Famed British author John le Carré. Photo: Leonard Heumann

It is a scene forever burned in my brain.

Smiley had helped solved the mystery, and the “Circus” now knew who the Soviet mole was in MI6. It was Bill Haydon, codenamed Gerald.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Four literary words that would change the world.

But operative Jim Prideaux had an ax to grind … after a friendly discussion, he would snap Haydon’s neck.

Haydon had sold him out to the Hungarians, and the Soviets, and much more. He had been forced to watch the brutal KGB execution of Irina.

I know … it all seems real to me, because I watched every episode, and read the book. Or shall we say, books?

The man who forged thrillers from equal parts of adventure, moral courage and literary flair, John le Carré, has died aged 89, The Guardian reported.

Le Carré explored the gap between the West’s high-flown rhetoric of freedom and the gritty reality of defending it, in novels such as The Spy Who Came in from the ColdTinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager, which made him a best-seller around the world.

On Sunday, his family confirmed he had died of pneumonia at the Royal Cornwall Hospital on Saturday night. “We all deeply grieve his passing,” they wrote in a statement.

In a career that began in 1961, Le Carré wrote 25 novels ranging from post-World War II espionage in Europe to the post-9/11 struggle against terrorism, with side trips to Panama, Nigeria and Gibraltar, among other places.

His longtime agent Jonny Geller described him as “an undisputed giant of English literature. He defined the cold war era and fearlessly spoke truth to power in the decades that followed … I have lost a mentor, an inspiration and most importantly, a friend. We will not see his like again.”

His peers lined up to pay tribute. Stephen King wrote: “This terrible year has claimed a literary giant and a humanitarian spirit.”

Famed British intelligence analyst Glenmore Trenear-Harvey would say, “Above all, he was a great storyteller. His rare experience of working for MI6 and MI5 informed his writing, but it was his insight into the bleak and sometimes treacherous human nature of espionage that made the reading so gripping.”

Historian and novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore described le Carré as “the titan of English literature” and said he was “heartbroken.”

Adrian McKinty described Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as “quite simply the greatest spy novel ever written.”

Born as David Cornwell in 1931, Le Carré began working for the secret services while studying German in Switzerland at the end of the 1940s, The Guardian reported.

‘Spies are just a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.’

Alec leamas

After teaching at Eton he joined the British Foreign Service as an intelligence officer, recruiting, running and looking after spies behind the Iron Curtain from a back office at the MI5 building on London’s Curzon Street.

Inspired by his MI5 colleague, the novelist John Bingham, Cornwell began publishing thrillers under the pseudonym of John le Carré – despite his publisher’s advice, The Guardian reported.

A spy modeled on Bingham, who was “breathtakingly ordinary … short, fat, and of a quiet disposition,” outwits an East German agent in Le Carré’s 1961 debut, Call for the Dead, the first appearance of his most enduring character, George Smiley.

A second novel, 1962’s A Murder of Quality, saw Smiley investigating a killing at a public school and was reviewed positively.

But a year later, when his third thriller was published, Le Carré’s career surged to a whole new level.

Smiley is only a minor figure in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but this story of a mission to confront East German intelligence is filled with his world-weary cynicism, The Guardian reported.

Sir Alec Guinness as superspy George Smiley in the British TV series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Photo: Courtesy BBC

According to Alec Leamas, the fiftysomething agent who is sent to East Berlin, spies are just “a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”

Graham Greene hailed it as “the best spy story I have ever read.”

According to Le Carré, the novel’s runaway success left him at first astonished and then conflicted, The Guardian reported.

His manuscript had been approved by the secret service because it was “sheer fiction from start to finish,” he explained in 2013.

“This was not, however, the view taken by the world’s press, which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving me with nothing to do but sit tight and watch, in a kind of frozen awe, as it climbed the best-seller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.”

Smiley moved center stage in three novels Le Carré published in the 1970s, charting the contest between the portly British agent and his Soviet nemesis, “Karla.”

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he unmasks a mole in the highest echelons of the British secret service, while in The Honourable Schoolboy he goes after a money-laundering operation in Asia.

Later, in Smiley’s People, the murder of a Soviet defector forces Smiley out of retirement. His investigation would lead to Karla and his Swiss connection — this will be their final dance.

The world of “ferrets” and “lamplighters,” “wranglers” and “pavement artists” was so convincingly drawn that his former colleagues at MI5 and MI6 began to adopt Le Carré’s invented jargon as their own, The Guardian reported.

“I knew, if you like, that Philby had taken a road that was dangerously open to myself, though I had resisted it,” Le Carré wrote in 1991.

“I knew that he represented one of the – thank God, unrealized – possibilities of my nature.”

As the Cold War came to a close, friends would stop him in the street and ask: “Whatever are you going to write now?”

Versatile actor Gary Oldman in the movie version of Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Photo: Courtesy Vanity Fair

But Le Carré’s concerns were always broader than the confrontation between East and West, and he had little patience for the idea that the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled any kind of end either for history or the espionage that greased its mechanisms.

He tackled the arms trade in 1993 with The Night Manager, big pharma in 2001 with The Constant Gardener and the war on terror in 2004 with Absolute Friends.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of his creations made their way from page to screen. Actors including Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, Ralph Fiennes and Gary Oldman relished the subtleties of his characterization even as audiences applauded the deftness of his plotting.

Le Carré returned to Smiley for the last time in 2017, closing the circle of his career in A Legacy of Spies.

Retired agent Peter Guillam returns to a new Secret Service, where all poetry has been stripped from life. Agents have become “assets” and the Smileys of the world are seen as corrupt for seeing the world in morally ambiguous terms.

He is called for interrogation about Windfall, an operation around a source so secret, only a select few members of the service knew about him.

Le Carré admitted the fame was overwhelming at times, and initially didn’t handle it well.

Sir John Hurt, as ‘Control’ in the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Photo: The Independent

“I made an awful mess of my first marriage,” he said in a New York Times Magazine interview. “It was hard to live with me being me.”

He and his wife, Alison, with whom he had three sons – Simon and Stephen, who are involved in film adaptations of Le Carré’s novels, and Timothy – divorced in 1971.

The next year, he married Valerie Jane Eustace, a former book editor. They had one son together, the British novelist Nick Harkaway.

Le Carre reportedly turned down an honor from Queen Elizabeth II – though he accepted Germany’s Goethe Medal in 2011 – and said he did not want his books considered for literary prizes.

Although he had a home in London, Le Carre spent much of his time near Land’s End, England’s southwesternmost tip, in a clifftop house overlooking the sea. He was, he said, a humanist but not an optimist.

“Humanity – that’s what we rely on. If only we could see it expressed in our institutional forms, we would have hope then,” he told the Associated Press. “I think the humanity will always be there. I think it will always be defeated.”

Sources: The Guardian, Yahoo News, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wikipedia