Thursday, December 17, 2020

David Cornwell 1931 -2020

 Michael - Thursday

David Cornwell/John Le Carre

This is not an obituary for David Cornwell. In the first place, I never met him, and much more important, there have been a plethora of excellent obituaries already published by people much more knowledgeable about him and his work than I am. This is just a few thoughts about a writer that I greatly admired, and who helped me by his example. Anything more would be pretentious in the extreme.

Le Carre is now recognized as a greatly underrated author. Henning Mankell called him, “the greatest writer who will never win a Nobel Prize.” Few of his earlier books received rave reviews when they were released, but that didn’t prevent the public jumping onto the George Smiley ones and making them best sellers on both sides of the Atlantic. In retrospect, the critics’ main complaint seemed to be that the books were “spy fiction.” Genre fiction was looked down on, regarded as pulp fiction not to be taken seriously. Yet, they reviewed the books. There was clearly discomfort. The books had all the features of good fiction, but were selling like hot cakes. Clearly they couldn’t be any good!

Thankfully we’ve long moved beyond that prejudice, but too late for Le Carre. I’ve enjoyed all his books at various levels, although I would plumb for the semi-autobiographical  A Perfect Spy as his masterpiece. I’ve read it at least three times, and every time something a little different is revealed. When I started writing with Stan, I suddenly found myself reading fiction rather differently. I was much more critical and I would often pause to analyse what the author had done – good or bad – and how he or she had done it. One learns a lot about writing from reading fiction – good and bad — but what I discovered was that I was enjoying reading less, because stopping and examining the mechanisms that make the novel work takes you out of the story. With Le Carre’s novels, I imposed a new rule: I would read them twice, once just for enjoyment of the story and the characters, and once to try to understand his talent and craft.

I think I learnt that way, although I had no hope of emulating him. The case I recall most clearly was reading The Mission Song for the second time. Although it’s set partly in Africa, it’s not my favourite of his books. The politics seem too obvious, too crude. But early in the story, he introduces quite a bit of background for the protagonist, Salvo. It happens while Salvo is being chased by thugs who, we believe, want to beat him up or worse.  Salvo is running and the bad guys are getting closer, then we hear quite a bit about Salvo’s background, then… Just a second, you can’t do that! It breaks up the tension of the action scene. It breaks all the rules. Yes, but when Le Carre did it, it worked just fine. I hadn’t even noticed on the first read.

It reminds me of a piece from Stephen King’s book On Writing, (which I recommend to anyone interested in writing fiction). Talking about the ability to write good fiction, he divides humanity into three classes. He says there’s a small group of people who will never be able to write decently no matter how hard they try. Then there is a much smaller group of people with the ability to break barriers, win Nobel and Booker prizes. All the rest of us are in the middle, and King locates himself there. We can learn, we can improve, become good writers, maybe even highly successful ones. But work our way up to that top group? “Forget about it,” King says.

Thank you, David. Rest in peace.


  1. Complex novels, and the film adaptations were equally so. Carre's books were always part of the family library.

  2. I agree with you and Stephen King, Michael--two of my author idols. And, yes, "On Writing," is a must. It, "Elements of Style," and "Making Story" were the only "technique" books I required my mystery writing students to read.