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Biography: John le Carré

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.”

Graham Green said of John le Carré’s Call For The Dead that it was the “best spy novel he had ever read”, and many people echo these kind of sentiments about le Carré. He is well known and lauded for his extensive knowledge on the subject of international espionage and his wide-ranging and internationally reknown authorship of spy novels.


John le Carré was born David John Moore Cornwell on the 19th of October 1931 in Dorset in England. His father was a sometimes con-man and swindler, who was also involved in politics. He was incarcerated for fraud at one point, and le Carré stated that his father triggered his fascination with secrets. le Carré’s mother left when he was five.

le Carré attended St Andrew’s prep boarding school as a child, and then attended Sherborne school until the age of sixteen, when he faked a nervous breakdown to avoid returning and asked his father if he could continue his education in Switzerland. He studied German at the University of Berne there, and then went to Austria for his military service. He then returned to England to study modern languages at Lincoln College, Oxford, leaving partway through his degree when his father declared bankruptcy in 1954. It was during this year he married Alison Sharp. He took a job at a prep school for a year, and then returned to Oxford to complete his Bachelor of Arts with first class honours in 1956.

le Carré spent two years teaching French and German at Eton, and then joined the British Foreign Service and took a posting to West Germany, where he was ultimately recruited by MI6. He wrote his first novel while working for the service, publishing it under the name “le Carré” because agents weren’t allowed to publish under their own names.

le Carré’s career in MI6 ended when his name, along with dozens of other agents, was given by Kim Philby, a defector, to the Russians. He began writing fulltime after the success of his third novel; The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. His writing is the antithesis of another popular spy writer of the time; Ian Flemming, creator of James Bond. le Carré’s moral relativism and well studied characters earned him an excellent reputation and several awards, some of which he turned down, including a knighthood. In 1972 he married again: Valerie Eustace. He has four children, three from his first marriage and one from his second.

le Carré is well know for being publically political; in 1997 he began a long running feud with Salman Rushdie about the publication and subsequent fatwa relating to The Satanic Verses. le Carré stated that the novel was an unacceptable afront to Muslim sensibilities. In 2003, he published an essay protesting the war on Iraq and Bush’s involvement. In 2006 he wrote a testimonial in The Future Of The NHS.

Many of le Carré’s novels have been adapted for television and movies.



  • Call for the Dead (1961)
  • A Murder of Quality (1962)
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
  • The Incongruous Spy (omnibus) (1964)
  • The Looking-Glass War (1965)
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968)
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
  • Smiley’s People (1979)
  • The Quest for Karla (omnibus) (1982)
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983)
  • A Perfect Spy (1986)
  • The Russia House (1989)
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1991)
  • The Unbearable Peace (1991)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Nervous Times (1998) (lim. ed. of 250)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)


John le Carré writes within the mystery, spy fiction/political thriller, and contemporary literature genres.