The intelligence-officer-turned-author wrote The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
John le Carré
Credit: Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images

John le Carré, perhaps the most celebrated spy novelist of the 20th century, died Saturday in Cornwall, England, from complications of pneumonia. He was 89. His longtime agent, Jonny Geller, confirmed the news and said Le Carré's death was not related to COVID-19.

"His like will never be seen again, and his loss will be felt by every book lover, everyone interested in the human condition," Geller said in a statement. "We have lost a great figure of English literature, a man of great wit, kindness, humour and intelligence."

Known for defining the spy genre with his body of work by not only coining terms like "mole," Le Carré revolutionized espionage storytelling through the eyes of George Smiley, his most well-known character at the center of the "Karla" trilogy: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley's People (1979). Writing at the height of the Cold War, Le Carré was enamored with the psyche of a spy, and in Smiley he found the perfect world-weary, heartbroken, and mild-mannered intelligence officer to capture it. Often described as the "anti-Bond," Smiley worked for a British agency known as the Circus, using his wits to fight both the KGB and his own doubts about the job.

Le Carré's own life embodied his pre-eminent spy's slippery one. Before he became Le Carré — a pseudonym he told The New York Times he chose for no apparent reason — he was David Cornwell, born in Poole, Dorset, on the south coast of England. Growing up, his con man father was imprisoned for fraud, sparking in the young Cornwell a lifelong curiosity about the notion of identity. After studying at Oxford, he joined MI5 and then MI6, and while working in intelligence, launched into literary fame with 1963's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, his seminal work about a retiring officer forced into one more mission. Even so, Le Carré was never comfortable with his celebrity: He rarely gave interviews, preferring his home on England's Cornish coast over book parties, which he likened to "making bird noises." In 2011, he asked to be withdrawn from the nomination for the Man Booker International Prize, which sought to award his entire body of work. When he granted EW a rare visit in 2004, he explained, "I did not want to be embraced by English literary society or by English upper-class society — I've had a taste of both and that's not where I belong."

Where he belonged was with his writing. Even after the Cold War ended and spies no longer ran in the public consciousness, Le Carré wrote on. (In his study, he kept a poster from his children that read, "Keep Calm and Le Carré On.") Though he experienced a late-career boom in the 2000s, thanks to Hollywood adaptations of The Constant Gardener in 2005, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011, A Most Wanted Man in 2014, and The Night Manager in 2016, he never mellowed in writing gripping spy stories and inventing his myriad characters. As he wrote in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, "The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal." And if anything, Le Carré had no shortage of those identities.

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