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Creator / John le Carré

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"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)

David John Moore Cornwell (19 October 1931 - 12 December 2020), better known by his pen name John le Carré, was an English author of thriller novels. He is probably the English language's most respected Spy Fiction writer and certainly one of its best-known, with 14 of his 26 novels getting television or cinematic adaptations, some of them more than once.

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), among both the public and, apparently, real spies.

Le Carré died from pneumonia on 12 December 2020 at age 89.

In November 2023 it was announced that Le Carré's son Nicholas Cornwell would be writing a new George Smiley novel.


  • Call for the Dead (1961): Introduces George Smiley and his agency, the Circus, along with future antagonist Hans-Dieter Mundt, an ex-Nazi now serving as a hitman for the Stasi. Adapted as The Deadly Affair (1966), with James Mason.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962): Smiley ends up investigating a murder at a public school. Less a spy novel than a classic British murder mystery featuring retired spies. Adapted as a TV movie in 1991, with Denholm Elliot as Smiley.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963): A direct sequel to Call for the Dead with a newly-promoted Mundt now the main antagonist. Alec Leamas, the head of the Circus's West Berlin station, is due to be discharged after Mundt kills most of his agents, but he is instead recruited into an elaborate plot to bring Mundt down. Adapted into a film starring Richard Burton as Leamas, with a TV adaptation by the people behind The Night Manager planned. Both film and book are considered classics. Le Carré wrote it as a response to Ian Fleming.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965): The Department, the Circus's less-successful rival, receives reports of missile buildup in East Germany, and dispatch their runner, John Avery, to investigate. Avery reactivates Fred Leiser, a retired agent in the midst of a midlife crisis, to serve as his eyes and ears behind the Iron Curtain. It was Le Carré's second attempt at "Do Not Do This Cool Thing" and is even more cynical than In From the Cold. Adapted into a film featuring Anthony Hopkins as Avery.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968): Set in the Bonn Republic, it deals with the disappearance of a German employee at the British embassy, a possible mole who's vanished along with a significant number of confidential files. Alan Turner, sent by Security to investigate, finds himself clashing with diplomats who are more concerned with keeping up appearances than actually finding the missing man. The story's set against a backdrop of delicate EEC negotiations and the rise of the Movement, a new far-right force in German politics, all of which aggravates the disagreements between Turner and his hosts.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971): Le Carré's only non-spy novel, and his first semi-autobiographical one, about a love triangle.
  • 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 (the second, considering its setting—mid-1970s Southeast Asia—was 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 Smiley.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983): Le Carré leaves the Cold War to focus on terrorism, mostly the Arab–Israeli Conflict. Le Carré strays from "Stale Beer," with sexy honey traps (including the protagonist) and a Tall, Dark, and Handsome Israeli field agent who recruits said protagonist on Mykonos. Adapted into a film starring Diane Keaton, and a much-better-received miniseries starring Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgård, and Michael Shannon.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986): A semi-autobiographical novel, adapted into a miniseries by the BBC.
  • The Russia House (1989): Set in the crumbling USSR amidst Glasnost and Perestroika. Adapted into a film starring Sean Connery.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990): Was long intended to be Smiley's farewell. A collection of reminiscences from Ned of The Russia House, through the prism of Smiley giving lectures to new recruits. It ends with Smiley delivering an Author Filibuster about the promises and perils of the post-Cold War world.
  • The Night Manager (1993): The first post-Cold War novel, and another departure from Stale Beer. A troubled veteran of Northern Ireland finds himself recruited to help British Intelligence take down a charming, amoral arms dealer. Adapted by the BBC in 2016 as a very expensive six-part series starring Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston. In mid-2021, Netflix reported that a second series is in pre-production.
  • Our Game (1995): Le Carré's first foray into the newly-born Russian Federation, specifically the tumultuous North Caucasus.
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996): A semi-comical novel about a self-serving British agent in Panama just after the transfer of sovereignty over the Canal Zone. Written as a tribute to Graham Greene (Author), specifically Our Man in Havana. Adapted into a film starring Pierce Brosnan.
  • Single & Single (1999): Returns to post-Cold War Europe, this time to focus on money laundering.
  • The Constant Gardener (2001): a British diplomat investigates his wife's murder in Kenya, and stumbles upon corruption in the pharmaceuticals industry. Adapted into a film starring Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes.
  • Absolute Friends (2003): Le Carré's first novel dealing with the War on Terror.
  • The Mission Song (2006): Set in the war-torn Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008): Based on the real-life extraordinary rendition case of Murat Kurnaz. 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): An attempt to arrest a suspected terrorist in Gibraltar goes disastrously wrong, prompting a ruthless coverup attempt by Her Majesty's Government.
  • The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016): Le Carré's memoirs, in which he recounts his troubled childhood, his brief time on Her Majesty's Secret Service, and his career as a writer. Readers of his will recognize a lot of real-life experiences that inspired his books.
  • A Legacy Of Spies (2017): George Smiley's protegé Peter Guillam is called to account for something that happened long ago - the death of Alec Leamas. He revisits a now-centenarian Smiley for advice. A reflective post-script to the whole series.
  • Agent Running in the Field (2019): Le Carré's first (and eventually only) novel of the Brexit and Donald Trump era, it addresses the 21st-century's wave of right-wing populism in the West and Russian political meddling.
  • Silverview (2021): his last novel, published posthumously, revolving around a civilian bookseller who gets drawn into an MI-6 investigation aimed at stopping leaks.

