Many le Carré novels were seeded by real events; Smiley’s hunt for a mole who has infiltrated British intelligence was inspired by the story of the infamous Soviet double agent Kim Philby. And the author would do copious background research for his books, traveling to dangerous parts of the globe like Beirut and Phnom Penh in then-Khmer Rouge-occupied Cambodia to get a feel for conditions on the ground and to search for people who might flesh out characters starting to germinate in his mind.
But le Carré was less interested in the protocols and pyrotechnics of the espionage genre than in the psychological dynamics that led his characters into the spy game to begin with: filial feelings of love and resentment, a craving for approval, an inability to commit to a single identity or what the author once called a longing to be “all things to all men and nothing to himself.”
These emotions were rooted in David Cornwell’s own life. As he recalled in his 2016 book of reminiscences, The Pigeon Tunnel, he grew up a “frozen child,” abandoned by his mother and repeatedly humiliated and manipulated by his flamboyant conman father, Ronnie, who, le Carré wrote, “saw no paradox between being on the Wanted list for fraud and sporting a gray topper in the Owners’ enclosure at Ascot” — an oblivious narcissist who gambled away his son’s school tuition in Monte Carlo and did jail time around the world in Hong Kong, Singapore and Zurich.
As a result, Cornwell learned the arts of “evasion and deception” as survival tools during his boyhood and honed his storytelling skills early on, in an effort to “cobble together an identity for myself,” he wrote in Pigeon Tunnel. Longing to belong to some legitimate, larger family, he became a natural recruit as a spy. Joining “the secret world,” as he later put it, “felt like a coming home.” Having written short stories and poetry in his youth, Cornwell started working on a novel while working at MI5, because he was “going mad with boredom.” According to le Carré’s biographer Adam Sisman, he would write in small notebooks whenever he had spare time — on the train, during lunch, in the morning before going to work.
The themes of betrayal and competing loyalties — between friends and country, family and ideals—that fuel le Carré’s novels are not confined to the realm of espionage. They define relationships between colleagues and family members, fathers and sons, in works like A Perfect Spy (arguably the most autobiographical of le Carré’s novels) and Single & Single.
For that matter, the author’s spies often emerge as the very embodiment of the frailties of the human condition — given to duplicity, manipulation and hypocrisy, and feelings of isolation and loss. “What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs?” a character in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold asks. “They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”
As the Soviet Union started to crumble, le Carré began placing his characters in new situations—in Africa, Asia, Central America and the Middle East. The threat of communism gave way to international deals in guns and drugs, as greed replaced ideology as a motivating force. But if some of his later novels, such as Absolute Friends and The Mission Song, feel overly schematic, they cannot diminish the galvanic achievement of le Carré’s great Cold War novels — novels that wed thriller conventions with the social detail of Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac, and the moral concerns of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. These books not only transcended and remade the spy genre; in retrospect, they will take their place among the emblematic novels of the late 20th century.