Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: John le Carré, 1931-2020


John le Carré was born on October 19, 1931 and died of pneumonia on December 12, 2020.  He was a prolific author of espionage novels (more than two dozen spanning nearly 60 years), he was a spy himself, a member of MI5 and MI6 from 1958 until 1964.  Yes, that year.  His career was affected and ended by the defection of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five to the Soviet Union.

When it comes to authors of espionage, I prefer Len Deighton, but John le Carré was still worth reading.  And re-reading.  His tales of Cold War espionage showed how dirty, violent and immoral it was, especially in “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold”.  There were no heroes, only survivors.  Richard Burton’s “Cowboys and Indians” speech from the film of the same name truly captures the era and the attitudes of those involved.

The end of the Cold War did not deprive him of source material.  As someone with inside knowledge of politics and dirty work, he knew and could see changes and dangers in the world after communism – corporatism, terrorism, and other issues.

John le Carré, author of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dies aged 89

John le Carré, who forged thrillers from equal parts of adventure, moral courage and literary flair, has died aged 89.

Le Carré explored the gap between the west’s high-flown rhetoric of freedom and the gritty reality of defending it, in novels such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager, which gained him critical acclaim and made him a bestseller around the world.

On Sunday, his family confirmed he had died of pneumonia at the Royal Cornwall Hospital on Saturday night. “We all deeply grieve his passing,” they wrote in a statement.

[. . .]

According to Le Carré, the novel’s (“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”) runaway success left him at first astonished and then conflicted. His manuscript had been approved by the secret service because it was “sheer fiction from start to finish”, he explained in 2013, and so couldn’t possibly represent a breach in security. “This was not, however, the view taken by the world’s press, which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving me with nothing to do but sit tight and watch, in a kind of frozen awe, as it climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.”

[. . .]

As the cold war came to a close, friends would stop him in the street and ask: “Whatever are you going to write now?” But Le Carré’s concerns were always broader than the confrontation between east and west, and he had little patience for the idea that the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled any kind of end either for history or the espionage that greased its mechanisms. He tackled the arms trade in 1993 with The Night Manager, big pharma in 2001 with The Constant Gardener and the war on terror in 2004 with Absolute Friends.

More below the fold.

Obituaries and accolades have poured in from across the globe.

The Guardian: ‘Titan of English literature’: tributes flow for John le Carré

BBC: How fact met fiction in Le Carré’s secret world

The Independent UK: John le Carre death: Stephen King leads tributes to ‘literary giant’ behind The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl

RogerEbert.com: John le Carré: 1931-2020

Here is a 2002 interview with John le Carré.  He comes across as much more personable than one would expect:

That is the best and most perfect use of intransitive verbs in a title I have ever done.

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