Where to start reading John le Carré

 

If you haven’t read John le Carré, you probably know him from the many Oscar, Bafta and Emmy-winning film and TV adaptations of his books, including recent hits Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Little Drummer Girl and The Night Manager. Le Carré is probably the greatest espionage author who has put pen to paper, giving the world one of the most memorable characters in literature: the dumpy and badly dressed anti-James Bond, George Smiley. A slight problem for the uninitiated is that le Carré’s prolific writing career started nearly 60 years ago — so where to start? Here is our guide to ten of the best. 

A Perfect Spy (1986)

We begin not with le Carré’s debut, but one that moved the goalposts from critics thinking of him as 'only' a brilliant spy author to a literary giant. Indeed, the US author Philip Roth once called A Perfect Spy 'the best English novel since the war' and he may not have been wrong. A perfect first le Carré, too,  because of its typically masterly plotting — a twisty tale of British spy/double agent Magnus Pym — and its autobiographical elements: le Carré has said that part of the novel is a thinly disguised portrayal of his early life and conman father.   

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)

Le Carré’s third novel and his first huge international breakout. It was revolutionary then, and still retains every ounce of its power, laying out what underpins much of his work: that most spycraft is essentially morally bankrupt and completely at odds with the values of Western democracies. This is best summed by the glorious rant from the titular Alex Leamas, an MI6 man who is sent to East Berlin to sow disinformation about a Stasi boss: 'What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They're a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes: pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.'

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)

A crucial question for the le Carré newbie is do you need to read the Smiley books in order? You certainly can, but all five of novels in which the overweight, bespectacled and often underestimated-by-his-enemies spymaster appears as the main character are easily read as standalones. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is peak Smiley with a fraught search for a high-level Soviet mole in MI6 (or, 'the Circus', as le Carré has it) where it is increasingly difficult to tell the good guys from the bad.  The first of three books in which Smiley faces off against Karla, his KGB archenemy. 

The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)

Having said you need not read the Smiley books in order, we recommend going straight to The Honourable Schoolboy after Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The second in the Karla trilogy has Smiley repairing the damage of the MI6 mole and turning to part-time spook Jerry Westerby  for vital undercover work in Hong Kong. There, Westerby poses as a buffoonish newspaper hack and falls for Lizzie Worthington, the mistress of shady financier Drake Ko. Westerby and Worthington’s love story is beautiful and heart-breaking.       

What to read next

The Constant Gardener (2001)

The end of the Cold War was a tricky for some spy novelists; with no KGB, who would be the baddies? Le Carré, however, was invigorated, often exploring the evil that exists in the West itself in the form of dodgy multinational corporations, gunrunners and people traffickers. The Constant Gardener is one of his best early post-Soviet books in which he takes aim at Big Pharma’s malign influence in Africa: a British diplomat is posted to Kenya and his activist wife is soon found murdered. He discovers the official investigation is a coverup and is flung headlong into an international conspiracy…      

The Tailor of Panama (1996)

We take a slight step away from our darker, albeit still thrilling, recommendations to le Carré at his most light-hearted. 'Casablanca without the heroes' is how the author himself once described it – Harry Pendel is a British ex-pat, tailor to Panama’s elites and powerbrokers and, unbeknownst to his long-suffering family, a former convict. Spymaster Andy Osnard recruits him to report back on his clients and Harry, in debt to his eye-balls, readily agrees. Harry soon discovers he’s not working for MI6 but a collection of right-wing press lords and arms dealers who want to destabilise the country for their own benefit. The blackest of comedies.        

The Little Drummer Girl (1983)

An undoubtedly familiar title to a couple of generations due to the 1980s film adaptation starring Diane Keaton and the recent BBC mini-series with Florence Pugh in the lead. This is a must-read for le Carré newbies as it features his greatest heroine, the spiky, ferociously intelligent Charlie Ross, a left-wing actress who is recruited by the Israelis to infiltrate a Palestinian cell conducting a bombing campaign in Europe. A fascinating dissection of divided loyalties with a Palestinian/Israeli political backdrop that is still (sadly) as relevant today as it was when it was written.           

Our Kind of Traitor (2010)

This 2010 novel is an unmissable read for the newcomer as it bridges the gap between le Carré’s early and late periods. Upper crust academic Perry Makepiece is in many ways a prototypical 'honourable schoolboy' character, but the sleazy underworld he and his lawyer girlfriend Gail are pulled into when they meet Russian oligarch Dima Krasnov on holiday is anything but honourable. Dima cheerfully admits to being 'the world’s number one money launderer' and appeals to Perry and Gail to help him contact British intelligence. Gail and Perry reluctantly agree, but are soon in over their heads…      

A Most Wanted Man (2008)

At this point in our guide you will be used to the complexities and almost innumerable shades of grey in the le Carré universe. You are ready, then, for perhaps his most subtle look at the push and pull of what makes one become a spy, and where one’s loyalties lie. The novel centres on a young Chechen, Issa, who is discovered in Hamburg and may, or may not be a terrorist. Civil rights lawyer Annabel tries to save him, as does the unlikely figure of aging British banker Tommy Brue. But what are the characters’ true motives?      

Call for the Dead (1961)

Our le Carré starter for ten ends with the beginning: Call for the Dead, the 1961 first novel from still serving intelligence officer David Cornwell, writing as John le Carré. It has a pulse-pounding plot involving East German agents in Britain, but from the off le Carré showed his books would be nuanced and overturn expectations of the genre, such as when he introduces us to George Smiley for the first time: 'Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.' Not the typical fictional super-spy, then, but an utterly compelling one. 

  • Agent Running in the Field

  • 'No other writer has charted - pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers - the public and secret histories of his times' Guardian
    ________________________________

    Nat, a 47 year-old veteran of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, believes his years as an agent runner are over. He is back in London with his wife, the long-suffering Prue. But with the growing threat from Moscow Centre, the office has one more job for him. Nat is to take over The Haven, a defunct substation of London General with a rag-tag band of spies. The only bright light on the team is young Florence, who has her eye on Russia Department and a Ukrainian oligarch with a finger in the Russia pie.

    Nat is not only a spy, he is a passionate badminton player. His regular Monday evening opponent is half his age: the introspective and solitary Ed. Ed hates Brexit, hates Trump and hates his job at some soulless media agency. And it is Ed, of all unlikely people, who will take Prue, Florence and Nat himself down the path of political anger that will ensnare them all. Agent Running in the Field is a chilling portrait of our time, now heartbreaking, now darkly humorous, told to us with unflagging tension by the greatest chronicler of our age.
    _______________________________

    'John le Carré is as recognisable a writer as Dickens or Austen' Financial Times

    'No writer has ever been better at turning the act of two people talking politely to each other across a desk into a blood sport' Telegraph

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