John le Carré, author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, The Looking Glass War Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and many others has died. He was 89. According to his literary agency, Curtis Brown, the author died in Cornwall in southwest England on Saturday after a short illness that was not related to COVID-19.
Best known for his cold war thrillers, le Carré was one of the top selling novelists in the world. The New York Times today remembered le Carré fondly.
In a career spanning more than a half-century, Mr. le Carré wrote more than two-dozen books and set them as far afield as Rwanda, Chechnya, Turkey, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. He addressed topics as diverse as the power of pharmaceutical companies, the Arab-Israeli conflict and — after the Berlin Wall fell and his novels became more polemical, and he became more politicized — American and British human-rights excesses in countering terrorism.
If he had political points to make, and he increasingly did, he still gift-wrapped them with elegant, complicated plots and dead-on descriptions; he could paint a whole character in a single sentence. He was a best seller many times over, and at least a half dozen of his novels — including “A Perfect Spy” (1986), which Philip Roth pronounced “the best English novel since the war” — can be considered classics. But he will always be best known for his Cold War novels, a perfect match of author and subject.
Born David John Moore Cornwell in 1931, who spent many years as a spy. It was that occupation that led to his pen name. Again, from the NYT:
Forbidden by his employers to write under his own name, the author fixed on “John le Carré.” Over the years he gave various explanations for it, finally admitting that he could not remember which, if any, were true.
The Los Angeles Times today remembered Le Carré, as well.
With fellow Briton Graham Greene, Le Carré helped redefine the spy novel, and showed that, when done well, such works could be read as high art. Le Carré won few literary awards — primarily because he refused to enter the contests and routinely declined nominations. At least seven of his works were adapted to film, beginning with “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” in 1965 and including the Oscar-nominated “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” in 2011 and “The Constant Gardener” in 2005, for which Rachel Weisz won a best supporting actress Oscar.
Although most spy-genre novels focus on action, Le Carré’s work stood out for his obsession with the gray areas of morality, human weakness and failure, and the machinations of governments — which can become meat grinders for the truth.
Author Stephen King maybe said it best, and said it for all of us:
John le Carre has passed at the age of 89. This terrible year has claimed a literary giant and a humanitarian spirit. ◊