John le Carre passes away - All you need to know about the spy-turned-novelist
John le Carre passes away - All you need to know about the spy-turned-novelist
John le Carre / Facebook

John le Carre, the spy-turned-novelist whose elegant and intricate narratives defined the Cold War espionage thriller and brought acclaim to a genre critics had once ignored, has died. He was 89.

Le Carre's literary agency, Curtis Brown, said Sunday he died in Cornwall, southwest England on Saturday after a short illness. The agency said his death was not related to COVID-19. His family said he died of pneumonia.

Here's all you need to know about the spy-turned-novelist:

Born David John Moore Cornwell in Poole, southwest England on Oct. 19, 1931, he appeared to have a standard upper-middle-class education: the private Sherborne School, a year studying German literature at the University of Bern, compulsory military service in Austria - where he interrogated Eastern Bloc defectors - and a degree in modern languages at Oxford University.

But his ostensibly standard upper-middle-class upbringing was an illusion. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a con man who was an associate of gangsters and spent time in jail for insurance fraud. His mother left the family when David was 5; he didn't meet her again until he was 21.

It was a childhood of uncertainty and extremes: one minute limousines and champagne, the next eviction from the family's latest accommodation. It bred insecurity, an acute awareness of the gap between surface and reality - and a familiarity with secrecy that would serve him well in his future profession.

After university, which was interrupted by his father's bankruptcy, he taught at the prestigious boarding school Eton before joining the foreign service.

Officially a diplomat, he was in fact a "lowly" operative with the domestic intelligence service MI5 - he'd started as a student at Oxford - and then its overseas counterpart MI6, serving in Germany, on the Cold War front line, under the cover of second secretary at the British Embassy.

His first three novels were written while he was a spy, and his employers required him to publish under a pseudonym. He remained "le Carre" for his entire career. He said he chose the name - square in French - simply because he liked the vaguely mysterious, European sound of it.

"Call For the Dead" appeared in 1961 and "A Murder of Quality" in 1962. Then in 1963 came "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," a tale of an agent forced to carry out one last, risky operation in divided Berlin. It raised one of the author's recurring themes: the blurring of moral lines that is part and parcel of espionage, and the difficulty of distinguishing good guys from bad. Le Carre said it was written at one of the darkest points of the Cold War, just after the building of the Berlin Wall, at a time when he and his colleagues feared nuclear war might be imminent.

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