Born: October 19, 1931

Died: December 12, 2020

JOHN le Carré, the pen name of David Cornwell, who has died aged 89, had the kind of upbringing most writers dream of but few would want to experience. From an early age he learned to keep secrets which, when he turned to producing novels in which spying and deceit, lies and betrayal were ubiquitous, served him bountifully for the best part of six decades.

His mother left when he was young and he was brought up – if that’s the right phrase – by his father. Ronnie Cornwell was a character whom le Carré himself might hesitate to create, so bizarre and unpredictable was his behaviour. Like the best novelists, Cornwell père had enviable powers of invention, which he employed criminally to his own gain. A conman and a womaniser, who at one point stood for parliament as a Liberal candidate, he gathered round him a forelock-tugging gang of well-educated ne’er-do-wells – “ex-schoolmasters, ex-lawyers, ex-everything” – who were prepared even to go to prison for him. “We was all bent, son,” one later ruefully told le Carré. “But your dad was very, very bent indeed.”

If not quite a case of “like father, like son”, then there can be little doubt that Ronnie Cornwell’s ability constantly to dupe victims and friends was inherited by his son who made it his legitimate business. Le Carré invented a world and a manner of expression that is like no other. His was emphatically not a depiction of reality. That we are now all familiar with such jargon as “mole”, “safe house”, “burrower” and “sleeper” is part of a legacy that helped define the meaning of the Cold War and the nefarious trade of espionage.

Before le Carré arrived on the scene there were, of course, writers who specialised in spy fiction – from John Buchan and Somerset Maugham to Eric Ambler and Ian Fleming – but, by stripping the activity of its glamour and heroism, he simultaneously transformed the genre and escorted his mesmerised readers behind the scenes of the intelligence agencies.

Le Carré’s most memorable creation was undoubtedly George Smiley who, in a high-stakes game of chess, takes on his Russian counterpart, Karla. Played to perfection by Alec Guinness in the television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley is the antithesis of James Bond. Where, for example, Bond draws pulchritudinous women to him like bees to nectar, Smiley is cuckolded by his wife Ann whom he cannot bring himself to abandon. Le Carré described him thus: “Small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting and extremely wet.”

Smiley made his first appearance in 1961 in Call for the Dead and his last in A Legacy of Spies in 2017. Le Carré’s third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) became a huge bestseller, in part because it was in tune with the post-war zeitgeist and the building of the Berlin Wall, and also because of its film adaptation starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom.

Its success allowed le Carré to leave the Foreign Service and devote himself to writing. In total, he wrote 25 novels, most of which became bestsellers and many were filmed, often with le Carré himself making fleeting appearances. He gave relatively few interviews which added to his aura of mystery. Nor did he pursue literary prizes.

Thanks to his father’s delusions of grandeur, he was sent to a “posh” school, Sherborne, whose fees were not always paid on time or in cash. “One school, after a taste of his ways, demanded its fees upfront. It received them at Ronnie’s leisure in deferred black market dried fruit – figs, bananas, prunes – and a case of unobtainable gin for the staff.” Thereafter le Carré attended university in Bern, Switzerland, which was followed by National Service in the Intelligence Corps. He then read modern languages at Lincoln College, Oxford. He briefly taught French and German at Eton, which he used to telling effect in the opening chapter of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Yet again, however, he was drawn into the cloak and dagger world of the intelligence service where he encountered those double agents – Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, George Blake, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby – whose activities on behalf of the Russians led to the murders of many British agents.

Le Carré saw nothing attractive or noble about such traitors. On the contrary, his contempt was unbridled; spies and their political masters being of a piece irrespective of the side they were on. In later books, such as Our Kind of Traitor (2010), A Delicate Truth (2013) and Agent Running in the Field (2019), his characters have the dilemma of choosing between their conscience and duty to the service. Underpinning le Carré’s entire oeuvre is the belief that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.

He had an elder brother called Anthony, who was a county cricketer, and two half-siblings – the actress Charlotte Cornwell and the late Rupert Cornwell, a journalist – through his father’s second marriage. His own first marriage was to Alison Sharp with whom he had three sons: Simon and Stephen, both of whom are film producers, and Timothy, a journalist. In 1972, he married Jane Eustace, a secretary at his publisher’s, with whom he had fourth son, Nick, who is a writer.

Arguments rage among le Carré’s admirers over which is his best book. Unsurprisingly, those that feature Smiley tend to attract most votes. But the one that is closest to many people’s hearts is A Perfect Spy (1986), in which its protagonist, Magnus Pym, a career secret agent, retreats to a boarding house in Devon where, as his pursuers attempt to track him down, he writes the story of his life and his relationship with his errant father. Philip Roth deemed it the best English novel since the war, which it may well be. What cannot be disputed is that it is the work of a master storyteller.