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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 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.


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


  • Call for the Dead (1961): Introduces George Smiley and his agency, the Circus, along with future antagonist Hans-Dieter Mundt serving as a hitman for The Stasi. 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. 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 West Berlin station of the Circus, is on the verge of being discharged after Mundt kills most of his agents, but he is instead recruited as part of an elaborate plot to bring Mundt down. Adapted into a film staring 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, telling readers curious about the "secret world" to Do Not Do This Cool Thing.
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  • 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 amidst the political rise of a right-wing populist with an anti-Western message and a shadowy Nazi past. Le Carré wrote it out of fear that the German far right might make a comeback; today, it has the feel of an Alternate History novel.
  • 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 (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 confirmed that a second series is in 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, 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.

His novels in general 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-flavored 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.
  • 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; 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.
  • 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.
  • Bookends: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 regard one another with mistrust and compromise each other's work.
  • 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.)
  • My Country Tisof 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.)
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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
  • 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, 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 even 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 is getting a second series, it appears that the 'verse is going to expand, at least a bit, after Le Carré's death.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: A Legacy of Spies omits any mention of Guillam's marriage and unborn child.
  • White-Collar Crime: Very common in his post-Cold War novels, particularly money laundering.
  • 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: Le Carré had a short tenure working as an actual spy.

Alternative Title(s): Call For The Dead, A Murder Of Quality, The Looking Glass War, The Little Drummer Girl, The Secret Pilgrim, A Small Town In Germany, 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