A giant of literary fiction, for six decades John le Carré dominated the best-seller lists with a genre of his own creation, combining penetrating psychological insight with complex plotting and a mastery of language.
Mining his own experience as an officer in both MI5 and MI6, Le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell, forged an entire fictional universe from the murky, morally compromised world of espionage in the Cold War era. As that war waned, he turned his pen to exploring and exposing what he saw as a post-imperial world riddled with injustice and political corruption.
Prodigious in his output and rigorous in his work ethic, he wrote 25 books, starting in 1961, and won global acclaim in 1963 with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, hailed by Graham Greene as “the best spy story I have ever read”.
Unique among modern writers, he created a language — with words such as “mole”, “the circus”, “ferrets”, and “lamplighters” — that entered modern parlance, and was even adopted by the intelligence services themselves.
Le Carré wrote in the midst of political confrontation, but much of the conflict he explored was internal and personal, the struggles of flawed individuals to find meaning in a morally compromised world.
“The best spy story I have ever read.”
Much of the inspiration for the rogues and tricksters that inhabit his books came from his father, Ronnie, a charming, feckless con man who lost several fortunes and was imprisoned for fraud. “People who have had unhappy childhoods are pretty good at inventing themselves,” he once wrote.
The duplicity of men like the KGB spy Kim Philby, who used the class system to hide their true allegiances, runs through much of his writing. “The privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on earth,” says George Smiley in The Secret Pilgrim. “Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damn fool.”
John le Carré wrote about a world of lies, from which he created books luminous with truth.
Ben Macintyre is the author of several books, most recently The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War