The only time I met John le Carré was back in 1996, when I had just moved to London and was working as a bookseller at a branch of Waterstone’s in Hampstead. Hampstead was a suburb with plenty of famous faces. Some made their presence known more than others: Richard Madeley, for example, would enter the bookshop by flinging open the double doors with a flourish.

John le Carré – David Cornwell, as he was in real life – could not have been more different. He had a new book out, The Tailor of Panama, for which he slipped in unobtrusively to sign some copies. He was polite, unprepossessing and as quietly as he arrived, he left. By the time I’d got my wits together to get him to sign something for me, he was long gone.

Le Carré died at the weekend aged 89 and leaves a hole in literature that is nigh on impossible to fill. His wasn’t a bookshelf full of literary awards – the 2019 Olaf Palme Award being the one exception – but his lack of Booker Prize nominations says far more about attitudes towards genre fiction than the quality of his work. One of his enduring influences is the way he has dismantled barriers about what different writers are expected to deliver. Good writing is good writing, whatever genre you’re writing in.

In my day job of teaching novel writing for the Faber Academy, I use more extracts by John le Carré that any other writer. A little like that visit to Waterstone’s Hampstead, his writing shows it inherent quality by the fact you don’t notice it. There’s no tripping the reader up with ‘look at me’ literary flourishes. As I say to my students, as soon as you notice a sentence and think ‘great writing’, it no longer is: because you’ve noticed it, it has taken you out of the moment. Le Carré, by contrast, always used his writing for a purpose: to bring his characters and stories to life.

When you sit down to study his writing, it’s clear here was a master at work. There’s a section I use from The Night Manager where antagonist Dickie Roper is first introduced: le Carré uses build, emphasis, even the length of paragraphs to create maximum impact. The beginning of A Most Wanted Man is a masterclass in structuring a chapter. In his last book, Agent Running In The Field, there’s a wonderful scene where the protagonist tells his daughter about his spying during a series of ski lift rides: the tense conversation deftly heightened in its hurried snatches.

A Legacy of Spies was le Carré’s penultimate book. But his own legacy lies far beyond just espionage fiction.