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Nation & World

British Spy Novelist John Le Carré Dies At 89

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For more than half a century, the novels of David Cornwell illuminated the secret world of the Cold War and the era that has followed. Cornwell has died at age 89. Under the pen name John le Carre, he published "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" in 1963. That spy novel and others became movies, including "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" just a few years ago. NPR's Rose Friedman reports that any appreciation of le Carre has to begin with his most famous character.

ROSE FRIEDMAN, BYLINE: George Smiley was short. He was unhappy. His wife was forever cheating on him. He was balding. He wore bad clothes. And he was frequently compared to a toad. And since he first appeared as a minor character in John le Carre's early novels, he's been the most fully realized spy in English literature.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY")

GARY OLDMAN: (As George) One of you has been giving Polyakov the crown jewels.

FRIEDMAN: Gary Oldman played Smiley in a 2011 film version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY")

OLDMAN: (As George) Give me the address.

FRIEDMAN: David Ignatius has written about both 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 endearing in the mental games that he played in counterespionage with his Russian counterpart known as Karla, I think were part of what drew us in.

FRIEDMAN: Smiley remained loyal to his side, fighting the Soviet Union. But Ignatius says le Carre's genius was the ability to show moral ambiguity.

IGNATIUS: It wasn't black and white. It wasn't the good guys against the bad guys. It was more complicated than that. And here was John le Carre, painting a world in grays very movingly.

FRIEDMAN: John le Carre spoke to WHYY's Fresh Air in 1989 about real-life spies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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 an impossible job.

FRIEDMAN: John le Carre was born David Cornwell in Dorset in 1931. His father was a con man and a criminal who would take his sons on wild adventures, but was also in and out of jail, leaving unpaid bills in his wake. Le Carre described taking part in one aspect of his father's deceptions, acting wealthy when he was sent to boarding school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LE CARRE: We were dressed and groomed and launched upon the target institution that is middle class society, very much as little agents, perhaps. And we alone knew what kind of chaos we came from and what kind of chaos we were going to return to.

FRIEDMAN: Le Carre's lifetime study of deception continued in his own career as a spy, first for Britain's domestic intelligence service, MI5, and then its foreign intelligence service, MI6. He spoke with WHYY's Fresh Air in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LE CARRE: I think that I was always a writer who became a spook for a while rather than a spook who became a writer.

FRIEDMAN: He was still working at MI6 when his third novel, "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," came out. It was an instant hit. Le Carre became an icon not only to his readers but to other spies, who adopted much of the jargon he'd invented for his novels. He's widely credited with being the first to use mole for an agent who burrows and causes damage from the inside. He was also the first to use the term coming in from the cold applied to espionage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD")

RICHARD BURTON: (As Alec) What the hell do you think spies are?

FRIEDMAN: Richard Burton, playing Alec Leamas, delivered the book's most famous speech in the 1965 film version.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD")

BURTON: (As Alec) Just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me - little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husband, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten, little lives? Do you think they sit like monks in a cell balancing right against wrong?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LE CARRE: I also raised the rather nasty moral question of how much you can do in defense of the society and make sure that it's a society still worth defending.

FRIEDMAN: At the end of the story, Alec Leamas and his girlfriend are betrayed by their own side as they attempt to climb the Berlin Wall. It's a grim end for both of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Mr. Leamas, go back, please, to your own side, Mr. Leamas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LE CARRE: I wrote about people who were groaning under the weight of the Cold War, who were working in the dark, really not believing they would ever see the light.

FRIEDMAN: John le Carre continued writing after the Cold War. His later work reflected the turmoil that continued from 9/11 to Brexit.

Rose Friedman, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF KURT BESTOR'S "SILENT SIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.