later, despite the fact that the boy who became Le Carre said he had endured “16 immeasurable years” under the care of his father, an extravagant businessman who was in prison.

At the age of 17, Cornwell left Sherborne School in 1948 to study German in Bern, Switzerland, where he became aware of British spies.

After a stay in the British Army, he studied German at Oxford, where he informed about his left-wing students for the British secret service MI5.

Le Carre received a first class degree before teaching languages ​​at Eton College, Britain’s most exclusive school. He also worked at MI5 in London before moving to the Secret Intelligence Service known as MI6 in 1960.

Cornwell, who was stationed in Bonn, the capital of West Germany at that time, fought on one of the toughest fronts of Cold War espionage: Berlin in the 1960s.

When the Berlin Wall went up, Le Carre wrote “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” in which a British spy is sacrificed for a former Nazi communist who is a British mole.

“What the hell do you think are spies?” Asks Alex Leamas, the British spy who is eventually shot at the Berlin Wall.

“They’re just a bunch of shabby, filthy bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, chicken-pecked husbands, officials playing cowboys, and Indians to brighten up their lazy little lives.”

Le Carre accused British spies as ruthlessly as their communist enemies, defining the Cold War confusion that left broken people after distant superpowers.


Now rich but with a failed marriage and far too famous to be a spy, Le Carre devoted himself to writing and the greatest betrayal in British intelligence history gave him material for a masterpiece.

The discovery, which began in the 1950s with the departure of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, that the Soviets had used recruited spies at Cambridge to break into British intelligence increased confidence in the once legendary services.

Le Carre incorporated the story of betrayal into the Karla trilogy, beginning with the 1974 novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and ending with “Smiley’s People” (1979).

George Smiley tries to track down a Soviet mole at the head of British intelligence and fights with the Soviet spy master Karla, the ultimate mole master who sleeps with Smiley’s wife.

Smiley, betrayed in love by his aristocratic wife Ann (also the name of Cornwell’s first wife), captures the traitor. Karla, compromised by trying to save his schizophrenic daughter, shows flaws in the West in the last book.


After the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia’s once powerful spies became impoverished, Le Carre focused on what he viewed as the corruption of the US-dominated world order.

From corrupt pharmaceutical companies to Palestinian fighters and Russian oligarchs to lying US agents and, of course, perfidious British spies, Le Carre drew a depressing – and sometimes polemical – view of the chaos of the world after the Cold War.

“The new American realism, which is nothing more than a crude corporate power shrouded in demagogy, means only one thing: America will put America first in everything,” he wrote in the foreword to “The Tailor of Panama”.

He defied the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and his anger at the United States was evident in his later novels, which sold well and became popular films, but which fell short of the mastery of his Cold War bestsellers.

But how much was true in a life of espionage?

“I am a liar,” Le Carre was quoted by his biographer Adam Sisman. “Born to lie, raised, trained and practiced as a writer by an industry that made a living.”

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