The Spy Novelist Who Was Actually a Spy

John Le Carre
via Penguin Random House

The author John le Carré, (real name: David Cornwall), is the subject of both a recent biography and his own brand new memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life. You can take your pick and/or read them both and marvel at the subject’s father, the scene-stealing Ronnie Cornwall, a world-class con-artist who scammed his way around the world, served prison time, and kept bouncing back into David’s life at inopportune times.

Black sheep father aside, the other surprising thing about David Cornwall’s life is that he was recruited by British intelligence and worked for both MI5 (domestic intelligence) and MI6 (foreign intelligence). That experience gave his novels about the murky world of Cold War espionage an insider’s edge, particularly in the details of spy-craft.

The loss of British power and prestige became le Carré’s great theme.

Cornwall took the pen name John le Carré while still in the secret service; he says now he can’t recall why that particular name was chosen. While he has written some 23 novels, many of them best-sellers, he is undoubtedly best known for his creation of George Smiley, the self-effacing British intelligence operative who stands in complete contrast to that other British intelligence fantasy, James Bond.

Smiley appears in eight novels and was memorably played by Alec Guinness in two television series (1979, 1982) and more recently in a feature film by Gary Oldman (2011). In Abraham Rothberg’s analysis, which is really a composite biography of Smiley across the novels, the squat spy is “the epitome of the best England has to offer.” Smiley’s virtues of “decency, probity, and fairness,” are contrasted to a rotten Establishment and the “corruptions of Whitehall’s politics and the machinations of British Intelligence.” Smiley’s decline and fall very much mirrors Britain’s.

The Second World War gave notice to the British Empire, beginning with Indian independence in 1947. The last great act of British overseas power projection was in 1956 with the attempt to overthrow Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and retake the nationalized Suez Canal. Allied with Israel and France, Britain found itself upsetting the Cold War’s real powers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., who, along with the U.N., forced the British, French, and Israeli forces to withdraw from the canal.

The subsequent loss of British power and prestige became le Carré’s great theme, along with loyalty. But “loyalty to whom, to what?” as Smiley asks. Rothberg argues that for le Carré, what mattered was loyalty to the common British individual, against the “Leviathan of the state.”

JSTOR Citations

The Decline & Fall Of George Smiley: John Le Carré and English Decency


Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 4 (AUTUMN 1981), pp. 377-393

Southern Methodist University

Matthew Wills

Matthew Wills has advanced degrees in library science and film studies and is lapsed in both fields. He has published in Poetry, Huffington Post, and Nature Conservancy Magazine, among other places, and blogs regularly about urban natural history at

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