Call for the Dead, 1960
A Murder of Quality, 1962
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1963
The Looking-Glass War, 1965
A Small Town in Germany, 1968
The Naive and Sentimental Lover, 1971
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1974
The Honourable Schoolboy, 1977
Smiley’s People, 1980
The Little Drummer Girl, 1983
A Perfect Spy, 1986
The Russia House, 1989
The Secret Pilgrim, 1991
The Night Manager, 1993
Our Game, 1995
The Tailor of Panama, 1996
Single and Single, 1999
The Constant Gardener, 2000
Smiley’s People, 1982 (adaptation of his novel; with John Hopkins)
A Murder of Quality, 1991 (adaptation of his novel)
Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn, 1966
The End of the Line, 1970
The Tailor of Panama, 2001 (adaptation of his novel; with Andrew Davies)
The engrossing espionage thrillers of John le Carré (leh kuh-RAY) are in reality complex character studies disguised as spy novels, a fact that has won him a degree of critical acclaim quite rare in a field dominated by plot and action rather than moral complexity. Le Carré was born David John Moore Cornwell, the son of Ronald and Olive (Glassy) Cornwell. His father was a charming swindler and confidence man who sometimes used his young son as a front for his illegal schemes; this childhood experience would form the basis for le Carré’s highly autobiographical novel A Perfect Spy. Like Magnus Pym, the novel’s troubled central character, le Carré was reared by his father in a world of limousines, private schools, and luxury–all of which might disappear overnight when one of the elder Cornwell’s swindles was uncovered. It was a life that schooled le Carré in the intricacies of secrecy and deception.
John le Carré
In an effort to break with his father, le Carré attended Bern University in Switzerland and later studied German at Oxford University. He served briefly as an intelligence agent following World War II, taught French and Latin at Eton College, and joined the British Foreign Service in 1961. Although the true nature of his work with the diplomatic service remains unknown, the level of knowledge of clandestine activities in his books suggests the possibility that he was, in fact, a spy.
It was during this period that le Carré’s first book, Call for the Dead, was published, and he adopted the pseudonym John le Carré in response to a Foreign Office regulation. Both an espionage novel and a murder mystery, the book introduces George Smiley, the rotund, bespectacled, middle-aged agent who has become le Carré’s best-known character and the central figure in many of his novels. The antithesis of the dashing James Bond, Smiley is a brilliant, retiring man with an unprepossessing manner and the tenacity of a bulldog. He is also a man with very human flaws and weaknesses, the most notable of which is his ongoing devotion to his promiscuous, aristocratic former wife, Ann.
Smiley is also featured in le Carré’s second novel, A Murder of Quality, which finds him briefly retired from the Secret Service and assisting an old friend with a murder case set in an exclusive boys’ school. It was with his third novel, however, that le Carré first achieved international fame. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold relegates Smiley to a minor supporting role and focuses on Alec Leamas, a double agent whose carefully prepared position as a false defector to the Eastern Bloc is threatened when he falls in love. The book became a much-praised best-seller and was later made into a film starring Richard Burton.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold introduces an important theme in le Carré’s work: the often underestimated importance of what Graham Green termed “the human factor” in even the best-laid intelligence plans. Again and again in le Carré’s novels, countries are betrayed, networks of informers are exposed, and powerful agents are brought down by human emotions–the uncontrollable variable in the complex equation of international intelligence. Le Carré’s books concern themselves not with the secret that is betrayed but rather with the chink in a character’s psychological armor that makes the betrayal possible.
The success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold allowed le Carré to leave the Foreign Service and devote himself to his writing. He followed the book with two more espionage novels, The Looking-Glass War and A Small Town in Germany, then temporarily abandoned the field for an exploration of adult relationships in The Naive and Sentimental Lover. In 1974 he published Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the first of the three books which make up the “Karla trilogy.” The novel brings George Smiley back from retirement to ferret out a highly placed “mole”–a double agent–in the British Secret Service. Le Carré followed the book with The Honourable Schoolboy, a complicated thriller set in Hong Kong that finds Smiley putting into play a dangerous plan to outwit Karla, the mysterious head of the Soviet Secret Service. The third book, Smiley’s People, brings the long rivalry between Smiley and Karla to a close as Smiley, now the head of British intelligence, finds the psychological key–an emotionally disturbed daughter–that forces Karla to defect.
The Karla trilogy explores another theme crucial to le Carré’s work: the devastating effect of a life of secrecy and betrayal on the men and women who live it. At the conclusion of Smiley’s People, Smiley must confront the knowledge that, in his desire to defeat Karla, he has resorted to the same cold-blooded tactics that Karla himself has used so well. As Smiley reflects, “I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his. We have crossed each other’s frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man’s-land.”
Le Carré’s next novel, The Little Drummer Girl, was his first to feature a woman as the central character. Its intriguing premise centers on a plan to turn a left-wing actress into a government agent and use her to entrap a deadly Middle Eastern terrorist. In his exploration of the characteristics that make his heroine capable of such a dramatic transformation, le Carré lays the groundwork for A Perfect Spy and its painful examination of Magnus Pym’s convoluted psychological makeup. Both books examine the question of what it is that makes an individual capable of the duplicity that is necessary to serve–or betray–one’s country as a secret agent.
The end of the Cold War brought with it dramatic changes in the world of espionage that had long served as le Carré’s fictional milieu. The Russia House focuses on an English publisher thrust by the vagaries of détente into the role of intelligence agent, while The Night Manager examines another dark realm of complicity and betrayal on an international scale–the shadowy world of drug and arms smuggling. The Secret Pilgrim offers a look back at a lifetime of spying by a longtime agent, and Our Game uses the collapse of the Soviet Union as the backdrop for a story of two former spies and the complicated bond between them.
In The Tailor of Panama, Le Carré brings satire into the spy-novel mix. The tailor in question, dragooned into working for British Intelligence, concocts a left-wing movement intended to incite the United States to invade Panama and thereby render void the treaty that has the United States returning the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. Single and Single returns to straight spy territory, as Oliver Single, a children’s party magician and the son of a corrupt banker, attempts to stop a ring of thieves appropriating blood donated for disaster relief. The Constant Gardener adds a murder mystery to the spy plot; Justin Quayle, a retired diplomat living in Nairobi, attempts to solve the mystery of his young wife’s murder and avenge her death.
Le Carré is a novelist who has chosen to make his particular thematic points by working within a specific genre of popular fiction. By playing consistently against the clichés of the traditional espionage novel–glamour, heroics, fast cars, beautiful women, and an emphasis on plot over character–he has won praise for his books’ depth and realism. The important action in le Carré’s novels is largely interior, and their purpose is always to illuminate rather than simply to entertain, a fact that has not hindered their popularity or interfered with their regular appearances on best-seller lists. His work is convincing proof that any form of popular fiction in the hands of a gifted writer can serve as a medium for ideas that reach far beyond a given genre’s trappings.