Follow TV Tropes


Creator / John le Carré

Go To

"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 (born 19 October 1931), better known by his pen name John le Carré, is 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.

His novels:

  • Call for the Dead (1961): Introduces George Smiley and his agency, The Circus. 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. Adapted as a TV movie in 1991 with Denholm Elliot as Smiley.
  • Advertisement:
  • The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963): adapted into a film staring Richard Burton, 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.
  • The Looking-Glass War (1965): The Department, the less successful rival to The Circus, receives reports of missile buildup in East Germany, and dispatch their runner, John Avery, to investigate. Avery reactivates a retired agent, Fred Leiser, and sends him into East Germany. Adapted into a film featuring Anthony Hopkins as Avery.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968): Set in Bonn, amidst the political rise of a right-wing populist, with an anti-Western message and a shadowy past connected to the Third Reich. Le Carré wrote it out of fear that unreconstructed Nazis might make a comeback in German politics; today, it has the feel of an Alternate History novel.
  • Advertisement:
  • 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. Adapted into a film starring Diane Keaton and a BBC miniseries starring Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgård, and Michael Shannon.
  • 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): For a long time the 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): Le Carré's first novel dealing with the War on Terror
  • 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): George Smiley's protegé Peter Guillam is called to account for something that happened long ago - the death of Alec Leamas. He revisits Smiley for advice. A reflective post-script to the whole series.
  • Agent Running in the Field (2019)

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-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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.)
  • 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 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, 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 Circus" to plain "the Service".
  • 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


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: