If James Bond films are the junk food of espionage fiction, then the stories and characters of John le Carré are the filet mignon. His meticulous, detailed and thrilling novels have enthralled readers and moviegoers since the 60s with their sense of dark authenticity, aided by the fact that le Carré worked for MI5 and MI6 in the Cold War. He is considered one of the most important literary voices of the Cold War era for his unflinching and brilliantly plotted spy novels. Yet, Le Carré has said this of himself: “I’m a liar. Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist.”
That statement sheds some interesting light on some of his most acclaimed and internationally bestselling novels, which have been made into equally acclaimed and well-known films. Some of the most famous include The Constant Gardener (2005), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), and most recently, A Most Wanted Man (2014). The AMC network is even developing one of le Carré’s novels into a star-studded television series set to be released in 2016.
In the new biography, John le Carré: The Biography (HarperCollins; November 3, 2015), Adam Sisman delves deep into the personal and professional life of le Carré, hoping to find the truth behind an author who considers himself the ultimate liar. The famously private le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, sat down with Sisman for more than 50 hours of interviews and provided him with unprecedented access to his personal records. Consequently, John le Carré is a highly thorough exploration of David Cornwell’s life, sometimes detailed to the point of exhaustion.
The earliest parts of the biography, where Sisman describes Cornwell’s childhood and his relationship with his charismatic father, provide some of the most interesting insights into Cornwell’s point of view. Cornwell’s father, Ronnie Cornwell, has been described by Sisman as “an extraordinary character, a world-class con man, and an energetic womanizer… but very corrupt and almost completely amoral.” The parallels and differences between Cornwell and his father make for the most fascinating discoveries about his career choices and writing style.
Readers might expect revelations about the real-life inspirations behind some of Cornwell’s most iconic stories to be at the core of John le Carré. However, while the biography burrows into his personal life and career as an author, Sisman and Cornwell both remain relatively mum on the subject of Cornwell’s time in the British Intelligence. Many have speculated that Cornwell was responsible for directing other agents in Communist territory. Nonetheless, Sisman writes, “David’s role in the intelligence services was low-level and not glamorous… The surprise about David’s work in the secret world is that there are no surprises.”
Sisman is right—the main surprises in this biography are about David Cornwell, not the mysterious spymaster persona he inhabits as John le Carré. If you’re interested in a comprehensive study of the life and work of one of the most unique voices of the Cold War period, look no further than John le Carré: The Biography. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an exciting spy story, then a le Carré novel is what you’re after.