Yet John le Carré’s greatest invention is easily John le Carré himself. Born in 1931 in Poole, a sprawling coastal town in Dorset, he is a product of a childhood both unusual and enviable — if you happen to be a writer. It made him suspicious of charm of any sort and gave him a limitless fascination with humans and their secrets.
Le Carré, as most of his fans know, is a son of a great, debonair English con man. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, born into mundane middle-class life, remade himself into a funny, gracious man who found that he could talk anyone out of anything, and did so. He was friendly with the Kray twins, the notorious and photogenic London gangsters. He was jailed for insurance fraud. He always, le Carré said, had a scam or two in the works.
“In his high days, he had a racehorse at Maisons-Lafitte outside Paris, and dancing girls, and he’d go whizzing off to Monte Carlo with the former lord mayor of London to stay in grand style at the Hotel de Paris,” le Carré said. “His social rise was extraordinary.” When things went badly, le Carré recalls, “not only were the police looking for him, but the boys were. We had to put the cars behind the house, keep the lights out and so on.”
Le Carré likes to cite a passage from the autobiography of Colin Clark, the son of the art collector Lord Clark, who wrote about what it was like to be taken in by le Carré’s father: “He was your favorite uncle, your family doctor, Bob Boothby and Father Christmas rolled into one.” He could, Clark wrote, “fix anything” and did. “Ronnie invited me to Royal Ascot and gave me a few good dinners. Then he showed me a piece of derelict property, which he did not own, promised to double my money in three months and took the lot.”