Old Spies Don’t Die…Until They Do

“There are old spies and bold spies but no old, bold spies because, if you believe all those blockbuster movies and bad novels, they go out in a blaze of gunfire.”

From My Noble Enemy (2015), P. A. Duncan

An 89-year-old former member of Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence services died this past Saturday (December 12, 2020) after a brief illness. You don’t expect spies to die of pneumonia, but at 89, pneumonia is often a death sentence. And that was how we lost the best espionage novelist ever. As a friend remarked to me when I lamented this passing, “2020 sucks.”

Late Sunday afternoon when a news alert popped up on my phone, I saw the words, “Espionage Writer John L…” Part of me didn’t want to look further because with only the letters “John L…” I knew who it was, John le Carre, my espionage writing icon. I clicked on the story and had the worst confirmed. John le Carre, according to his publicist, had died of pneumonia–“not COVID related”–at the age of 89.

A good, long life, but if you admired his work, you felt cheated of all the stories that will now go unwritten; cheated of a voice of reason on current British politics; cheated of complex and flawed characters who drive their way into your psyche and make you realize spies have lives, too.


I’m not sure precisely when I saw the movie The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The movie came out in 1965, and I hadn’t yet developed my interest in espionage, fiction or otherwise. It had to have been in the 1970s because, back in those ancient times, movies took a long time to get to television. At some point, I did see it and was enthralled by the complex story: A British agent sees one of his assets gunned down in front of him, is recalled, and then offered a mission to redeem himself. That mission involved a complex set-up, but the agent succeeds. And there is a gut-wrenching twist at the end.

When I saw “Based on the Novel by John le Carre” in the credits, I read the book. Close to 50 years later, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold remains one of my favorite books not only in the espionage genre but in any genre.

What attracted me was the telling of a complicated and human story without resorting to gun battles, car chases, and gratuitous sex. Moreover, le Carre’s prose was breath-taking, quintessentially English in its weaving of multiple clauses and parenthetical phrases but easy to read. His descriptions of characters planted an image of that character firmly in mind, down to the detail of what the character wore and idiosyncratic body language. Whenever I see a man take off his glasses and apply himself to cleaning them with a handkerchief, I immediately think of le Carre’s most iconic character, George Smiley.

For the next couple of decades, I read every le Carre book as it came out, up until the break-up of the Soviet Union. Le Carre was a Cold War author, his stories were British Intelligence and the KGB outwitting each other in an endless war of ideology. I couldn’t image him writing anything else, and, combined with increasing work responsibilities, I broke the chain of reading his books. If a movie came out based on one of them, I went, but as we know, the movie never quite lives up to the book.

When I retired to write espionage stories of my own, I was mostly reading Alan Furst’s works. Furst is a worthy contemporary of le Carre, but Furst until recently limited his works to Europe between the World Wars. I decided it was time to re-read le Carre and catch up on the books I’d ignored. I started with A Call to Murder from 1960, more a murder mystery than an espionage story, but the language, the plotting, the characterizations all came back to me. I’ve worked my way back up to Single & Single but skipped ahead to read A Legacy of Spies and Agent Running in the Field, his most recent two novels.

Write What You Know?

In an interview–possibly the 60 Minutes one–from a few years back, le Carre said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that if he’d been a lawyer he’d have written about the law or if he’d been a stockbroker he’d have written about the stock market. (George Smiley as a commodities broker? I can see it.) Because he’d been a spy, he wrote about spies. It was a world he knew inside and out, and he wanted, he said, to see it portrayed accurately.

Basically, write what you know.

I never worked in the intelligence community. It wasn’t something I knew, but I did know I wanted to write about that world–accurately. And le Carre, though he never realized it and I shudder to think what would have happened if he had, became my writing mentor. If I needed to understand how something worked, say, meeting with your counterpart from an “enemy” intelligence agency without either side knowing about it, I could find it in one of his books.

And the characters. Such rich and human portrayals. I keep that in mind whenever I bring a new–or existing–character into my work.

Now, le Carre has been criticized for his portrayal of female characters. With the exception of The Little Drummer Girl, they are quite often in the background or flighty or a bit addle-headed. I won’t excuse him with “he’s a man of his time,” but I will say he left British intelligence before it actively began recruiting women agents. Also, he was not a writer who would include something because it’s trending. He wrote what he knew.

His mother, out of fear of his father, left the family when le Carre was five. He didn’t see her again until he was 21, when she told him one of the conditions his father imposed was that she not have contact with her children. His first wife, whom he cheated on with the facility of a James Bond, disdained his literary effort. His second wife became his trusted copy-editor of everything he wrote. I think we can agree his lack of a mother and an unhappy marriage overshadowed his writing of female characters.

And in several of his works, le Carre explored how dysfunctional the father-son relationship can be. His own father was an often-married conman who lived well above his means and consorted with notorious criminals from around the world. Le Carre has said in interviews that growing up with a father who constantly lied and manipulated people, even his own sons, was the perfect background for becoming a spy.

Write what you know.

The Last Novel

In an interview last year after the publication of Agent Running in the Field, le Carre said he had other stories in him and that he was already exploring the plot of another novel. He joked with the reporter about “I’d better get after it.”

John le Carre, of course, was really David John Moore Cornwell, born in 1931 in Poole, England. He died in Cornwall–“As far from London as I could get.”–in that sucky year 2020. Cornwell once said that he had his feet firmly on the ground of Cornwall, but John le Carre wandered about, getting into trouble and coming up with these unique characters and timely stories.

He was adamant about separating the two sides of him. He used a pseudonym because in the 1960s, intelligence officers couldn’t publish anything under their own names. Cornwell was content to never have anyone know he was le Carre. But when The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was such a success, his fellow spies and his supervisors fairly bragged about the fact le Carre was Cornwell.

He never thought of it that way. As I said, he thought of le Carre as a separate person who gave him ideas, but John was definitely not David.

Le Carre’s writing–or Cornwell’s writing, if you will–was of such a character that he could have won all the major literary prizes. When a fellow writer wanted to put Cornwell’s name forth for Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize, Cornwell refused to allow it. He turned down a knighthood. He’d been part of that establishment, both literary and the government, he said, and because he knew them so well, he wanted no accolades from that establishment.

But Cornwell was a devoted Englishman and also a globalist. He was an adamant opponent of nationalism, a critic of Brexit, which he saw as an outlet for virulent nationalism, and gave early warnings about both Vladimir Putin and Donald T***p. He was one of the first people to say in his writing that spies became spies out of a sense of patriotism and that patriotism was present on the other side as well, that the “good guys” didn’t have ownership of it.

He also said that no matter what the Russian intelligence service now calls itself, “it’s still the KGB.” And he would know.

Cornwell’s pen may have written his last novel (he wrote them by hand), but he has left us espionage writers an important legacy of spies (title pun intended), best summed up in his own words from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold:

“What do you think spies are: priests, saints, and martyrs? 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.”

John le Carre