Spy novelist John le Carre dies at 89 | News | DW | 13.12.2020

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Spy novelist John le Carre dies at 89

The spy-turned-novelist known for espionage thrillers like "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" has died. The former British intelligence officer served in Germany during the Cold War.

Legendary spy novelist David Cornwell, better known as John le Carre, has died, his agent announced Sunday.

"With much sadness, I must announce the passing of one the world's great writers," literary agent Jonny Geller said on Twitter.

The author's family said he died of pneumonia at the age of 89, after a short illness that was unrelated to COVID-19.

"John le Carre was an undisputed giant of English literature. He defined the Cold War era and fearlessly spoke truth to power in the decades that followed," wrote Geller, head of the Curtis Brown agency that represented the author.

He shared a statement from the family, who wrote: "We all deeply grieve his passing."

Le Carre is survived by his wife and four sons.

Espionage thrillers

Le Carre's novels dealt with espionage, especially based in the Cold War setting. The spy-turned-novelist had a writing career that spanned over six decades, with 25 novels to his name. His classics included works such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy.

To le Carre, the world of espionage was a metaphor for the human condition. His work explored betrayal, the blurring of moral rules in the spy world and its psychological toll.

"I'm not part of the literary bureaucracy if you like that categorizes everybody: Romantic, Thriller, Serious. I just go with what I want to write about and the characters. I don't announce this to myself as a thriller or an entertainment," he said in an 2008 interview with The Associated Press.

The spy who became a novelist

Born in Poole, England on October 19, 1931, he was educated in a private school. He studied German literature at the University of Bern, and had a degree in modern languages at Oxford University. 

Le Carre's father was a con man, who was convicted of insurance fraud. His mother left the family when he was 5 years old. After his time at university, he taught at the prestigious British boarding school of Eton, and then joined the foreign services. 

He served in the MI5 British intelligence agency, and then with its overseas arm, the MI6. Having studied modern languages at Oxford, le Carre was fluent in German and worked under cover, disguised as a junior diplomat, at the British Embassy in Bonn during the early 1960s.

Bonn street intersection in the 1960s

John le Carre was stationed as a spy in Bonn, the capital of West Germany, in the early 60s

In his free time, he started writing spy novels, taking the pseudonym of John le Carre so as not to interfere with his work. He retained the name for the rest of his career. Over the years, many of his novels have been adapted to television and film. 

It was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carre's third novel in 1963, that shot him to international fame.

He later said that his employer viewed the work as complete fiction, while the international press was convinced it was "not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side," he recalled on his website. With his novel on the bestseller list, le Carre quit his job with the British intelligence and became a full-time writer.

He would go on to publish 21 titles, most of which dealt with espionage during the Cold War, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1974 and A Perfect Spy in 1986.

After the Cold War

After the end of the Cold War in 1989, which had formed the basis of le Carre's career both as an intelligence officer and as a writer, le Carre continued writing espionage fiction, but turned to other areas of global politics.

The Night Manager (1993) traces an undercover operation aimed at toppling a major international arms dealer. In 1996, The Tailor of Panama introduced an expat tailor with a criminal past who gets caught up in a political coup.

The Tailor of Panama is one of several of le Carre's novels which have been adapted for the cinema. Filmed in 2001, it starred Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush and Jamie Lee Curtis. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came out in 2011, starring Colin Firth and Tom Hardy.

Pierce Brosnan (right) and Geoffrey Rush starred in 'The Tailor of Panama'

Pierce Brosnan (right) and Geoffrey Rush starred in 'The Tailor of Panama'

An outspoken advocate of European integration 

Le Carre was a recipient of Germany's Goethe Medal in 2011. Upon receiving the award, le Carre said, "Europe is in critical condition. The distance between the institutions and the people is bigger than ever before."

While Europe was in the throws of the debt crisis at the time, his words took on greater significance as the UK voted for Brexit in June 2016.

"We've lived in freedom for so long that our democracies are blemished" and populism is growing just as fast as social injustice, he also warned. As Europe faces increased far-right movements, le Carre's words are more relevant than ever.

A previous version of this article misstated the title of the novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This has now been corrected. The department apologizes for the error.

tg/aw (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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