John le Carré: The Biography

Publisher: Vintage Canada
John le Carré is still at the top more than half a century after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became a worldwide bestseller. Written with exclusive access to le Carré, his personal archives, and many of the people closest to him, Adam Sisman's definitive biography is a highly readable, fascinating portrait of the life, times and espionage career that inspired a literary master.
     Always secretive about his background and Secret Service career (blocking one biography from publication in the 1990s, then choosing a biographer who abandoned the project), John le Carré (David Cornwell) has finally given his blessing to Adam Sisman, who has delivered a biography that reads like a novel. From his bleak childhood--the departure of his mother when he was five was followed by "sixteen hugless years" in the dubious care of his father, a serial-seducer and con-man--through recruitment by both MI5 and MI6, his years as an agent for British Intelligence during the Cold War, to his emergence as the master of the espionage novel, le Carré has repeatedly quarried his life for his fiction. His acute psychological renderings of undercover operations and the moral ambiguities of the Cold War and our present-day politics lend his novels a level of credibility that is unmistakable. Sisman's great biography uncovers for us the remarkable story of an enigmatic writer whose commercial success has sometimes overshadowed appreciation for his extraordinary abilities.


“This is the best biography of 2015—a rare achievement that invites rereading.” —Edward Wilson, The Independent

“Sisman’s life of the British secret-service-veteran-turned-novelist is admiring without toadyism, highly readable and, above all, knowledgeable about the books.” —The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)

“Sisman’s book answered all the questions le Carré watchers had been asking for years. . . . [A] shrewdly forensic anatomising of le Carré’s eighty-something years. . . . Paradoxically, and perhaps irritatingly for the author, [le Carré’s] autobiography [The Pigeon Tunnel] serves to underline the general excellence of Sisman’s biography.” —William Boyd, The Guardian

“[A] long, full and revealing work, written in blessedly readable prose, and makes a three-dimensional figure of a subject who can come across as something of a superman. . . . Sisman’s account of Cornwell’s espionage work is particularly good. . . . [N]obody will ever come closer than Sisman has to cracking the great le Carré enigma.” —The Telegraph 

“[T]he biography one imagines le Carré wanted: admiring without being toadying, detailed without being overstuffed, highly readable and, above all, knowledgeable about the work. . . . [John le Carré: The Biography] offers a knowing refresher course, and what we take away is a new appreciation of le Carré’s full range.” —Joseph Kanon, The New York Times 

“[A] fascinating truce between candour and guile. . . . [T]his book fulfils almost every expectation. Sisman has immersed himself in an extraordinary life story and reported it with exemplary dedication, following le Carré’s footsteps and, like a literary Jeeves, quietly correcting his master’s narrative with here a discreet cough, there a raised eyebrow, anon a sharp intake of breath. . . . Rarely has there been a more passionate marriage between life and art.” —Robert McCrum, The Observer

“[An]  intriguing biography. . . . [T]his is biography as detective work, or, if you like, as espionage. . . . This book is a substantial achievement. It confirms Sisman’s reputation as one of the best literary biographers now working in English.” —The Washington Free Beacon

“Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré is a masterpiece.” —Irish Examiner

“[A] respectful and unsycophantic biography.” —The Telegraph

“Sisman has done his work diligently and he’s very smart. One reads avidly.” —John Sutherland, The Times

“Splendid. . . . Smiley himself could not have done a better job.” —Dominic Sandbrook, The Sunday Times

“[Sisman] has got behind Mr. le Carré’s mask to unravel the enigma. . . . [A] balanced, focused and compelling study of a man of depth and individuality. . . . This biography expertly shows how distance, distrust and even disillusionment have informed Mr. le Carré and influenced his bestselling fiction.” —The Economist 

“In Sisman’s telling, [le Carré] is fascinating and enigmatic. . . . Sisman’s portrait is cogent, tirelessly researched, and always absorbing.” —Adam Woog, The Seattle Times

“[O]ne of the best biographies to be written about a living subject. It combines a thoroughly researched account of le Carré’s eventful life with incisive and often brilliant insights into his peerless writing career. . . . [A]s thrilling and detailed as any of its subject’s novels and an equally essential read. . . . Sisman’s hugely confident and gripping storytelling makes this biography a pleasure to read over its six hundred pages. Le Carré himself may struggle to better it.” —Charlotte Heathcote, Daily Express

“To his craft as a biographer, Sisman adds the tradecraft of the spy. He waits and watches, gathering intelligence on his subject for us. We are individual members of his ‘Joint Intelligence Committee’ as much as we are his readers.” —Vin Arthey, The Scotsman

“[A] model of exposition and tact. While not hagiography, it is certainly very admiring. . . . Sisman, a trustworthy exegete, teases out the strands of a contradictious life.” —Ian Thomson, The Irish Times

“[A]dmirably detailed and judicious.” —Roger Lewis, Daily Mail

“Sisman is up to the challenge. He has just the style for a biographer: questioning, clear-eyed and honest. . . . Sisman equally knows how to write and this magnificent book is testament.” —The Buffalo News