Legendary spy writer John Le Carre dies aged 89

The literary world has paid tribute to John Le Carré after the legendary spy author died following a short battle with pneumonia.

Sharing news of Le Carré’s death on Sunday night, literary agent Jonny Geller said: ‘His like will never be seen again.’  

Confirming the death was not Covid-19 related, Mr Geller said: ‘Our hearts go out to his four sons, their families and to his dear wife, Jane.

‘For six decades, John le Carré dominated the bestseller lists and review pages with his monumental body of work.’

The former British spy, born David Cornwell, transitioned from espionage to become one of Britain’s most critically acclaimed authors.

He had written 25 books under the pen name John le Carré, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener and The Night Manager.

His body of work dates back to 1961 – with his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, catapulting him into global acclaim in 1963.

John Le Carré, 89, died in Cornwall on Saturday following a short battle with pneumonia

John Le Carré, 89, died in Cornwall on Saturday following a short battle with pneumonia

John Le Carré, 89, died in Cornwall on Saturday following a short battle with pneumonia  

David Cornwell worked as a British spy until his name was passed on to Soviet Russia by a member of the Cambridge Five - a spy ring that was outed for passing information to the USSR in 1963

David Cornwell worked as a British spy until his name was passed on to Soviet Russia by a member of the Cambridge Five - a spy ring that was outed for passing information to the USSR in 1963

David Cornwell worked as a British spy until his name was passed on to Soviet Russia by a member of the Cambridge Five – a spy ring that was outed for passing information to the USSR in 1963

The author, who was born in Poole and educated at Sherborne School, worked for both MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s and 1960s.

After joining the Intelligence Corps of the British Army in 1950, he later worked covertly for MI5, spying on left-wing groups at Lincoln College, Oxford, to detect any potential Soviet agents.

He graduated from Oxford in 1956 with a first class degree in modern languages and began teaching at Eton College>

In 1958 he became an officer at MI5 where he conducted interrogations and carried out more covert activities like tapping phone lines and effecting break-ins.

Le Carre was drawn to espionage by an upbringing that was superficially conventional but secretly tumultuous.

Le Carre's third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was made into an acclaimed film starring Richard Burton. The actor and author are pictured together on set above

Le Carre's third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was made into an acclaimed film starring Richard Burton. The actor and author are pictured together on set above

Le Carre’s third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was made into an acclaimed film starring Richard Burton. The actor and author are pictured together on set above

The 89-year-old penned hugely successful novels including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was made into a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth (pictured at the premier together in 2011)

The 89-year-old penned hugely successful novels including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was made into a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth (pictured at the premier together in 2011)

The 89-year-old penned hugely successful novels including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was made into a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth (pictured at the premier together in 2011)

Novelist Robert Harris called le Carre 'one of those writers who really was not only a brilliant writer but he also penetrated popular culture - and that's a great rarity'

Novelist Robert Harris called le Carre 'one of those writers who really was not only a brilliant writer but he also penetrated popular culture - and that's a great rarity'

Novelist Robert Harris called le Carre ‘one of those writers who really was not only a brilliant writer but he also penetrated popular culture – and that’s a great rarity’

His father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a con man who was an associate of gangsters and spent time in jail for insurance fraud. His mother left the family when David was 5; he didn’t meet her again until he was 21.

It was a childhood of uncertainty and extremes: one minute limousines and champagne, the next eviction from the family’s latest accommodation.

‘These were very early experiences, actually, of clandestine survival,’ le Carre said in 1996. 

‘The whole world was enemy territory.’ 

As a British spy, David Cornwell worked for both MI5 and MI6, even carrying out interrogations and tapping phone lines as a means of surveillance

As a British spy, David Cornwell worked for both MI5 and MI6, even carrying out interrogations and tapping phone lines as a means of surveillance

As a British spy, David Cornwell worked for both MI5 and MI6, even carrying out interrogations and tapping phone lines as a means of surveillance 

David Cornwell (pictured receiving the Olof Palme Prize in January 2020), who gained critical acclaim under the pen name Le Carré, started writin novels while working as a British spy

David Cornwell (pictured receiving the Olof Palme Prize in January 2020), who gained critical acclaim under the pen name Le Carré, started writin novels while working as a British spy

David Cornwell (pictured receiving the Olof Palme Prize in January 2020), who gained critical acclaim under the pen name Le Carré, started writin novels while working as a British spy 

The pseudonym John Le Carre was created upon publishing his first book, Call for the Dead, as a means of getting round a ban on Foreign Officers publishing works under their own name. 

His career as a spy came to an end when it was revealed Kim Philby, one of the infamous Cambridge Five, had shared his true identity with Soviet Russia. 

The works of Le Carre were often praised for stripping away the glamorous life of a spy often depicted in James Bond novel and instead focusing on the gritter, darker aspects of the job. 

Mr Geller said: ‘His like will never be seen again, and his loss will be felt by every book lover, everyone interested in the human condition.We have lost a great figure of English literature, a man of great wit, kindness, humour and intelligence. 

‘I have lost a friend, a mentor and an inspiration.’ 

Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman starred in a 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Oldman playing George Smiley

Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman starred in a 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Oldman playing George Smiley

Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman starred in a 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Oldman playing George Smiley

Richard Burton starred in the 1965 adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was praised for its darker portrayal of spying, as opposed to Ian Fleming's Bond novels

Richard Burton starred in the 1965 adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was praised for its darker portrayal of spying, as opposed to Ian Fleming's Bond novels

Richard Burton starred in the 1965 adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was praised for its darker portrayal of spying, as opposed to Ian Fleming’s Bond novels

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold gained acclaim when it published

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold gained acclaim when it published

Richard Burton starred in an adaptation

Richard Burton starred in an adaptation

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was Le Carre’s first major success and the first to be adapted into a film, which starred Richard Burton, in 1965

The author felt a particular connection to the character of George Smiley, who was first introduced in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. 

He would later re-emerge in his trilogy Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. 

According to the BBC, Cornwell once said of the character: ”The moment I had Smiley as a figure, with that past, that memory, that uncomfortable private life and that excellence in his profession, I knew I had something I could live with and work with.’ 

The late author’s family said tonight: ‘David is survived by his beloved wife of almost fifty years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon. We all grieve deeply his passing. 

‘Our thanks go to the wonderful NHS team at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro for the care and compassion that he was shown throughout his stay. We know they share our sadness.’

The novelist Robert Harris called le Carre ‘one of those writers who really was not only a brilliant writer but he also penetrated popular culture – and that’s a great rarity’.

Harris told Sky News television le Carre was a ‘brilliant novelist’ and said ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ was a ‘masterpiece’.

‘It’s an incredibly engrossing tale and very deep, and it transformed the writing of spy fiction. It was a brilliant, psychological portrait of spying and of betrayal and of the decline of British power.’

The 89-year-old had spent lockdown in Cornwall and had been highly critical of the Government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, describing Boris Johnson as 'pig ignorant'

The 89-year-old had spent lockdown in Cornwall and had been highly critical of the Government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, describing Boris Johnson as 'pig ignorant'

The 89-year-old had spent lockdown in Cornwall and had been highly critical of the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, describing Boris Johnson as ‘pig ignorant’

David Cornwell is survived by his wife of almost fifty years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon, his family said they 'grieve deeply his passing'

David Cornwell is survived by his wife of almost fifty years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon, his family said they 'grieve deeply his passing'

David Cornwell is survived by his wife of almost fifty years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon, his family said they ‘grieve deeply his passing’

Le Carre was a pseudonym created by Cornwell to get around a ban on Foreign Office staff publishing work in their own name. His books gained worldwide acclaim and were translated into different languages. Cornwel is pictured holding a French edition of his novel The Looking Glass War in 1965

Le Carre was a pseudonym created by Cornwell to get around a ban on Foreign Office staff publishing work in their own name. His books gained worldwide acclaim and were translated into different languages. Cornwel is pictured holding a French edition of his novel The Looking Glass War in 1965

Le Carre was a pseudonym created by Cornwell to get around a ban on Foreign Office staff publishing work in their own name. His books gained worldwide acclaim and were translated into different languages. Cornwel is pictured holding a French edition of his novel The Looking Glass War in 1965

The acclaimed author spent lockdown at his Cornish home and was outspoken about the Government’s handling of the pandemic.

Speaking in May, he said: ‘There are signs everywhere of a tragic national cock-up but it really has a history of at least 10 years of austerity behind it and running down of the National Health Service.’

Referring to prime minister Boris Johnson, he added: ‘A man can be pig ignorant and very well educated. There’s a line of that through politics.’

The father-of-four also stated he hoped the pandemic would lead to a ‘fairer society’ with a ‘more equal distribution of wealth’. 

He had a home in Hampstead, north London, and a cliff-top home in St Buryan, Cornwall, where he took up residence with wife Jane before the coronavirus lockdown. 

Mr Geller said Le Carre defined the Cold War era: ‘With the help of his character, George Smiley, and through his complex plots and beautiful prose, beamed a harsh light at the injustices of our world.

The BBC adapted Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a series in 1979, which featured Alec Guinness

The BBC adapted Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a series in 1979, which featured Alec Guinness

The BBC adapted Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a series in 1979, which featured Alec Guinness

Le Carre was described as a 'friend, mentor and inspiration,' by those closest to him, following his passing on Saturday

Le Carre was described as a 'friend, mentor and inspiration,' by those closest to him, following his passing on Saturday

Le Carre was described as a ‘friend, mentor and inspiration,’ by those closest to him, following his passing on Saturday

‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came in the 1970s and its accompanying landmark TV series with Alec Guinness. 

‘The 1980s brought the novel that is often heralded as his masterpiece: A Perfect Spy. 

‘With the fall of the Berlin Wall, David’s focus extended beyond the Soviet/UK/US relations to arms dealing with The Night Manager. 

‘The first decade of the new millennium brought us The Constant Gardener, a passionate critique of Big Pharma and this current decade brought back his favourite creation, George Smiley, in A Legacy of Spies.

‘His last novel, Agent Running in the Field, was published in October 2019.David wrote twenty-five novels and one volume of memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel (2016), and has sold more than sixty million copies of his work worldwide.’ 

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