Le Carré's novels in general contain examples of:

  • Accidentally-Correct Writing: He did this uncannily often. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold depicted the Stasi's inner workings so accurately that Markus Wolf, the Stasi's second-in-command, read the book obsessively for years, suspecting that Le Carré had somehow gotten insider's information about how the Stasi ran its operations.
  • 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-flavored spy.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Beyond a brief introductory paragraph in the first book, virtually nothing is known of Smiley's childhood, family, or wartime service. We'll get occasional hints as to his past that are so few and far between they can be jarring and ask more questions than they answer, such as a line in Smiley's People that he spent part of his childhood in Germany's Black Forest.
  • 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.
    • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold really plays with this. Fiedler is a ruthless spymaster with a reputation for casually killing anyone who gets in his way. He's also a Jewish Holocaust survivor who's the sole non-Aryan in the Stasi, and who constantly feels at risk from his ostensible allies. Once Leamas meets him he realizes that they're more alike than he ever realized and that Fiedler is just as much a helpless cog in the espionage machine as he is.
  • Arc Welding: A Legacy Of Spies does this for the Smiley novels - specifically The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It is revealed that characters from Tinker, like Jim Prideaux and Connie Sachs were part of the group that planned the mission Alec Leamas was sent on in Cold. Moreover, it is also revealed that after the events of Cold, Hans Dieter Mundt was exposed to the Soviets as a British mole by Bill Haydon.
  • Based on a True Story: Most of his books have at least a grain of true events in there, although Le Carré always said that people overstated his books' "authenticity." (On at least one occasion claiming that his inspiration was the fantasy that the real spycraft must be being done at a level he had no access to.) 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.
    • When The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was published, the press quickly discovered that David Cornwell was Le Carré and that he was a spy, and concluded that he had shown how intelligence really worked. John himself insisted that it is not authentic, but this wasn't enough to stop some of his former colleagues from being enraged at him for writing too openly about British intelligence, and in a way that made them look bad.
    • It has been repeatedly speculated that Fiedler, a high-ranking East German intelligence officer in The Spy Who came in from the Cold, was based on Markus Wolf, the real-life head of the Stasi's foreign intelligence operations: both Fiedler and Wolf were Jewish, and in an early draft, Fiedler's name was "Wolf." Le Carré always denied this, insisting that he hadn't known who Wolf was and that if he had, he wouldn't have written Fiedler with any sympathy at all.
    • There's further- and much more sound- speculation that Karla, the villain of the Smiley trilogy, was meant to be an analogue for Wolf. Both are high-ranked and ruthless spymasters who are beyond bribery and corruption. The one physical description we get of Karla even matches Wolf's real appearance. Many real-life spies have pointed out that the KGB was rife with corruption and many officers were flipped by Western intelligence simply by bribing them, while the Stasi were "true believers" and much more difficult to turn, keeping in line with le Carre's description of Karla and his team at Moscow Centre.
  • 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.
  • Book Ends: The Smiley books are bookended by Smiley's involvement with Mundt and poor Alec Leamas, as decades later, Peter Guillam is held to account for that Berlin operation.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Toby Esterhaze is a con-man who deals in counterfeit art and lives in the dry cleaning shop he owns. He's also one of the Circus' top spies and the head of their domestic surveillance unit, The Lamplighters, who themselves are made up of an array of homeless people, families, and Eastern Europeans that live in a trailer camp in a hidden car park behind Esterhaze's dry cleaners. It speaks to Esterhaze's value that despite his role in the Bill Haydon debacle, he's the only one who survives termination and is brought back for the subsequent books. When Smiley comes back for one final job in Smiley's People, Esterhaze is one of the few people he trusts to help with the assignment, despite Esterhaze's louche nature.
  • Commie Nazis: These appear several times. Hans-Dieter Mundt, the antagonist of In from the Cold, started his career in the Hitler Youth before joining East German intelligence. The East German jailer who appears towards the end denounces Jews in language that would fit right in at a Nuremberg rally. Also possibly Bill Haydon in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" if you take his sketchy Motive Rant for granted.
  • Con Man: Toby Esterhaze of the Circus. It's implied multiple times that he has a side business dealing counterfeit art, which the Circus turns a blind eye to because he's such a good agent. In The Secret Pilgrim, his final appearance, he 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.
  • Defictionalisation: Some of the Spy Speak and Technobabble that le Carré just made up, such as "tradecraft", is now actually used by MI-5 and MI-6 agents in Real Life.
  • Downer Ending: In more than one case.
