John Le Carre biography

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John Le Carre
Author photograph by Simone Casetta

John Le Carre

How to pronounce John Le Carre: jon L-KAR-ay

John Le Carre Biography

John Le Carré is the pen name of David Cornwell. Cornwell was born in Poole, Dorset (in the South-West of England) in 1931. His father, Ronnie, made and lost his fortune a number of times due to elaborate confidence tricks and schemes which landed him in prison on at least one occasion. This, according to Cornwell, was one of the factors that led to his fascination with secrets. His father was also the inspiration for the lead character in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).

Cornwell's mother left home when he was five or six years old - he did not see her again until he was 21.

He attended Sherborne School - a British boarding school, but was unhappy and dropped out at the age of 16. For a little under a year (in 1948-1949) he studied German at the University of Berne in Switzerland; he then did his military service in Austria.

It seems that it was while he was in Switzerland that his fascination with espionage began - the story goes that it was triggered by a meeting with a British diplomat who may or may not have been in intelligence. In 1952 Cornwell continued his education at Lincoln College, Oxford, studying modern languages. He had to leave in 1954 when his father went bankrupt. He took a job teaching at a boy's prep school (the term prep school in England usually refers to a school for children aged approximately 8-12). However, he was able to return to Oxford a year later and graduated with first class honors in 1956. After spending two years teaching French and German at Eton (a boy's boarding school for ages 13-18) he joined the Foreign Service and within three years was posted to Bonn, West Germany as the second secretary to the British embassy.

He started his first novel, Call For The Dead, while employed in the operational section of MI5. He was encouraged in this endeavor by Lord Clanmorris (who himself wrote crime novels under the pen-name of John Bingham). Lord Clanmorris was one of the two men who inspired le Carré's most famous character - George Smiley; history doesn't appear to relate who the second person was.

He moved from M15 to M16 and was posted in Berlin at the time the Wall was erected. The Call of The Dead was published in 1961 and was lauded by Graham Greene who said it was the best spy story he had ever read. It also introduced the character of George Smiley.

Cornwell chose to write under a pseudonym because it was not acceptable for members of the Foreign office to publish under their own names.

For his second book he took a completely different tack and wrote a murder mystery set in a boy's school (with George Smiley in the role of investigator) - A Murder of Quality was published in 1962.

He returned to espionage for his third novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963), and following its success he was able to take up writing full time. It is the story of Alex Leamas, a frustrated British agent, who was the total antithesis of Ian Fleming's fast driving, womanizing James Bond - Fleming being the leading writer of spy stories at that time. In 1964 he won the Somerset Maugham Award.

His next book was The Looking Glass War (1965), followed by A Small Town In Germany (1968). In 1971 he wrote The Naive and Sentimental Lover, followed by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) - which reintroduced George Smiley. This was followed by The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley's People (1979); these three books are often known as the Karla trilogy for the Soviet spymaster, Karla, who features prominently in the books.

In 1983 he wrote The Little Drummer Girl which explored the cause of Palestinian liberation. This was followed by A Perfect Spy in 1986 and The Russia House in 1989.

These were followed by The Secret Pigrim (1991), The Night Manager (1993), Our Game (1995), The Tailor of Panama (1996), Secret & Secret (USA title: Single & Single) (1999), The Constant Gardener (2001) and Absolute Friends (2003), The Mission Song (2006), A Most Wanted Man (2008), Our Kind of Traitor (2010), A Delicate Truth (2013), Afterword (2014).

Le Carré has been married twice. First to Ann Martin in the 1950s; and the second time to Valerie in 1972. He has four children, 3 from his first marriage - Simon, Stephen, Timothy; and Nicholas. He lives with his wife, Valerie, in Cornwall, England.

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Books by John Le Carre at BookBrowse
A Legacy of Spies jacket A Delicate Truth jacket Our Kind of Traitor jacket A Most Wanted Man jacket
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