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Head shot of British best-selling author John le Carre, with thinning grey hair, a blue shirt open at the neck, and a dark sports jacket.
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Essential John le Carré Books
We've edited the British spy-turned-author's oeuvre down to this indispensable list / BY Robert Wiersema / December 14th, 2020
With a career spanning six decades, John le Carré was widely regarded as the greatest chronicler of the secretive underbelly of the Cold War; as a former intelligence agent, he brought unprecedented verité to his espionage novels. The bestselling author was also beloved and respected not only by his peers, but by the world at large. Following the news of his death on December 13, 2020, Stephen King tweeted, “this terrible year has claimed a literary giant and a humanitarian spirit,” while broadcaster Dan Rather wrote, “no writer captured the cloak and dagger subterfuge of the Cold War better than John Le Carré.” The praise came from unexpected quarters, including Canadian science fiction writer William Gibson, who said he was “the first writer to inspire me to read more deeply of contemporary reality.”
Le Carré leaves behind six decades of books, an amazing literary legacy that can also be somewhat daunting. When it comes to le Carré, you’ll probably want to read everything, but here is our essential reading list as a starting point.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Written while le Carré was still working for MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) was his first espionage novel. (His two previous books, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality had been mystery novels, featuring retired intelligence officer George Smiley). Smiley returns in this book, an account of a multilayered plan to capture a double agent. The novel, which introduces many of the themes le Carré would revisit over his career – including the dubious morality of intelligence work and the schism between idealism and pragmatism – was a bestseller, and allowed le Carré to devote himself to his fledgling writing career. In 2005, it was awarded the “Dagger of Daggers” by the British Crime Writers’ Association as the best book of 50 years of award winners.
The Karla Trilogy
The defection of Kim Philby – a high-ranking British intelligence officer – to the Soviet Union in 1963 and the ongoing upheaval in the intelligence community was one of the factors that ended le Carré’s work for the MI6. A decade later, Philby and the presence of the Cambridge Five – high-ranking intelligence officials revealed to be Soviet moles – served as the inspiration for perhaps le Carré’s greatest novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). The novel follows aging spymaster George Smiley as he tries to identify a mole in The Circus, le Carré’s version of MI6, also known in the U.K. as the Secret Intelligence Service. The Honorable Schoolboy (1977) follows, with Smiley attempting to undo the damage done to The Circus by the mole, while Smiley’s People (1979) sees Smiley called out of retirement for one last confrontation with Karla, the head of Moscow Center (aka the KGB), his grand nemesis. Taken together, the novels of the Karla trilogy are one of the most powerful examinations of realistic spy work – not to mention individual morality, fanaticism, loyalty and betrayal – ever set to print.
The Night Manager
Following the end of the Cold War, many felt le Carré’s career might suffer from lack of material, but The Night Manager (1993) proved the naysayers wrong. It follows Jonathan Pine’s long-running vendetta against Richard Onslow Roper, a billionaire arms dealer. Pine, a former soldier, is recruited to assist in a sting operation against Roper, but, as is almost always the case in a le Carré novel, things are not as straightforward as they seem.
The Tailor of Panama
Set in the British expat community in Panama City, the 1996 book follows Harry Pendel, a bespoke tailor. He is also, unbeknownst to those closest to him, a former convict, and vulnerable to the machinations of a young MI6 agent who recruits him as an agent, and as part of a plan to embezzle funds from the government. Things quickly escalate, however, and the simple tailor finds himself at the centre of a geopolitical firestorm with world-changing implications.
The Constant Gardener
The murder of Tessa Quayle, the wife of British diplomat Justin Quayle, is not what it appears. As Justin discovers during his own investigation, Tessa had uncovered information regarding medical testing in Africa, a scandal with ties to a pharmaceutical company, an NGO, and – unsurprisingly for a le Carré book – corrupt officials in the British government. The Constant Gardener (2001) is a prime example of what le Carré does best – blending the personal and the political, the intimate and the global – against a richly rendered backdrop of power, corruption and lies.
John le Carré: A Biography and The Pigeon Tunnel
Adam Sisman worked on John le Carré: A Biography (2015) for more than four years with le Carré’s full cooperation, and it includes an intimate exposure of the author’s painful childhood years and an unprecedented transparency into le Carré’s time in the intelligence service, a period he had previously played down or denied. While it is a fascinating read in its own right, the power of Sisman’s book comes in reading it alongside le Carré’s “patchwork” memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016), published less than a year later. It embellishes some elements of Sisman’s book while subverting or even contradicting others. Even when it comes to his personal life, it seems nothing is straightforward for le Carré. As he has made clear over the course of his career, the truth is far more slippery than that.