YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Secret Worlds of John le Carre

Author: His colorful past has given him a lifelong preoccupation with deception. And, with his 16th novel, it's serving him well.


NEW YORK — John le Carre, 65-year-old author, former intelligence officer and celebrated re-inventer of the modern genre of spy novels, is sitting over orange juice and coffee in his suite at the Hotel Carlyle, talking about his childhood. The protagonist in his latest book, "The Tailor of Panama" (Knopf), is a minor-league con man.

Which naturally brings Le Carre back to memories of his father.

Ronnie Cornwell, an energetic swindler with a taste for high living, gave his son a lifelong preoccupation with deception, not to mention one of those dreadful childhoods that seems to turn some sensitive children into creative adults. Cornwell drank, gambled and concocted various real estate and insurance scams that landed him in jail when Le Carre was only 5 years old. He and his 7-year-old brother were then promptly abandoned by their mother. Over the next 11 years, young Le Carre shuttled between the care of intensely religious paternal relatives, English public schools that he despised and life with his flimflamming, pleasure-loving father.

"The vagaries and accidents of youth do drive you in upon yourself," said Le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell. "That's when you start inventing your secret worlds. When there is absolutely no reason in the adult world around you, then more and more you feed and foster the imagination--secret rooms in the mind all the time."

Le Carre is a tall, handsome white-haired man with bushy eyebrows and an elegant British accent. To the American eye and ear, at any rate, he has the look of a card-carrying member of the ruling class who could effortlessly step into one of the fine television series or appalling Hollywood films that have been based on his novels. ("Hollywood has been heartbreaking," he laments.)

As an adult, Le Carre offered to support his father, but that did not keep Cornwell from treating his successful offspring as a potential mark. In the 1960s, when the normally reclusive Le Carre gave a long interview on British television in which he avoided mentioning his father at all, Cornwell "called up the [television] company and said that omitting all reference to him was an implicit slander since he was the progenitor of my life," Le Carre recalled. "He said that 20,000 pounds would keep him out of court."

Cornwell also "conducted at least one love affair that we know of by convincing the lady of his choice that he was me," Le Carre said, sipping calmly on his coffee. "One ceased to be shocked."


There is more than a little of the father and son in Harry Pendel, the protagonist of Le Carre's new novel.

"My own background was an unshaken cocktail of influences, exactly as with Harry Pendel. Harry is half a Jew, half a Catholic, a bit of everything else," Le Carre said.

"The Tailor of Panama" is a black comedy. A British expatriate in the Panama Canal Zone, Pendel is outwardly the dapper, respectable proprietor of a gentleman's tailor shop. But he's really a small-time con man who has spent time in jail for torching his uncle's London warehouse.

Pendel's problems begin when Andrew Osnard, a British intelligence officer who knows all of Harry's dirty little secrets, walks into the shop and blackmails Pendel into becoming an agent. Osnard's masters in London are intent on stopping the U.S. from turning the canal over to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999. Pendel obliges by fabricating stories that conform to London's beliefs and prejudices. His fantasies are finally transformed into a real-life tragedy when the U.S. is persuaded to launch another invasion of Panama.

"I was drawn by the obvious corruption of Panama and the wonderful collection of characters you meet there. It's Casablanca without heroes. I was also amused that this was a millennium story that everybody had forgotten," Le Carre said of his decision to write the book.

This is Le Carre's 16th novel. He is credited with transforming a spy genre characterized by James Bond-ian obsessions with guns, girls and gizmos. Le Carre's world of fictional espionage is a cold, gray universe filled with deceit, betrayal and moral uncertainty. The end of the Cold War hasn't slowed Le Carre down any more than it has resulted in the dismantling of the intelligence agencies that fought the conflict between East and West.

Le Carre's life has, in its own way, been as centered on deception as his father's. He worked for years as a spy for Britain--a world, he said, that is nothing like the one he portrayed in novels like "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold."

"What I had really done, as everybody who had been in the secret world with me knew perfectly well, was that I had invented a different secret world. I produced a place with its own ground rules and ethic and language and so on," he said. "The trouble was that my bluffs and fabulations were taken as gospel about the secret world. And while that was very flattering, it was simply untrue."


Los Angeles Times Articles