    • The Looking Glass War ends with Leiser abandoned in East Germany, either to be shot by the police or subjected to a show trial before execution, and the entire Department will either be laid off for their blunder or absorbed into The Circus in low-echelon positions.
    • In A Small Town in Germany, Turner realizes that Harting disappeared because he has evidence that Karlfeld, the prominent politician running for office, participated in Nazi war crimes. Turner intuits that Harting intends to assassinate Karlfeld at an upcoming rally. As Turner searches the crowd, Karlfeld delivers a pro-Nazi speech that culminates in Harting missing his shot. Karlfeld's men kill him and ostensibly retrieve the evidence, with the implication that Karlfeld will win the election.
    • In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley exposes the mole as Bill Haydon and intends to trade him for several spies Moscow Centre has been keeping as hostages, but Jim Prideaux murders him before they can initiate the swap, with Smiley implying Moscow will now simply kill the spies in revenge.
    • In The Honourable Schoolboy, Jerry Westerby betrays The Circus in order to protect Elizabeth from a potential reprisal for her involvement with the Ko Brothers, but the CIA and Circus find out and assassinate him. Westerby's warning turns out to be for naught because the CIA intercepts the Kos and abduct Nelson, then freeze the Circus out of interrogations due to Westerby's blunder. Possibly mildly subverted if Guillam's supposition that Smiley let things go so wrong in order to get himself fired, which he is.
    • In Smiley's People, Smiley finally convinces Karla to turn himself in by using Karla's mentally ill daughter as a bargaining chip in negotiations. A major threat to the West has been eliminated, but Smiley feels he lost the moral vicory by sinking as low as Karla, and takes no joy in his victory.
    • In The Little Drummer Girl, Charlie survives the operation and the assassins responsible for killing civilians in Europe have all been identified and killed. Charlie has also come to see that both sides of the Israel/Palestinian conflict are just as ruthless as one another and suffers a nervous breakdown after seeing Khalil die and learning all the people she befriended in Palestine died in a bombing, sinking into alcoholism and depression.
  • 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.
  • Inter-Service Rivalry: Common, from The Looking-Glass War onwards. The Secret Intelligence Service, the British military, the Foreign Office, and even Scotland Yard often distrust one another, sometimes even sabotaging each other's work.
  • 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.)
  • My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: One writer for The Atlantic titled an article "John le Carre Knew England's Secrets", and opined "he revealed more about the country's ruling class than any political writer of his era." Needless to say, his portrayals were not flattering.
  • 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.) The CIA are "The Cousins."
  • Prequel: A Legacy of Spies effectively serves as one for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In addition to exploring Alec Leamas' backstory, the novel reveals how and why Hans Dieter Mundt became a British mole, and the planning of the covert operation that Leamas was sent on.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: In his introduction to "The Honourable Schoolboy," le Carre revealed that he intended the Smiley series to run beyond three books and feature the conflict with Karla and Moscow Centre reaching multiple corners of the globe. After le Carre went to an active war zone in Cambodia to research the book, though, he was so traumatized by his experience he realized how petty and meaningless the MI 6/KGB conflict had become and decided to end it with his next book, Smiley's People.
  • Retcon: Smiley loses about a decade or so off his age between Call for the Dead and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Guillam also becomes a much younger protege of Smiley's as opposed to a contemporary. The same may hold true for A Legacy of Spies, unless Smiley is meant to be in his 100s.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Very often, and sometimes seemingly in advance of the headlines. Given Le Carré's M.O. of doing extensive field research while writing his books, he probably had some insight into how events were moving in real life.
    • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a retelling of the real-life Kim Philby scandal.
    • A Most Wanted Man deals with the USA's policy of extraordinary rendition of European citizens suspected of having jihadist ties, a major diplomatic thorn between the US and Europe at the time.
    • Agent Running in the Field is set amidst the bitter controversy surrounding Brexit, the Trump administration's many scandals, and fears that Russia was using right-wing populist movements to pit the USA, Britain, and the EU against each other.
    • As for books that were seemingly published ahead of the headlines: a few months after Single & Single was released, there was a minor scandal involving Citibank laundering money for Russian Mobsters. Le Carré 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.
  • 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.
    • A Legacy of Spies does this for A Spy Who Came In From The Cold; it is discovered that the grand deception plan that cost Alec Leamas his life at the Berlin Wall was for naught as Hans-Dieter Mundt was shortly afterwards called to Moscow for a conference - and never seen again; the implication being that Bill Haydon 'blew' him to the KGB. It also reveals that Karla killed himself after his defection.
