death in December 2020 marked the end of a career which produced internationally acclaimed novels in every decade from the 1960s onwards. Le Carré’s work was enjoyed by readers and critics alike and adapted multiple times for film and television, making him one of the most celebrated and influential authors of modern times.
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 with his final full-length novel,
published this week - so where to start? Here is our reading guide to get you started. Silverview
(1986) A Perfect Spy
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.
(1963) The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
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.'
(1974) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
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.
(1977) The Honourable Schoolboy
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.
(2001) The Constant Gardener
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…
(1996) The Tailor of Panama
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.
(2010) Our Kind of Traitor
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…
(2008) A Most Wanted Man
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?
(1961) Call for the Dead
Our le Carré guide 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.
For more on crime and thriller books, visit Penguin’s Dead Good website, where you’ll find recommendations, discounted books at bargain prices and exclusive giveaways.