John le Carré, a prolific novelist whose Cold War spy stories dominated the bestseller lists, has died at age 89.
His family confirmed he had died of pneumonia at the Royal Cornwall Hospital on Saturday night. “We all deeply grieve his passing,” they wrote in a statement.
In addition to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Le Carré’s works included the novels The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Night Manager. Most of his works were made into television series, movies and more, with actors Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, Ralph Fiennes, and Gary Oldman among those taking up the Le Carre’ roles.
Jonny Geller, his agent, described him to the UK’s The Guardian as “an undisputed giant of English literature. He defined the cold war era and fearlessly spoke truth to power in the decades that followed … I have lost a mentor, an inspiration and most importantly, a friend. We will not see his like again.”
Born David Cornwell in 1931, Le Carré studied German in Switzerland at the end of the 1940s. After a brief stint teaching, he joined the British Foreign Service as an intelligence officer. There, he recruited and monitored spies behind the Iron Curtain, drawing his later works’ inspiration from their situations.
He began publishing thrillers under the pseudonym of John le Carré, and went on to a huge publishing career.
Le Carré’s 1961 debut, Call for the Dead, marked the first appearance of his most enduring character, George Smiley. That was followed by 1962’s A Murder of Quality, which garnered strong reviews.
His huge breakthrough came with his third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Smiley appears, but takes a backseat to Alec Leamas, a fifty-something agent who is sent to East Berlin.
Le Carré later admitted he was astonished by the overwhelming success of that novel. However, some questioned whether it was too real-to-life and thus, represented a security breach at a time when the world was starkly divided into camps.
Smiley returned for three novels in the 1970s, In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he unmasks a mole in the highest echelons of the British secret service, while in The Honourable Schoolboy he confronts a money laundering operation in Asia.
As the Cold War wound down, Le Carré’ shifted to broader subjects, including the arms trade in 1993 with The Night Manager, big pharmacy businesses in 2001 with The Constant Gardener and the war on terror in 2004 with Absolute Friends.
Le Carré’s final novel arrived in 2017. A Legacy of Spies saw the last hurrah for Smiley.
But before that, Le Carre’ had one more surprise. He released a memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, in 2016, detailing his personal life and such instances as lunches with Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch. It also brought an admission: “I have been neither a model husband nor a model father, and am not interested in appearing that way.”
Actor Gary Oldman paid tribute to le Carre’ with a statement.
“For me, John Le Carre’ was many things. He was, of course, a very great author, the true “owner” of the serious, adult, complicated spy novel—he actually owned the genre. All who follow are in his debt. His characters were drawn deftly and deeply, nuances too many to count, and for me, inhabiting George Smiley remains one of the highpoints of my life.”