Britain’s espionage writer, John le Carré dies at 89

John le Carré.
John le Carré.

One of Britain’s best-known authors, David Cornwell popularly known as John le Carré has died at the age of 89 following a short illness, his literary agent, Jonny Geller has said.

Jonny Geller described him as an “undisputed giant of English literature” who “defined the Cold War era and fearlessly spoke truth to power”.

“We will not see his like again,” he said in a statement.

Geller said he represented the novelist for almost 15 years and “His loss will be felt by every book lover, everyone interested in the human condition”.

“We have lost a great figure of English literature, a man of great wit, kindness, and intelligence. I have lost a friend, a mentor and an inspiration.”

A statement shared on behalf of the author’s family said: “It is with great sadness that we must confirm that David Cornwell – John le Carré – passed away from pneumonia last Saturday night after a short battle with the illness.

”David is survived by his beloved wife of almost 50 years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon.

“We all grieve deeply his passing. Our thanks go to the wonderful NHS team at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro for the care and compassion that he was shown throughout his stay. We know they share our sadness.”

The statement said his death was not Covid-19 related.

Several of John le Carré’s 25 works were turned into films including The Constant Gardener, The Tailor of Panama and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, while the Night Manager became a successful BBC television series.

His most famous character, George Smiley, who first appeared in Call for the Dead, has been played by actors including Rupert Davies, Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman.

Paying tribute to John le Carré, author Stephen King said in a tweet: “This terrible year has claimed a literary giant and a humanitarian spirit.”

Historian and novelist, Simon Sebag Montefiore described him as “the titan of English literature” and said he was “heartbroken”.

Historical fiction writer, Robert Harris said he was “one of the great post-war British novelists” and “an unforgettable, unique character”.

Born as David Cornwell in Poole, Dorset, in 1931, he wrote under the pseudonym of John le Carré. He studied at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, and then Oxford, before entering a career in undercover intelligence.

After teaching at Eton for two years he joined the Foreign Office and was initially based at the British Embassy in Bonn.

During his time there he worked in the intelligence records department, giving him access to files with insights into the workings of the secret service.

He also wrote his first novel, Call For The Dead, which was published in 1961.

This meant the need for a pen name as foreign office officials were not allowed to publish books under their own name.

In 1963, his third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, brought him worldwide acclaim and allowed him to take up writing full time.

John Le Carré said his manuscript was approved by the secret service because they “rightly if reluctantly” concluded it was “sheer fiction from start to finish” but he said the world’s press took a different view, deciding the book was “not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side”.

His career as a spy came to an end in 1964 after his name was one of many given to the Soviet Union by a double agent, an incident which inspired a plotline in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

John Le Carré, who spent a relatively brief period with MI6, published his first novel in the same year that the Berlin Wall went up: 1961.

Yet long after the Cold War ended, decades later, he went on to diversify into writing about the arms trade, Big Pharma and the so-called War on Terror.


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