Master of the Spy Novel
David Cornwell writes some of the world's best-loved spy novels under the name John le Carré. His most popular work is probably the Karla Trilogy, three spy novels about the hunt for a mole in the British intelligence service starring the character George Smiley. When his third espionage book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, hit the world's bestseller lists in 1964, Cornwell quit his day job--with the British Foreign Service, some say MI-6--to become a full-time novelist. He doesn't think of himself as a spy who became a writer: "I was nothing of the kind", he says on his website. "I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence."*
To this I would add: Cornwell is not a spy novel writer, he is a writer whose characters spy for a living. His novels are particularly rich because they do much more than tell exciting, high-stakes stories of treason and betrayal. They also evoke the characters' internal lives, and the manners and mores of their social world.
Welcome to the Circus!
Cornwell's Cold War novels concern the activities of an English intelligence outfit nicknamed the Circus, after the address of its London headquarters overlooking Cambridge Circus.
Those who ran the Circus during the Cold War had been recruited into the spy business during World War II when they were undergraduates at Oxford or Cambridge. They learned their business running networks of agents behind enemy lines in Occupied Europe: it was deadly, exciting and desperately important work. The fate of England hung on their successes and failures. During World War II, it was very clear that the English were fighting for their survival. Spies were heroes.
Eventually, the hot war against Germany ended and the Cold War against the Soviet Union began.The goals of Cold War secret soldiers were much more ambiguous, because the threat to the nation was much less clearly defined. This increase in ambiguity is a challenge that all of Cornwell's characters must deal with, each in his or her own way.
Spymaster George Smiley, for example, is a plump bureaucrat with a sharp mind and the patience and persistence to lay extremely complex traps for the bad guys. He is completely ruthless in his pursuit of the enemy, yet unsure of himself in almost every other way. This stands in contrast to the other famous English fictional spy of the Cold War period, Ian Fleming's James Bond.
In many respects, Cornwell's spies are organization men. Their successes and failures are much more determined by the institutions they work for than by their own personal talents.
Candid and Cranky
Cornwell, who lives with his wife in Cornwall, doesn't give many interviews, but is said to be quite outspoken when he does. He describes himself to reporter Luke Salkeld of the Daily Mail: "I hate the telephone. I can't type. I ply my trade by hand. I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities. Three days and nights in a city are about my maximum. I don't see many people. I write and walk and swim and drink."*
WINNER! Grand Master award from Mystery Writers of America, 1984
WINNER! Diamond Dagger Award, 1988
*MI6 spy-turned-author John Le Carre reveals: 'I was tempted to defect to the Soviet Union during the Cold War' By Luke Salkeld. Last updated at 9:08 PM on 14th September 2008, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1055644/MI6-spy-turned-author-John-Le-Carre-reveals-I-tempted-defect-Soviet-Union-Cold-War.html#ixzz1IzCIwKMN