David Cornwell did not want to be a writer. As a teacher in the 1950s he dreamt of being an artist, and would paint in his spare time. By 1960, however, as an intelligence officer for MI6 in Bonn, he was writing in frantic hours after work. From then on, he was John le Carré.
Born in Dorset in 1931, he was brought up by non-conformist grandparents and a Micawber-like father who had spells in prison and sent his son to an expensive school. "From a largely working-class background," he once said, "I was being groomed for something more refined." He read languages at Oxford, emerging with a first.
"The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", his first hit, turns 50 this year. Written in the early days of the Berlin wall, it anatomises the horror of the cold war. "We forget the terror too easily," le Carré says. His 22 novels, eight of which feature George Smiley, prevent us from doing so. The master of dialogue as a form of interrogation, he writes with an urgency that distances him from the pack of thriller writers. His next arrives this month; his 2010 novel "Our Kind of Traitor" is being made into a film.
KEY DECISION To use the jargon of spycraft. Smiley’s people are lamplighters, scalphunters and talent-spotters. Secretaries are "mothers"; spies on your side are "part of the family". To be blackmailed is to be "burned", a style of spying is "handwriting" and a failed mission is "being sent home in your socks". Like boarding school, the secret service runs on nicknames and catchphrases. Le Carré’s skill stops this being irritating, and lets us join the club.
GOLDEN RULE Keep it simple. He favours short words. This makes the odd descriptive flourish—such as the image, in "Call for the Dead", of lines in a face "cutting the skin into squares"—all the more piercing, like a match suddenly lit in the gloom.
STRONG POINTS 1) Use of free indirect style, like Jane Austen. In nearly all his novels, le Carré flits between first and third person. He can catch the inflection of speech—"Lord knows"—while never fully giving his characters away. It is the technique of an author who wants to hold his cards to his chest. 2) Short chapters that often end on cliff-hangers. Conversation will be cut off mid-speech at the end of one chapter, to be taken up in the next. Brevity is the key: three months in prison will be covered in three pages. A punchy statement sends you racing to the next page: "And suddenly, with the terrible clarity of a man too long deceived, Leamas understood the whole ghastly trick." 3) Smiley. "A small, frog-like figure in glasses, an earnest, worried little man." Le Carré’s most famous creation is a donnish, seemingly "expressionless" figure, watery eyes hidden behind owlish lenses. Epitomising the intelligence of his craft, he is the opposite of the bandit-like figure of James Bond.
FAVOURITE TRICK Setting the scene in sharp outlines. "The thin rain hung in the air, so that the light from the arclamps was sallow and chalky, screening the world beyond."
ROLE MODELS He owes much to Graham Greene: his precision, lucidity and the ability to throw you into a scene with beads of sweat on your brow. Like Greene, he deserves to rub shoulders with the seemingly more literary Joseph Conrad, whose lonely single men and corrupt officials seep into le Carré.
TYPICAL SENTENCE It takes three (two short, one long) to show his measured fury. "'This is a war,' Leamas replied. 'It’s graphic and unpleasant because it is fought on a tiny scale at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it’s nothing, nothing at all besides other wars—the last or the next.'" ("The Spy Who Came in from the Cold")
A Delicate Truth, Viking, April 25th