The former MI5 and MI6 agent David John Moore Cornwell used the name John le Carré on his numerous spy novels. Wikipedia explains why he had to write under a pseudonym:

he wrote the detective story A Murder of Quality (1962) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), as "John le Carré" (le Carré is French for "the Square") – a pseudonym required because Foreign Office officers were forbidden to publish in their own names.

But why did he choose that particular pseudonym? As a British intelligence officer writing about British intelligence officers, why did he decide to use a French-sounding name? And for that matter, why that particular name - what was the significance to him of a square?

  • 2
    I've accepted Mike's answer as it's so far the only answer which actually gives a plausible explanation. But if anyone else has a different one, please do post it and I'll consider switching the tick. – Rand al'Thor Mar 19 '17 at 23:50
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Maybe to increase the likelihood of getting published initially?

To a previously unknown author, a French-sounding name would lend some cachet. The semi-opaque world of espionage is intriguing, partly because of the perception that insiders have access to sources of information and other resources, not available to the interested outsider. Going back through the ages in English history, blue bloods had French as a shorthand for "insider". This is fairly ubiquitous in the English milieu, example the motto Dieu et mon droit.

So a new writer able to leverage the impression of being privy to hitherto unrevealed secrets, perhaps due to his access to an inner clique, would undoubtedly pique the interest of an editor reviewing his MSS, in a world then very attuned to the subject due to cold war tensions.

We may never know. Quoting The Atlantic article The Double Life of John le Carré (emphasis mine):

Taking the pen name John le Carré (he doesn’t remember where from), Cornwell began to write while still working in intelligence.

I think Le Carre's claim that he doesn't know is hogwash. Or whitewash. Whatever. Someone who writes and thinks as he does does nothing without intention. The complete answer may be of a larger context due to the fact that Le Carre is of and from and works for British intelligence. Don't let anything fool you that he "resigned" or "retired". Doesn't happen. He just moved into the PR department. Along with his contemporary, Len Deighton.

When you read Le Carre's legend (I'm sorry, life history) you learn his father was a legendary con man who went afoul of the both the law and the "boys". So he was exposed to the "bent" or crooked life early on. A "square John" (John le Carre) is someone who is honest, forthright, and living straight. From Dictionary.com:

An ordinary honest person; a good citizen; a noncriminal person who can be victimized by, and is contemptuously regarded by, criminals.

Substitute the word "Spy" for "Criminals", and I think you have it. I think he is having a little fun with us, because I would say there is certainly nothing "on the square" about his story, role, or story sources. The fact that he will not reveal this tells us it is his private joke and he wants to keep it that way, knowing that to reveal it would expose something he (and his handlers) does not wish known. I'm sure all his buddies in MI-6 get the joke.

I know this appears to be a lot of conjecture; however, the evidence is all there if you read between the lines, know a bit about how intelligence services really work, and know the code. To me, the smoking gun: the solid, unrefutable proof, is given away by the definition of "Square John".

  • This is all interesting commentary, but how does it answer the actual question of why he chose that particular pseudonym? – Rand al'Thor Dec 29 '17 at 15:55
  • Sorry, disregard my previous comment. I understand what you're saying now. – Rand al'Thor Dec 29 '17 at 17:46
  • His claim isn't that he doesn't know, but that he doesn't remember. It's all too easy to make a folk etymology of his pen name, but the original reason? Who knows, maybe he lost a bet, or his buddy picked it for him, or played a game of I spy, or ... – muru Jan 2 at 15:57

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