John le Carre, an appreciation

David Cornwell, aka John le Carre

The 1960s spy craze, started by James Bond films, unleashed many escapist spies. But one of the most enduring espionage universe not escapist. It was the one penned by David Cornwell, writing under the name John le Carre.

Le Carre novels involved flawed humans dealing with grays, rather than black and white.

Cornwell wrote his novels independently of James Bond. Cornwell, like Ian Fleming, had worked in intelligence. Cornwell/le Carre had something to say in a more grounded espionage setting.

Le Carre would have written novels regardless of the spy craze. But the escapist thrust of much of the 1960s spy craze helped create a market for something else. James Bond helped create a market for George Smiley, le Carre’s best remembered (but from his only) protagonist.

Many le Carre novels were set during the Cold War. In 1989, as the cold war was winding down, the author was undaunted that the world was changing.

“It gives me wonderful breaks, a wonderful new deck of cards,” le Carre said in an interview with PBS. “I mean, the spy story was not invented by the cold war, it’ll continue after the cold war.”

Indeed, in the following years, le Carre wrote novels including The Night Manager, The Tailor of Panama and A Most Wanted Man. Le Carre never lacked for anything to say.

“I think this is a time when we’re going to have to turn around our thinking to a great extent,” le Carre said in the 1989 interview.

“There does come a point here too, as Smiley, himself, is saying, the when is the question about when could it happen that institutional guidance, patriotism, if you will, in this case, institutional commitment, actually outlives its purpose and imposes on me and upon my conscience individual strains which I cannot support.”

Le Carre lives on through numerous adaptations of his work, both as feature films and as television miniseries.

Amusingly, two writers who adapted Fleming to the screen also worked on le Carre projects: Paul Dehn (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) and John Hopkins (Smiley’s People). The latter also had le Carre working on the adaptation.

Today, le Carre fans are in mourning after the author’s death this past weekend. That’s understandable. Reading le Carre works usually leaves a lasting impression on the reader.