Obituary: John le Carré

John le Carré was the pseudonym of the author David Cornwell, judged by many to be the master of the spy novel.

Meticulously researched, and elegantly written, many of his books reached a wider audience through TV and film adaptations.

Le Carré stripped away the glamour and romance that were a feature of the James Bond novels and instead examined the real dark and seedy life of the professional spy.

In the twilight world of le Carré’s characters the distinction between good and bad, right and wrong was never that clear cut.

David John Moore Cornwell was born on 19 Oct 1931 in Poole, Dorset.

His father, known as Ronnie, was a fraudster, described by one biographer as “an epic con man of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values.

Those exploits gave the young Cornwell an early introduction to the arts of deception and double-dealing which would form the core of his writing.

His mother walked out when he was five and the young David invented the fiction that his father was in the secret service to explain his many absences from home.

After attending Sherborne School he went on to the University of Berne to study foreign languages.

He did his military service in the Army Intelligence Corps, running low grade agents into the eastern bloc before going to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he gained a BA.

After teaching at Eton for two years he joined the Foreign Office, initially as Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Bonn.

During his time there he worked in the intelligence records department and began scribbling down ideas for spy stories on his trips between work and home.

His first novel, Call For The Dead, appeared in 1961 while he was working for the intelligence service.

He adopted the pen name, John le Carré, to get around a ban on Foreign Office employees publishing books under their own name.

The story introduced characters who would reappear in subsequent novels including his most famous creation, George Smiley.

“The moment I had Smiley as a figure, with that past, that memory, that uncomfortable private life and that excellence in his profession, I knew I had something I could live with and work with.”

Le Carré’s career as a spy ended when he became one of many British agents whose names were given to the Russians by the traitor Kim Philby.

Philby, who defected to Moscow, later became the inspiration for the mole “Gerald” in Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

It was his third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which cemented his reputation and allowed him to take up writing full time.

Published at the height of the Cold War it challenged the perception held by many of his readers, that western spies were above the dirty tricks practiced by their counterparts in the east.

The novel won the Golden Dagger award for crime fiction and was turned into a memorable film with Richard Burton in the role of the disillusioned spy, Alec Leamas.

In direct contrast to Ian Fleming’s romantic James Bond fantasies, le Carré portrayed his spies as fallible human beings, fully aware of their own shortcomings and those of the systems they served.

Le Carré believed that The Looking Glass War, published in 1965, was his most realistic description of the intelligence world in which he had worked, and cited that as the main reason for its lack of success.

The follow up, A Small Town in Germany, was set in Bonn, where le Carré had worked, and warned of the dangers posed by a revival of the far right in German politics.

In 1971 he published an autobiographical novel The Naïve And Sentimental Lover, based on the break up of his first marriage to Alison Sharp.

His character, George Smiley, re-emerged in his trilogy, Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

The books took his readers deep into “the circus” with jargon such as “honey trap”, “mole” and “lamplighter” becoming common parlance.

They also raised serious questions about the lengths to which even democracies would go to preserve their own secrets, something that exercised le Carré greatly.

He argued that in a world where official secrecy is all-pervasive, the spy novel performed a necessary democratic function. To hold up a mirror, however distorted, to the secret world and demonstrate the monster it could become.

Ironically, he delighted in maintaining secrecy in his own personal life, refusing for many years to even acknowledge that he had been a spy himself.

He jealously guarded his privacy, travelling alone and incognito when he set off to research his novels.

For years he refused invitations to do any interviews, maintaining that what he wrote was “the stuff of dreams, not reality” and he was not, as the press seemed to imply, an expert on espionage.

As the Soviet bloc began to implode le Carré switched his attention to the conflict in Palestine with his 1983 novel The Little Drummer Girl.

Three years later he finally managed to exorcise the memory of his father with the publication of A Perfect Spy, which many critics consider his most accomplished work.

The life of the spy, Magnus Pym, is dominated by memories of his father Rick, a rogue and con-man whose character is firmly based on Ronnie Cornwell.

In 1987, after years of being ostracised by the Soviet authorities, le Carré was given permission to spend two weeks in Russia, as a guest of the Soviet Writers’ Union.

It was rumoured that the wife of the Russian leader, Raisa Gorbachev, was a fan of le Carré’s books and that she had a hand in gaining the necessary Kremlin approval for the trip.

His output continued to be prolific with a 1989 novel, The Russia House, marking the end of the Cold War, and the reappearance of George Smiley in The Secret Pilgrim in 1991.

The 1996 novel, Tailor of Panama was inspired by the Graham Greene story, Our Man in Havana, while The Constant Gardener, published in 2000, saw him switch his attention corruption in Africa.

In 2003 he joined a number of writers attacking the US led invasion of Iraq in an essay entitled, The United States of America Has Gone Mad.

