With a career spanning nearly 60 years, there are plenty of Le Carré novels to discover. But where do you start reading one of the greatest espionage writers of all time? Here is our starter for ten.
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.