The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | Study Guide

John le Carré

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John le Carré | Biography


Early Years and Education

John le Carré is the pseudonym for David John Moore Cornwell, who was born in Poole, England, on October 19, 1931. Le Carré's father was a con man, who kept his family moving from one location to another. During this time le Carré attended several private schools. He did not grow up in a literary family. In fact, his father supposedly never read an entire book—a fact he was proud of. Le Carré, therefore, received most of his literary education from the various schools he attended. At an early age, he was exposed to the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle. In his teens, he became a voracious reader, devouring works by Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and many German authors since he was very gifted in languages.

Service and Higher Education

After World War II, le Carré became an officer in the British Army Intelligence Corps in Vienna, Austria. Part of his job included searching through displaced-persons camps for fake refugees. He also looked for people who could be helpful to British intelligence and might consider returning to their home country to assist the British in various covert ways. When his service ended, le Carré attended Lincoln College at the University of Oxford. After graduating, he took the position of assistant master at Eton College, where he taught mostly German language and literature from 1956 to 1958. He viewed this experience as valuable for his later writing because he was exposed to both the positive and negative sides of the English upper classes within the elite Eton atmosphere.

Foreign Service and a Writing Career

Le Carré then decided to join the British Foreign Service as an intelligence officer. Le Carré began writing novels during this time. He received encouragement to pursue writing from a co-worker named John Bingham, an intelligence officer and an author of thrillers. Anything le Carré published had to first be cleared by his superiors. Also, the British Foreign Service required that le Carré use a pseudonym, which led him to choose the one for which he became famous. Le Carré's first two novels, Call for the Dead (1960) and A Murder of Quality (1962), received his bosses' approval with no problems. However, his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, proved to be a different matter. According to le Carré, the British intelligence authorities took a long time to review the book and only reluctantly gave their approval.

Le Carré may have received his inspiration for the main character of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold through an encounter with a man in a bar at London Airport. A rough-looking person sat next to le Carré, threw down a bunch of coins, and ordered a large scotch. The man had a worn-down appearance and a "deadness in the face." Le Carré knew that this man's appearance and attitude fit a character he was trying to develop, Alec Leamas.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became a New York Times best seller and was soon adapted into a successful movie by the same title, which starred Richard Burton as Alec Leamas. Also, the novel enabled le Carré to quit his job in the British Foreign Service and devote his time entirely to writing. Le Carré has gone on to write many spy novels, including the trilogy Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); The Honourable Schoolboy (1977); and Smiley's People (1979). In these works, the main character, a mastermind British intelligence officer named George Smiley, who also appears briefly, but significantly, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, matches wits against a Soviet master spy named Karla. Other works dealing with espionage include The Little Drummer Girl (1983), A Perfect Spy (1986), and The Russia House (1989). All of these novels were adapted into movies.

In the early 1990s, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a total restructuring of European political alliances. As a result, le Carré expanded the subject matter for his novels. For example, The Constant Gardener (2001) deals with a corrupt pharmaceutical company, and Our Kind of Traitor (2010) portrays an English couple who inadvertently become embroiled with the Russian mob. Le Carré has also written novels that connect espionage with terrorism, such as A Delicate Truth (2013). In 2016, le Carré published a memoir called The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life.

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