British spy novelist John Le Carré dies at age 89: NPR

John Le Carre, the spy novelist behind dozens of works including The spy who came from the cold And the Tamper, tailor, soldier, spy He died in Cornwall, England.



Steve Inscape, host:

For more than half a century, David Cornwell’s novels have illuminated the secret world of the Cold War and the era that followed. Cornwell died at the age of 89. Under the pseudonym John Le Carrie, he published “The Spy Who Came From the Cold” in 1963. That espionage novel and others became movies, including “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” just a few years ago. NPR’s Rose Friedman stated that any tribute to Le Carre must begin with his most famous character.

Rose Friedman, Pelin: George Smiley was short. He was unhappy. His wife was cheating on him forever. Was bald. He was wearing bad clothes. It was often compared to a frog. And ever since he first appeared as a minor character in John Le Curry’s early novels, he has been the most detective spy in English literature.

(The soundtrack to the movie, “TINKER TAILOR”)

Gary Oldman: (Like George) one of you was giving Polyakov the Crown Jewels.

Friedman: Gary Oldman played Smiley in the 2011 movie version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”.

(The soundtrack to the movie, “TINKER TAILOR”)

Oldman: (As George) Give me the address.

Friedman: David Ignatius wrote about real and fictional spies. He told NPR in 2017 that Smiley was one of his favorites.

David Ignatius: He was the opposite of James Bond. But he became a darling of the mind games he played in espionage with his Russian counterpart known as Karla, and I think she was part of what drew us to him.

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Friedman: Smiley remained loyal to his side, fighting the Soviet Union. But Ignatius says that Le Curry’s genius was the ability to demonstrate moral ambiguity.

Ignatius: It wasn’t black and white. The good guys are not against the bad guys. It was more complicated than that. And here was John Le Curry, very movingly graying the world.

Friedman: John Low Carey spoke to WHYY’s Fresh Air in 1989 about real spies.

(Simultaneous audio with archived NPR)

JOHN LE CARRE: They were people of ordinary quality – some good, some indifferent, some lousy, just like in any outfit – who were trying to do the impossible.

Friedman: John Law Carey David Cornwell was born in Dorset in 1931. His father was a crook and criminal who would take his children on wild adventures, but he was also jail and out, leaving unpaid bills in his wake. Le Carr described his involvement in one aspect of his father’s deceit, as he was acting richly when he was sent to boarding school.

(Simultaneous audio with archived NPR)

LE CARRE: We’ve got our clothes back on, put them back on, and started working on the target organization which is the middle class community, maybe very young clients. And we alone knew what kind of mess we were coming from and what kind of mess we would return to.

Friedman: Le Curry’s life-long study of deception continued in his career as a spy, first for MI5, then for MI6. He spoke with WHYY’s Fresh Air in 1993.

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(Simultaneous audio with archived NPR)

LE CARRE: I think I’ve always been a writer who became a ghost for a while instead of a ghost becoming a writer.

Friedman: He was still working in MI6 when his third novel, “The Spy Who Came from the Cold” was released. It was an instant hit. Le Carre became an icon not only for his readers but for other spies who adopted much of the terminology he invented in his novels. He is widely credited with being the first to use a mole for an agent that burrows and causes damage from within. He was also the first to use the term from cold applied to espionage.

(The film’s synchronized audio, “The Spy Who Came From the Cold”)

Richard Burton: (Like Alec) What do you think about spies?

Friedman: Richard Burton, who played Alec Limas, gave the book’s most famous speech in the 1965 movie version.

(The film’s synchronized audio, “The Spy Who Came From the Cold”)

Burton: (As Alec) just a bunch of filthy miscreants like me – little men, drunk, quirks, a drunk husband, civic servants who play cowboys and Indians to cheer up their spoiled little lives? Do you think they sit like monks in a dungeon, balancing right and wrong?

(Simultaneous audio with archived NPR)

LE CARRE: I also raised the rather nasty ethical question of how much you can do to stand up for a community and make sure it’s a community still worth standing up for.

Friedman: At the end of the story, Alec Limas and his girlfriend are betrayed by them while trying to climb the Berlin Wall. It is a grim end for both of them.

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(The film’s synchronized audio, “The Spy Who Came From the Cold”)

UNIDENTIFIED Actor: (As a character) Mr. Limas, come back, please, at your side, Mr. Limas.

(Simultaneous audio with archived NPR)

LE CARRE: You wrote about the people who were creaking under the weight of the Cold War, who were working in the dark, and never really believed they would see the light.

Friedman: John Le Curry continued writing after the Cold War. His subsequent actions reflected the turmoil that lasted from 9/11 to Brexit.

Rose Friedman, NPR News, New York.

(The Simultaneous Voice of “Silent Sight” by Curt Bestor)

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