Creator / John le Carré

"John le Carré's new espionage novel where... be honest, we had you at le Carré didn't we?"
— Advert for Our Kind of Traitor (2010)

John le Carré is an English author of thriller novels.

Real name David John Moore Cornwell, he was a real-life member of MI-5 and the Secret Intelligence Service until he was blown by Kim Philby to the KGB. While he was in the service, he started writing novels and carried on once he'd left.

His novels are definitely of the Stale Beer flavour of Spy Fiction, being very dark in places. Eight feature his most famous creation, George Smiley. Although most of his works - and all of his best-regarded ones - are definitely Spy Fiction, he is one of the rare "genre" authors to have seriously blurred the line between genre and Literary Fiction.

Has added several espionage Stock Phrases (and popularised existing ones), both among the public and, apparently, real spies.

His novels:

  • Call for the Dead (1961): adapted as The Deadly Affair (1966), with James Mason.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962): Smiley takes a brief retirement, becomes a public school teacher and has to investigate a murder.
  • The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963): adapted into a film and considered a classic. Le Carré wrote it as a response to Ian Fleming, telling readers curious about the "secret world" to Do Not Do This Cool Thing.
  • The Looking-Glass War (1965): adapted into a film.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968): Set in Bonn
  • The Naďve and Sentimental Lover (1971): Le Carré's only non-spy novel.
  • The Quest for Karla trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley's People (1979). The first and third were dramatised by The BBC (two, considering its setting—mid 1970s SE Asia—is a bit harder to do, but a radio adaptation exists) and starred Alec Guinness as George Smiley. A feature film of Tinker was released in 2011, starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983): adapted into a film starring Diane Keaton. Le Carré takes his first departure from the East-West axis of the Cold War, focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is also the furthest Le Carré has ever strayed from Stale Beer-flavored Spy Fiction: It features sexy honey traps and a Tall, Dark and Handsome Israeli field agent, and an extended early sequence takes place in the postcard picture version of Greece. Its ending, though far from happy, is one of Le Carré's more optimistic ones.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986): a semi-autobiographical novel, dramatised by the BBC.
  • The Russia House (1989): adapted into a film starring Sean Connery.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990): Last novel to feature Smiley, a collection of reminiscences from Ned of The Russia House.
  • The Night Manager (1993): The BBC is producing an adaptation starring Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston.
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996): the film of which starred Pierce Brosnan.
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001): adapted into a film starring Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes.
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008): adapted into a film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last roles.
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

John le Carré novels with their own trope pages include:

His other novels contain examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the books (Call for the Dead at any rate), George Smiley is described as short, plump, and always wearing ill-fitting clothes. "Shrunken toad" are the exact words used. Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman are both tall, thin, and very snappily-dressed for a Stale Beer-flavoured spy.
  • Anachronic Order: common; le Carré often goes back in time to explore the psychological development of his characters.
  • Anti-Villain: The first novel in particular. Two Jews who survived the Nazis, one in a concentration camp, wind up as spies because they fear another Holocaust.
  • Badass Israeli: A whole operational team of them in The Little Drummer Girl.
  • Based on a True Story: Most of his books have at least a grain of true events in there; Smiley is thought by some to be based on SIS chief Sir Maurice Oldfield, although Le Carré himself identified author and MI-5 officer John Bingham, 7th Baron Clanmorris, as Smiley's model.
  • Defictionalisation: Some spy-speak that le Carré just made up, such as "tradecraft", is now actually used by MI-5 and MI-6 agents in Real Life.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Very, very common. One of le Carré's trademark touches is that the price of success in matters of espionage is permanent emotional and psychological damage to those who have had to participate in betrayal.
  • Blackmail: Both by the Circus (a "burn") and by criminals.
  • Blue Blood: George Smiley's wife, Lady Ann. A Murder of Quality spends some time unpacking their relative social discrepancy; many people in her circle consider him a totally inappropriate husband.
  • Cold War
  • Con Man: Toby Esterhaze of the Circus, in The Secret Pilgrim, convinces the CIA that an exiled Hungarian professor - a charlatan, completely worthless agent - is an anti-Communist hero, so that the Americans take him off the British hands and put him on their own payroll.
  • Double Agent: Several.
  • Downer Ending: In more than one case.
  • Feed the Mole, Fake Defector... actually, most of the serious Espionage Tropes appear somewhere in le Carré's novels.
  • Knowledge Broker: Connie Sachs, an ex-spy.
  • May-December Romance: Very common in the books, with romances by jaded spies and confused beautiful twenty-something women showing up in eight of his books. George Smiley himself marries a woman twenty years his junior, and his protege Peter Guillam follows suit (with perhaps a bigger age gap).
  • Moscow Centre: Trope Namer.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Le Carré uses his own made-up code names for various organisations in order to avoid revealing classified information. For example, the KGB is always referred to as "Moscow Centre" and MI-6 is referred to as "The Circus" because its headquarters is on Cambridge Circus. (In reality, it wasn't. He saw a building there that he thought would be a good HQ for the agency.)
  • Retcon: Smiley loses about a decade or so off his age between Call for the Dead and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Several of his books have come out in advance of the headlines from which they might have been ripped. A few months after Single & Single was released, there was a minor scandal involving Citibank laundering money for Russian Mobsters. Le Carré's submitted his manuscript for Our Game, a book about a civil war breaking out in the Caucasus, about three months before the rekindling of war in Chechnya. And The Constant Gardener came out just as the New York Times published a series on the misdeeds of pharmaceutical companies in Africa.
  • Said Bookism
  • Shaggy Dog Story: A Most Wanted Man ends with all the central characters' efforts being effectively for naught, as Abdullah and Issa are subjected to extraordinary rendition. This is, of course, the entire point of the novel, as le Carré wrote the novel as a critique of the policy.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Quite cynical.
  • The Spymaster: "Control" and later Smiley himself.
  • Spy Speak: "The Sandman is making a legend for a girl" and thousands of other examples.
  • Truth in Television
  • Who Murdered the Asshole?: In Le Carré's second novel, A Murder of Quality, it turns out that the victim, one Stella Rode, ran the gamut from taunting people to outright blackmailing them (which is what finally gets her killed).
  • Write What You Know

Alternative Title(s): John Le Carre