John Le Carré is perhaps the world’s greatest living spy thriller author. Known for novels such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Little Drummer Girl which has recently been adapted into an eight-part, three night event, starting November 19th.
While other fictional powerhouses in the world of espionage, such as James Bond, rely on a myriad of lethal, fantastical technology, damsels in distress, and dramatic explosions to captivate audiences, Le Carré’s worlds are much more believable, his characters as real as you or me. And this is due, in no small part, to the fact that John Le Carré was a spy himself.
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Born David John Moore Cornwell on October 19th, 1939 to Ronald (Ronnie) Thomas Archibald Cornwell and Olive Moore Cornwell, the boy who would grow up to become Le Carré was profoundly influenced by the actions of his parents. His was described by The Paris Review as “a gloomy childhood, thanks to the disruptive motions of his father, an erratic businessman who kept the family moving from place to place.”
When he was only five, Olive Moore Cornwell left the family, an act that the young David struggled to understand, and in part formed the basis of his fascination with mysteries. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, though remaining in David’s life, was an associate of the notorious Kray twins, and it has even been said that Ronnie’s actions and many cons during the formative years of David’s life helped nurture his love for secrecy. The author would draw distinct parallels between his father and his many clandestine characters; most notably the father of Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy.
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However, David Cornwell’s spy career wouldn’t actually begin until his initiation into the Intelligence Corps of the British Army in 1950. Here, the author would use his expertise in German and French to interrogate people trying to cross the Iron Curtain. As an interrogator, David learned how to cut through the secrecy of potential threats. And, although he would return home to England in 1952 to complete his education, he didn’t stop his service to his country.
When he returned to England, Le Carré continued his service as a covert spy at Oxford University. He would listen in and keep tabs on certain students thought to be plotting with the far-left or otherwise students suspected of having ties to Soviet Russia. Instead of the Intelligence Corps, Cornwell joined MI5 during this time, becoming an official agent by 1958.
The Guardian notes that Le Carré describes the service at the time as “a kind of ‘non-violent fairyland’, hugely different to the security services of today.” When he was asked whether he would recommend espionage as a career path, he noted that it may suit you, if you are “by instinct a befriender, a seducer and a liar, in the sense of a gentleman who lies for the good of his country… but think of the second half of your life because not many people have one.”
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As an MI5 agent, Cornwell enacted some of his most hidden and clandestine operations; from simple intelligence gathering to wire tapping and even staging burglaries. He also trained fellow agents in the art of deception and even became a teacher at the prestigious Eton College. Although it can be argued by many that these were some of the more intense years of the spy, it was also during the same time that David Cornwell received encouragement from another author, Lord Clanmorris, to write of his own experiences and opinions of the world.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that Cornwell joined MI6. In this new branch, Cornwell balanced travel, work and writing, penning works such as A Murder of Quality, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold using a pseudonym; John Le Carré, which translates literally to “John the square”. There has been much speculation over why he chose this particular name, with one fairly believable guess being made on a forum, citing Le Carré’s desire to distance himself from his father’s ‘crooked’ lifestyle as a criminal: “A “square John” is someone who is honest, forthright, and living straight. From Dictionary.com:
An ordinary honest person; a good citizen; a noncriminal person who can be victimized by, and is contemptuously regarded by, criminals.
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John Le Carré’s spy career came to an end due to a British double agent by the name of Kim Philby. Philby compromised many agents while working for the Soviet Union, and after he was discovered, he resigned back to the Union and worked later as a KGB and NKVD operative. Kim Philby became the inspiration John Le Carré used when writing his own double agents.
While Le Carré became a world renowned author, it was some time before his career in intelligence became public. But perhaps it was for the best, as he continued to pen amazingly accurate, believable, and immersive spy novels.
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Le Carré’s works have been adapted many times and have been hailed as realistic, brutal, and deeply emotional. And the public’s love of his work shows no signs of waning, with the brand new and long awaited television miniseries of The Little Drummer Girl set to air November 19th.
Based on John le Carré’s novel of the same name, AMC’s three-night event, starring Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgård, is receiving rave reviews. It follows an Israeli agent, who uses a pro-Palestinian U.S. actress, Charlie, as a spy to catch a terrorist bomber.
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