In this Aug. 28, 2008, file photo Author John Le Carre poses for a photo at his home in London. Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

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Keith C. Burris is editor, vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers.

John le Carre, whose real name was David Cornwell, died Dec. 12 in England.

He was rightly hailed as a master of the spy novel and ace chronicler of the demise of Great Britain as a world power and moral force in the world. But all that falls short of the mark, for it suggests a sort of clinical detachment.

Le Carre did something totally unique, and quite above and apart from the spy genre. He managed to be two opposing things at once — a sly ironist and a passionate moralist.

Le Carre was a master portraitist who delighted in moral ambiguities and comic human foibles in contradictions and betrayals small and large. He saw human interactions as an endless string of unfaithful acts. And what he saw he saw and painted with infinite care and sympathy.

And yet he insisted on very high, if not absolute, standards of right and wrong, for men and nations.

And he insisted that there must be, and would be, eventually, a reckoning.

The secret services of the United States and Britain, he insisted, could justify very little of what they did covertly during the Cold War.

The claim was that “freedom” was being defended. But these agencies, he felt, had covered themselves with guilt for an ideal that was compromised from the start, and grew to be ever more deeply compromised, by nationalism and leaders both stupid and corrupt.

Mostly, might was being defended.

And the betrayal of ideals was personal for him.

Le Carre was also a dedicated European, as were the heroes of his later books. This too was personal. He despised Brexit and Donald Trump. At the end of his life, he was said to be planning a move to Ireland.

And yet le Carre’s moralism seldom compromised his storytelling. He could not help painting complexity and compassion, even when what he felt was rage.

Writers and spies are often alike in this way — simultaneously embracing seemingly contradictory polarities.

That so much could happen between the covers of his books while he still moved the story along and “entertained” the reader is quite astonishing.

For almost all of le Carre’s books are great reads. Most are almost impossible to put down and many are eminently rereadable — for the pure pleasure of observation, humanity and wit. More than one fan has noted the perfect little le Carre bits — like George Smiley absently reaching for his tie to clean his glasses and then realizing he is in formal wear.

And sometimes a character speaks some wisp of dialogue that could be an aphorism. For example: “The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.” That’s from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”

Or, from “A Perfect Spy”: “Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.”

Le Carre, like Graham Greene, belongs in the highest pantheon of fiction writers — Dickens, Tolstoy and Turgenev, to name three to whom he may be worthily compared.

He is not the sort of writer they give Nobel Prizes, or any awards, to these days. But “they,” as usual, are wrong.