Trade pays respects to John le Carré

Trade pays respects to John le Carré

The book trade is mourning the loss of thriller writer John le Carré–whose real name was David Cornwell–who died in Cornwall following a short illness on Saturday night (12th December), aged 89.

His agent Jonny Geller paid tribute to him as as "undisputed giant of English literature" who had "defined the Cold War era and fearlessly spoke truth to power in the decades that followed", while his Penguin editor of the past decade, Mary Mount, called his death "a huge loss", not only to his publishers at Penguin Random House, but "to the cultural and political landscape of this country".

The author of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy died from a short illness unrelated to Covid-19, according to Geller, c.e.o. of the Curtis Brown Group, who represented the author for almost 15 years. "His like will never be seen again, and his loss will be felt by every book lover, everyone interested in the human condition," he said, sharing the news in a statement on Sunday night. 

Survived by his wife of more than 45 years, Jane, four sons Nicholas (writer Nick Harkaway), Timothy, Stephen and Simon, 14 grandchildren and three great grandchildren, a further statement was released on the family's behalf confirming he had died from pneumonia at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro. "We all grieve deeply his passing," they said, thanking the NHS team for "the care and compassion he was shown throughout his stay".

Le Carré's career spanned 58 years, during which time he wrote 25 novels and one memoir, selling more than 60 million copies of his work worldwide. Over the course of the Nielsen BookScan era (since 1998), he sold 2.9 million books for £22.2m, with 2005's The Constant Gardener his bestseller, on 330,668 copies sold in paperback. His works topped global bestseller lists in each decade from the 1960s onwards, and many of his works were subsequently adapted into films and TV series.

Penguin Random House pointed out that although he began as an espionage writer, his works transcended the genre and he won widespread international acclaim as a humanitarian as well as a literary giant. Only this year he won the Olof Palme Prize for his "extraordinary contribution to the necessary fight for freedom, democracy and social justice" in the literary form, donating his $100,000 winnings to Médecins Sans Frontières.

Born on 19th Oct 1931 in Poole, Dorset, Cornwell worked in undercover intelligence before becoming a novelist. His education began at St Andrew’s Prep School in Berkshire, then continued at Sherborne School, before leaving in 1948 to study foreign languages at the University of Bern in Switzerland. In 1950 he joined the Intelligence Corps of the British Army garrisoned in Austria, working as a German language interrogator of people who crossed the Iron Curtain to the West, and, in 1952, he returned to England to study at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he worked covertly for the British Security Service MI5, spying on far-left groups for information about possible Soviet agents. After graduating from Oxford, he taught French and German at Eton College for two years, becoming an MI5 officer in 1958.

His first novel was Call for the Dead (1961), published while working for the foreign-intelligence service MI6 in the British Embassy at Bonn. He later was moved to Hamburg as a political consul, where he wrote the detective story A Murder of Quality (1962) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), adopting the pen name John le Carré’ because Foreign Office officers were forbidden to publish under their own names. The publication of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was a game changer allowing him to become a writer full time. 

In 2016, the same year that the successful BBC adaptation of "The Night Manager" aired, starring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman, le Carré published his first non-fiction book, his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel, for which a huge campaign was mounted. In the following year, in 2017, he brought his best-known character George Smiley out of retirement by publishing A Legacy of Spies, and in 2018, while The Little Drummer Girl was adapted for television by The Ink Factory for the BBC and AMC, all of his backlist was published under the Penguin Modern Classics livery. His last novel was Agent Running in the Field, published by Viking in October 2019.

Mary Mount, his editor at Penguin Random House for the last 10 years of his life, said: "The death of John le Carré is a huge loss to all of us who loved and admired him at Penguin Random House and to the cultural and political landscape of this country. John le Carré was a writer who cared almost as deeply about his country as he did about his work. It was a huge thrill and privilege to work with him over the last ten years. The quality of his writing never waned across a truly enviable collection of novels and his capacity for hard work was extraordinary. He also made me laugh, a lot."

Tom Weldon, c.e.o. of Penguin Random House UK, said: "It has been a great honour for all of us at Penguin Random House to be John le Carré’s publishers. His contribution to this country cannot be overstated and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude. His work will be read and loved for many generations to come."

In the aftermath of Geller's statement sharing the news he had died, many from the book trade paid their respects on social media, including fellow writers. Stephen Fry said, "if there is a contemporary writer who's given me richer pleasure I can't for the moment name them". 

Author Stephen King said: "This terrible year has claimed a literary giant and a humanitarian spirit,"  while historian Simon Schama wrote, "everyone knows what a supreme writer he was ... so fine that he never stopped writing". 

Bea Carvalho, Waterstones Fiction Buyer, said: "We are extremely saddened to hear of the news of John le Carré’s death. His influence on the landscape of contemporary fiction – and culture in general – is enormous, and he leaves behind a body of work which will be enjoyed by generations to come. Right up until his last novel in 2019, he was innovating the genre and providing readers with the highest class of fiction: his words and his wise and generous spirit will be sorely missed by booksellers everywhere."

A number of obituaries have published. In the Guardian le Carré is praised by Eric Homberger for having "raised the spy novel to a new level of seriousness and respect" and in the Washington Post he is characterised as "a British author who drew on the enigma of his incorrigibly criminal father and his own experiences as a Cold War-era spy to write powerful novels about a bleak, morally compromised world in which international intrigue and personal betrayal went hand in hand". In the New York Times, journalist Sarah Lyall remembered how le Carré refused to allow his books to be entered for literary prizes, although his talent was such "he could paint a whole character in a single sentence". In the FT, literary editor Frederick Studemann wrote he "effectively defined the cold war thriller, elevating the spy novel to a higher literary form well beyond the flimsy, hard-boiled, action-packed capers common to the genre".