Obituary: Espionage novelist John Le Carré dies of pneumonia aged 89

David Cornwell, known by his pen name John le Carré.

David Cornwell, known by his pen name John le Carré. - Credit: PA

Novelist and Hampstead resident John Le Carré has died at the age of 89 from pneumonia.

The author of classic Cold War novels including The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy died on Saturday evening after a short illness, literary agent Curtis Brown said.

His death was not Covid-19 related.

A statement shared on behalf of his family said: “It is with great sadness that we must confirm that David Cornwell – John le Carré – passed away from pneumonia last Saturday night after a short battle with the illness.

“David is survived by his beloved wife of almost 50 years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon.

“We all grieve deeply his passing. Our thanks go to the wonderful NHS team at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro for the care and compassion that he was shown throughout his stay. We know they share our sadness.”

For decades the author split his time between Hampstead and Cornwall.

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He had worked for MI5 and for MI6 in the late 1950s and 1960s before making his name with classic spy novels. 

The enduring character of George Smiley featured in 10 books, most recently A Legacy of Spies, and was played by Alec Guinness in the BBC's celebrated versions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People.

In 2011 the spy was played on film by Gary Oldman, who posted a tribute saying Cornwell was “a very great author, the true ‘owner’ of the serious, adult, complicated, spy novel – he actually owned the genre… He was generous with his creativity and always a true gentleman”.

A number of his novels have been adapted for the screen, including The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House, The Constant Gardener, and The Night Manager.

John Le Carre attending the Little Drummer Girl Premiere as part of the BFI London Film Festival, at

Author John Le Carré. - Credit: Matt Crossick/PA Wire

Born in 1931, Cornwell was first educated at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, where he studied German.

He studied further at Oxford before teaching at Eton, then embarking on his undercover intelligence career, in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British embassy at Bonn, in western Germany.

His first thriller, Call For The Dead, was published pseudonymously in 1961.

Two years later, the publication of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a story about an assignment to confront East German Intelligence, brought him world-wide acclaim, and he left the service to pursue writing full time.

Cornwell said his manuscript was approved by the secret service because they “rightly if reluctantly” concluded it was “sheer fiction from start to finish” and posed no security risk.

But he said the world’s press took a different view, deciding the book was “not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side”.

Writing in the Guardian in 2013, Cornwell recalled watching it climb the best-seller list with “a kind of frozen awe” which then gave way to a “kind of impotent anger”.

He wrote: “Anger, because from the day my novel was published, I realised that now and forever 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.”

Cornwell, who turned down literary honours and a knighthood, said in a 2017 US interview he was “so suspicious of the literary world that I don’t want its accolades”, adding: “and least of all do I want to be called Commander of the British Empire or any other thing of the British Empire, I find it emetic.”

He told 60 Minutes: “I don’t want to posture as someone who’s been honoured by the state and must therefore somehow conform with the state, and I don’t want to wear the armour.”

Asked if he considered himself an Englishman, he added: “Yes of course I’m born and bred English, I’m English to the core.

“My England would be the one that recognises its place in the EU. The jingoistic England that is trying to march us out of the EU, that is an England I don’t want to know.”