John le Carré was the pen name of David Cornwell, who died on 12th December 2020, aged 89. He was a best-selling, international writer. Of his nineteen mainly espionage novels, many have been made into successful films.
During his national service in 1950 he worked for the Intelligent Corps in Austria. Later, he studied at Lincoln College Oxford and graduated with a first-class degree in modern languages before becoming an Mi5 officer in 1958.
From the 50s to the 60s he worked for Mi5, then Mi6. However, he left in 1964 after his cover was blown by the double agent Kim Philby, later depicted as the traitor in “tinker, tailor, soldier, spy”
In fact, many of Le Carré’s characters were based on people he knew, like his conman father, Ronnie Cornwell, who became Rick Pym in “The perfect spy” or Lord Clanmorris, the role model for George Smiley.
Most of Le Carré’s novels were set in or after the cold war era. Although they were works of fiction, he was able to draw on his own experience in espionage to create his storylines. This is especially evident in his best best-known novel “The spy who came in from the cold”
According to historian Simon Schama, Le Carré’s writing is “a sharp-focused portrait of his age” As for literary critic Neil Hayes Le Carré “paints a vivid, often exaggerated portrait of characters out of place in their context” like George Smiley, the antithesis of James Bond”
To sum-up Le Carré’s writing, its hallmark is meticulous construction and a detailed rich, elegant style in which thrilling plots are combined with a measured formal narrative.
John le Carré was not just a writer, he was also a strong critic of modern politics and was pessimistic about the future of western democracy.
But it is as a literary master for a generation that John le Carré will certainly take his place in the great Pantheon of English writers.
Written by Veronica Smith, member of AGO