“How Bush and his junta succeeded in deflecting America’s anger from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein is one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history”, he wrote.

His remarks probably contributed to accusations of anti-American bias in his 2004 book Absolute Friends, an examination of the lives of two radicals from 1960s America, coming to terms with advancing age.

In 2006 his 20th novel, Mission Song, detailed the sometimes complex relationships between business and politics in the Congo.

Notably self-disparaging about his own achievements he consistently refused honours, insisting that there would never be a Sir David Cornwell.

“A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself”, he once said. “And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue”.

Man dies in north-west London triple stabbing

A man has died and two others have been injured in a triple stabbing in north-west London.

The victim, aged in his 20s, was found with stab wounds in St Anns Road, Harrow, after 19:15 GMT, the Met Police said.

He died at the scene and a post-mortem examination will follow. Two other injured men were taken to hospital.

Police have launched a murder investigation. No arrests have been made.

A crime scene remains in place around the St Anns Road and Station Road area – near to Harrow-on-the-Hill Tube station.

A Section 60 stop and search order has been authorised for Harrow and will expire at 10:49 on Monday, the Met said.

John le Carré: Cold War novelist dies aged 89

British espionage writer John le Carré has died aged 89, following a short illness, his literary agent has said.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy author died from pneumonia on Saturday night.

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.

Mr 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, humour 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.”

Born as David Cornwell in 1931, he wrote under the pseudonym of John le Carré.

He was educated at the universities of Bern, in Switzerland, and Oxford, before entering a career in undercover intelligence.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, published in 1963, brought him worldwide acclaim and he then left the service to write full time.

Suspected gas explosion causes Lincolnshire house collapse

A house has collapsed after a gas explosion is believed to have ripped through the property.

The explosion happened in Holly Close in Bourne, Lincolnshire, at about 09:10 GMT causing severe damage.

A male occupant suffered minor injuries and is a “little shaken”, Lincolnshire Police said.

A spokesperson said the scene had been assessed and it had been deemed that there was no need to evacuate any other properties.

The force said: “Whilst a full investigation is to be conducted, we believe it is probably a gas explosion.”

Newham stabbing: Two arrests after boy killed in street

Two more people have been arrested after a 15-year-old boy was stabbed to death in east London.

The teenager was found fatally injured in Woodman Street, near the Royal Docks in Newham, on Friday evening.

Scotland Yard said a boy, 17, had been arrested on suspicion of murder, while a 28-year-old man was held on suspicion of attempted murder.

A 25-year-old man who was previously arrested on suspicion of murder has been released with no further action.

Det Ch Insp Mark Wrigley said officers were “still working to establish exactly what took place on Friday night” but that the two new arrests were “a positive step in our investigation”.

“The senseless killing of a 15-year-old has understandably shocked the community,” he said.

The two arrested males remain in custody.

Boy and man arrested after teenager found dead in Lincolnshire

A 14-year-old boy and a 19-year-old man have been arrested on suspicion of murdering a teenager found dead in Lincolnshire.

The boy was discovered on a patch of common land behind Alcorn Green in Fishtoft, near Boston on Saturday.

Police said final identification was yet to take place, but it was believed he was of secondary school age.

Det Supt Martyn Parker said: “This is a devastating incident in which a young boy has lost his life.”

Police have appealed for anyone with external facing CCTV covering the junction of Freiston Road and Woodthorpe Avenue between 20:00 GMT on Friday and 10:20 GMT on Saturday to get in touch.

They also have asked for footage covering the entire length of Wing Drive and Alcorn Green between the same times.

Det Supt Parker added: “This type of incident is not what we would expect to see within our communities.

“I want to reassure the public that we will do all in our power to meticulously investigate the circumstances of this young boy’s death.”

Three donkeys die in New Forest national park crash

Three donkeys have died in a crash in the New Forest national park.

A car hit them at about 07:00 GMT on Saturday in Roger Penny Way, where donkeys, cattle and horses roam freely,

New Forest National Park Authority (NNPA), which manages the site and campaigns to reduce animal accidents, described the deaths as “truly shocking”.

Hampshire Constabulary is investigating but said it was not yet known if the donkeys were wild.

The force is appealing for witnesses. No people were injured in the crash.

The New Forest is one of the largest remaining areas of unenclosed land where Commoners’ cattle, ponies and donkeys roam throughout the open heath.

In 2019, 58 animals were killed and 32 were injured, the NNPA said.

Spokesman Nigel Matthews said: “For three donkeys to lose their lives together like this is truly shocking.

“We appeal to drivers to please slow down on the unfenced roads of the New Forest.

“The Commoners’ animals are out all year round, day and night, and you should expect them to be on the roads or to step out without warning.”