He was a spy who became one of the great spy novelists, bringing realism, technical accuracy, and a weathered sense of what the job does to you to a genre often overrun with sexy Bond-like fantasy. And after a long and storied career, John le Carré has passed on, reports The New York Times.
Born David John Moore Cromwell, le Carré didn’t have the rosiest childhood. His mother abandoned him as a child, and his father was a low-level conman with ties to the infamous Kray brothers. He developed an interest in the secret ways the world really works, which led him to work at both the MI5 and the MI6, the twin secret service agencies in England. Those experiences helped shape his books, including his third, 1963’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which became his breakthrough.
That book was his also le Carré’s third to feature George Smiley, the career intelligence officer who became his most consistent character and most famous creation. Smiley isn’t always the main star of his books, and he was the opposite of a dashing spy. He was cold, calculating, ruthlessly efficient. He appears in a number of le Carré’s most celebrated works, including The Looking Glass War, The Russia House, and perhaps his most famous work, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Like many in his field, le Carré saw his books turned into movies, starting with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Released in 1965, it’s as stark and unforgiving as the novel, starring Richard Burton as an agent sent to sow discord in East Germany. Where Thunderball, the 007 entry released the same year, reveled in imperialist fun, the le Carré film showed that espionage work ran counter to true democratic ideals.
More adaptations followed. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was turned into both a 1979 miniseries, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley, and a 2010 movie, where Gary Oldman memorably took over. The Little Drummer Girl was made into both a film in 1984, starring Diane Keaton, and a miniseries in 2018, with Michael Shannon, Alexander Skarsgard, and Florence Pugh. The film of The Tailor of Panama actually roped in then-Bond Pierce Brosnan to play a crooked, roguish spy, while the movie of The Constant Gardener netted Rachel Weisz her Oscar in 2005. The Night Manager was turned into a well-received TV show in 2016, with Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie.
Le Carré wrote right up to the end. His final novel, or at least the last one released before his death, was Agent Running in the Field, from last year. Throughout his life and career, he wrote page-turners that helped readers better understand how the world works, about the forces that control our lives from behind a veil, about the often broken people who make it all run. Without him, we’re bound to understand less.