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 (1931-) 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 and ends up investigating a murder at a public school. Not a spy novel so much as a straight murder mystery featuring some retired spies.
  • 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 Naïve 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): Le Carré's first departure from the Cold War, focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps the furthest Le Carré has strayed from Stale Beer-flavored Spy Fiction: It features sexy honey traps, a Tall, Dark and Handsome Israeli field agent, and an extended sequence on Mykonos. Its ending, though far from happy, is one of Le Carré's more optimistic ones. Adapted into a film starring Diane Keaton.
  • 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 first post-Cold War novel, adapted by the BBC in 2016 in a very expensive manner as a six-part series 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): adapted into a film starring Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, and Damian Lewis.
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
  • A Legacy Of Spies (2017): Featuring George Smiley's protege Peter Guillam, and promises to "close George Smiley's story" for good.

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.
  • 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.
  • Gender Flip: Burr from The Night Manager is made a woman in the miniseries, played by Olivia Colman, adding the institutional sexism of MI-5 and a pregnancy in the middle of the operation to her troubles.
  • Knowledge Broker: Connie Sachs, an ex-spy.
  • Mandatory Unretirement: George Smiley just can't stay retired. Call For The Dead, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People all have him pulled back into the Circus after an attempt at retirement. (And A Murder of Quality has him investigate a murder during one of those periods as a favour to an old friend.)
  • May–December Romance: Very common in the books, with romances between jaded spies and confused beautiful twenty-something women showing up in at least eight of his books. George Smiley himself marries a woman twenty years his junior, and his protege Peter Guillam follows suit. Connie Sachs enters a lesbian one when she knows she's dying in Smiley's People
  • 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
  • Setting Update: The miniseries of The Night Manager moves it from 1993 to contemporary 2015, with much use of updated technology, and Jonathan Pine's first encounter with Roper's machinations taking place during the Arab Spring.
  • Shaggy Dog Story: Often shows up to a greater or lesser extent for different characters.
    • The Looking-Glass War ends with Control sending Smiley to roll up the Department's little operation, leaving Fred Leiser to the Stasi and, it is implied, ending the Department's frankly pathetic attempts to compete with Control and the Circus. To make it worse, it seems the Circus knew all along their source was a fake, but the Department's bullheaded attempt to show up their competition meant they never learned this because they turned down the offers of help.
    • 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 vs. 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
  • The Verse: Some of his non-Smiley novels share characters in common. The Russia House and The Night Manager are unambiguously in the same continuity as the Smiley stories, for instance.
  • 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