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John le Carré Dies at 89

John le Carré in 2016.

Photo: Gregor Fischer/EPA/Shutterstock

John le Carré, the British spy-turned-writer whose novels brought the Cold War to life for readers around the world, died Saturday, in a hospital in Cornwall, England. He was 89 years old and had pneumonia, according to a statement from his family.

His bestselling books, including “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold” portrayed shadowy worlds of double agents and Cold War tradecraft, brought to life by Mr. le Carré’s sharply etched characters and his fluid, empathetic prose. A number were adapted for the screen. The British Broadcasting Corp. series based on his novels, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Smiley’s People,” starring Alec Guinness in the title role of the dour spymaster George Smiley, left an indelible image with viewers of the grim and risky business of espionage.

John le Carré was the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, a veteran of the British intelligence services, whose spy work required that he publish under a pseudonym. Born in Poole, Dorset, Mr. le Carré attributed some of his gifts in spycraft to his unsettled family life as a boy. His mother left when he was 5 years old and Mr. le Carré, in his 2016 memoir, described his father as a con man and “occasional jailbird.” In an effort to find his equilibrium through school, he later wrote in a memoir, he adopted the mannerisms and habits of friends from more stable homes.

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“From an early age, I was pretending to be who I wasn’t,” Mr. le Carré told The Wall Street Journal last year. “I was pretending to be a normal kid like all the other kids in the boarding school, pretending to go back to a settled household and pretending to have a mother.”

Mr. le Carré’s observant eye and facility with languages destined him for intelligence work. After studying languages at the University of Bern in Switzerland, he joined the Intelligence Corps of the British Army, according to a statement from his publisher, Viking Penguin, part of Penguin Random House.

John le Carré at home with two sons in the 1960s.

Photo: Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In the interview last year with the Journal, Mr. le Carré said, spying gives you “an extraordinary insight into people. I don’t think we ever know very much about one another, but it gives you the habit of considering the possibilities of people. Is she this or that? And if you’re acquisitive as an intelligence officer, how would I use her? You think of all these wayward possibilities. It’s a kind of inside-out thinking that never leaves you.”

Mr. le Carré turned to fiction while at MI5, writing his first novel, “Call for the Dead,” in 1961. His childhood and professional life gave him a wealth of material. He had something of a mentor and inspiration in the spymaster, Lord Clanmorris, who also was a novelist. According to Mr. le Carré’s publisher, the author said he based one of his most famous characters—George Smiley—in part on Lord Clanmorris.

In 1963, Mr. le Carré published what would be his breakthrough novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” The book allowed him to focus full time on fiction and launched his nearly six decades as a perennial on bestseller lists.

John le Carré in the study of his home in Cornwall in the 1990s.

Photo: Pino Montisci/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

According to Viking Penguin, Mr. le Carré wrote in a postscript to the fiftieth anniversary edition of his career-making work: “I wrote The Spy who Came in from the Cold at the age of thirty under intense, unshared, personal stress, and in extreme privacy. From the day my novel was published, I realised that now and for ever more I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world, and written about it. The novel’s merit, then—or its offence, depending on where you stood—was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible.”

Mr. le Carré continued to take on new subjects in his plots long after the Cold War concluded. He published “Agent Running in the Field” last year and in 2016 published a memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel.”

Other than the BBC miniseries his novels were transformed into big-screen adaptations starring Sean Connery in “The Russia House,” Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in “The Constant Gardener” and Gary Oldman as George Smiley in a movie of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

British actor Gary Oldman, left, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, center, and John le Carré at the U.K. film premiere of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ in 2011.

Photo: Sang Tan/Associated Press

Write to Brenda Cronin at brenda.cronin@wsj.com

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Appeared in the December 14, 2020, print edition as ‘His Books Defined Cold War Spy Thriller.’

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