Obituary

Spy author John le Carre dies of pneumonia, aged 89

British spy author John le Carre, writer of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager, has died aged 89, his family and literary agent said late on Sunday.

Le Carre, a former British intelligence officer whose real name was David Cornwell, turned his love for the double cross and the surprise twist into more than 20 books over six decades.

He also brought a degree of accuracy to the spy stories and, as his books were adapted for film and TV, characters such as George Smiley became loved, even with their shortcomings.

Le Carre died on Saturday evening in Cornwall, where he lived, said his agent Jonny Geller of the Curtis Brown Group.

His wife of nearly 50 years, Jane, and sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon, said in a statement that he died on Saturday night after a short battle with pneumonia.

"We all grieve deeply his passing," they said, thanking staff at the hospital in Cornwall, south-west England, for their care. "We know they share our sadness," they added.

He shot to fame during the chilly depths of the Cold War as master of the spy thriller, before evolving to become a scathing chronicler of the moral costs of globalisation.

Age did not wither the writer's anger at the establishment, with Brexit breathing new life into his espionage oeuvre.

In 2019, he urged Britons to "join the resistance" as they prepared to vote in a general election.

He opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and his anger at the US was evident in his later novels, which sold well and were turned into popular films but did not match the mastery of his Cold War bestsellers.

Fellow writers, actors and fans from around the world have paid tribute.

Gary Oldman, who starred in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, released a statement, saying: “For me, John le Carre was many things. He was, of course, a very great author, the true ‘owner’ of the serious, adult, complicated, spy novel – he actually owned the genre … He was generous with his creativity and always a true gentleman.”

American author Stephen King paid tribute by revealing that The Little Drummer Girl was "one of the best novels I've ever read", while calling le Carre a "literary giant and a humanitarian spirit".

The New York Times called him "the pre-eminent spy writer of the 20th century".

American writer Philip Roth called A Perfect Spy "the best English novel since the war", and author Graham Greene said his 1963 breakthrough work, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, was "the best spy story I ever read".

Richard Moore, chief of the UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), said le Carre had left his mark on the service through his novels.

Le Carre's characters chronicled the amoral methods used by western and Communist-bloc intelligence services to expose double agents during the Cold War.

The author, who made espionage terms such as “mole” and “honey trap” popular, adapted his plots after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, giving them more contemporary settings.

Le Carre's works produced for cinema and TV include the 1965 film The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, starring Richard Burton, The Russia House with Sean Connery, and A Most Wanted Man, with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Alec Guinness starred as Smiley in the BBC's seven-part TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1979, and Smiley's People three years later.

John le Carre was a nom de plume adopted while he was working in diplomatic postings for the British government, which prohibited him from publishing under his own name.

“In the old days, it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer,” Le Carre once wrote on his website.

“I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British intelligence.”

David John Moore Cornwell was born October 19, 1931, in Poole, in the southern English county of Dorset.

His mother, Olive, abandoned the family when he was 5 and they didn’t meet again until he was 21, when he tracked her down after his father had told him she was dead.

His father, Ronnie, mixed in London's criminal circles, according to a 2011 article in The Telegraph newspaper.

He and his older brother, Tony, were forced to help his father elude the law, sparking the future author’s interest in secrets and deception.

Simon Rushton

Simon is an award-winning journalist who spent many years covering international and UK national news for a variety of organisations including CNN.com, inews.co.uk and BBC news online.