  • Snobs Versus Slobs: The British class system is a pervasive theme in his books.
    • The Secret Service, historically drawn from old Etonians, Oxbridge, and the like, gets along poorly with the more middle-class military and the blue-collar Scotland Yard.
    • In A Small Town in Germany, protagonist Alan Turner, sent to Bonn by Security to investigate a disappearance, is blue-collar and an unwelcome presence among the upper-class diplomats.
    • Within the Secret Service, the gentleman-spy types are disdainful of their less traditional colleagues: military men who were recruited for their distinguished service, Eastern European immigrants, women, and Jews. This becomes disastrous when the blue-blooded Bill Haydon takes advantage of Control's prejudice against Scots to turn him against Percy Alleline, setting Control up to be fired when he launches a disastrous operation partially intended to humiliate Alleline. Haydon then manages to run the Circus for years even though, as Smiley muses, everyone knew deep down that Bill was the traitor they'd been hunting the whole time. They just couldn't admit that a member of their own social class could ever turn against them.
    • One of the reasons for George and Ann Smiley's many marital ruptures is the awkwardness that their social discrepancy causes. Ann comes from landed gentry (she's technically Lady Ann) while Smiley is decidedly lower-middle-class.
  • The Sociopath: Such characters appear again and again, sometimes working for Western intelligence, sometimes working against it, and sometimes as neutral actors. In particular, A Murder of Quality delves into sociopathy's nature, in the form of both the victim and the murderer.
    • "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "The Honourable Schoolboy" feature Fawn, a bodyguard assigned to protect Smiley during his investigation, and whom Guillam muses is probably unhinged. We get confirmation of this when a boy on a bike tries to steal his watch while he's stopped at a traffic light. Fawn grabs hold of the boy when the light turns green and drags him for some distance with the car before stopping, getting out, and breaking both of his arms before a horrified Guillam.
    • "The Scalphunters," the assassination branch of the Circus from which Fawn was drawn, is made up of lower-class and foreign-born spies who, when they're not on-duty, are kept as virtual prisoners in a building surrounded by barbed wire or broken glass for fear of them getting loose. Jim Prideaux, a former military man who saw action in WWII, is placed in charge of them because the Circus believes only someone who's seen brutal combat is capable of keeping them in line. When the decidedly less macho and inexperienced Peter Guillam is later placed in charge of them, he lives in a constant state of terror.
  • Spy Speak: "The Sandman is making a legend for a girl" and thousands of other examples.
  • Technical Advisor: Is well known for this, and his acknowledgments pages are always entertaining for the presence of journalists, technical experts, diplomats, arms dealers, etc. — many of which he states he cannot name. He began traveling to the various locations in his novels, beginning with The Honourable Schoolboy, which he set in Southeast Asia when virtually every country there was undergoing some kind of civil war.
  • Those Two Guys: Le Carré often gives his senior spy antagonists a pair of assistants tasked with keeping eyes on the hero. They are usually young, good looking, terribly friendly and quite competent.
  • The 'Verse: Some of his non-Smiley novels share characters in common, and some novels which don't centre around Smiley still include him as a cameo. The Russia House and The Night Manager are unambiguously in the same continuity as the Smiley stories, for instance, through the characters of Ned and Burr. Interestingly, it was done retroactively - there's no mention of familiar characters in The Russia House, but The Secret Pilgrim reveals Ned first worked under Smiley and revealed how "the Fall" affected the Circus, even down to changing from the slighly whimsical nickname of "The Circus" to the more plain "Service".
    • With the 2021 announcement that The Night Manager would be getting a second series, it appears that the 'verse might expand after Le Carré's death, but with the project showing signs of Development Hell this remains to be seen.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Several, throughout the Smiley novels.
    • A Legacy of Spies omits any mention of Guillam's marriage and unborn child.
    • A throwaway line in The Secret Pilgrim indicates Percy Alleline has died sometime after the events of Tinker Tailor, but no further information is given.
    • Fawn totally vanishes from Smiley's People after having been a prominent supporting character in the previous two books in the trilogy.
  • White-Collar Crime: Very common in his post-Cold War novels, particularly money laundering.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole: Downplayed in Le Carré's second novel, A Murder of Quality. The victim, Stella Rode, was an outright psychopath who ran the gamut from taunting people to blackmailing them, for nothing but her own amusement. However, we don't learn about this until late in the book, so it doesn't affect Smiley's investigation.
  • Write What You Know: Le Carré had a short tenure working as an actual spy.

Alternative Title(s): The Little Drummer Girl, The Secret Pilgrim, The Night Manager, Our Game, The Tailor Of Panama, Single And Single, Agent Running In The Field, Silverview, A Delicate Truth, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends, The Mission Song, The Smiley Series