John Le Carre: The Biography - Adam Sisman

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John Le Carre: The Biography - Adam Sisman

ISBN: 1408849461

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Review of "John Le Carre: The Biography - Adam Sisman"

published 10/12/2017 | 2mennycds
Member since : 28/08/2015
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Best wishes to all, and thanks for your kind rates and comments, have been half-expecting the latest announcement for at least the last year. Have thoroughly enjoyed being a member over the last couple of years or so.
Pro Thorough, detailed, interesting in places
Cons Lengthy, too much detail, spoilers about his novels
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"Biography of a master spy-writer"

John Le Carre: The Biography - Adam Sisman

John Le Carre: The Biography - Adam Sisman

I’ve only read four books by John le Carre, but I enjoyed three of them enough, and the television dramatisations of “Tinker, Tailor” and “Smiley’s People” to want to buy and read the biography of the enigmatic author.

I was bought this as a present and have only just got around to reading it. In part this is due to its length – 600 pages in paperback – and to the small font of the text, making the reading of it a little tiring on the eyes. Nevertheless, given the many acclaims on the back cover and the inside of the front cover (and spreading to the frontispiece), it held great promise.

Introducing John le Carre

John le Carre is the pen name of one David Cornwell, who for years kept much of his private life out of the public domain. Adam Sisman obtained his permission to write an authorised biography, and to have access to Cornwell and to many of his letters and other documents, too.

This book answers the long-unresolved question whether Cornwell had ever served in MI5 or MI6. The easiest way to understand the roles of each is that MI5 is concerned with intelligence collection to aid the defence of the realm against security threats, whereas MI6 is primarily concerned with intelligence that will help Britain to undermine or work against foreign regimes.

It covers Cornwell’s childhood in considerable depth, his early career, and his writing career.


I found the book grammatically strong, and well written in terms of vocabulary and readability, the latter in the sense that the sentence structure is easy to read.


There are no less than 32 pages of black-and-white photographs that cover pretty much the entire period of Cornwell’s life to date. I appreciated that these are printed on glossy paper to enhance their definition.


I have to say that although I’m glad that I’ve read the book, I can’t rave about it.

I liked…

~ ~ ~ ~ the moving nature of the book. Cornwell had a troubled childhood, with a mother who left him and his brother when they were young, and a confidence artist as a father. Anyone who has a rose-tinted view of such a way of life would find this book a real eye-opener; it pulls no punches in describing its effects on family and victims over decades.

~ ~ ~ ~ the “warts and all” treatment. The book doesn’t gloss over some of Cornwell’s shortcomings, and Cornwell himself makes no attempt to excuse himself for some of them.

~ ~ ~ ~ the intimacy of the book. It helped me to understand some of Cornwell’s ups and downs in life, not least his sensitivity to unfair criticisms of some of his work.

~ ~ ~ ~ insights into some of the key characters in Cornwell’s life. I enjoyed reading how he found inspiration for characters in his novels in various acquaintances (or combinations of such). I also enjoyed reading about Sir Alec Guinness’ friendship with Cornwell and his way of getting into the George Smiley character for the television dramatisations of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People”.

I was less keen on…

~ ~ ~ ~ the length of the book. For le Carre aficionados this book will be most welcome. As a less devoted fan I found the book considerably too long. Perhaps due to my half-hearted interest I found that I lost track of some of the people in Cornwell’s life, especially in the publishing world.

~ ~ ~ ~ the small font. I found the act of reading the book quite tiring in artificial light in the evening.

~ ~ ~ ~ the slight aloofness of the subject himself. I tend to divide biographies or autobiographies into two categories. There are those that, when I’ve finished reading them, leave me feeling that I have got to know a lot about the person in question. Some subjects of biographies, though, have more transparent, heart-on-the-sleeve personalities. When I’ve finished reading abut them I feel that I’ve gone beyond learning ABOUT them. I feel that I’ve got to know the person himself or herself, even if to a very limited extent. The book has given me insights into what makes him or her tick.

Don’t get me wrong. Anybody is entitled to privacy, even those who sanction an official biography. I’m just stating that this biography fell into the first of my categories. Despite a massive amount of information about him, I don’t feel that I know the man David Cornwell much more than I knew him before.

~ ~ ~ ~ the spoilers. I feel that Sisman assumes that the readers of this book will be familiar with all or most of le Carre’s works. Not only does he give away plot details about some of them, he actually discloses the ending of at least one novel. Annoyingly, I was actually considering purchasing the title in question – not much point, now!

~ ~ ~ ~ especially due to the length of the book and the amount of detail, I found myself skimming through part chapters on occasion.


I can’t rate this higher than 3 stars. I was genuinely looking forward to reading it, but it didn’t meet my expectations and its length and amount of detail wearied me somewhat.

I’m glad I read it but wouldn’t be able to face reading its 600 pages of small typeface again, sadly.

It’s available new in paperback for £7.99 from Amazon, Kindle £6.99. Foyles sell it for £9.99, Waterstones for £7.99.

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Comments on this review

  • anonymili published 29/12/2017
    Good stuff
  • rolandrat123 published 14/12/2017
  • mikemelmak published 12/12/2017
    E - superb stuff! Great that you're still contributing here!
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Product Information : John Le Carre: The Biography - Adam Sisman

Manufacturer's product description

ISBN: 1408849461

Product Details

Author: Adam Sisman

Original Release Year: 2016

Edition: Paperback

EAN: 9781408849460

ISBN: 1408849461

Title: John Le Carre: The Biography

Publisher: Bloomsbury Paperbacks


Listed on Ciao since: 04/01/2017