Where to Start with John le Carre: A Beginner’s Guide to the Spy Business

Lori Lamothe

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John le Carre at home.(Charlotte Hadden)

John le Carre’s death at age 89 marked the passing of one of England’s finest espionage novelists. Le Carre, whose real name was David Cornwell, began writing when he was serving as an MI5 agent in the late 1950s. His richly characterized, intricately plotted thrillers took off after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became an instant bestseller and he left the espionage business to write full-time.

In all, he published 25 novels and continued writing until he died in December 2020. His final novel, Agent Running in the Field, came out in October 2019. That he remained at the top of the spy genre for so long is a remarkable achievement. As many critics have pointed out, however, le Carre’s novels defy easy categorization: they can hold their hold on any literary playing field.

When I first discovered le Carre, I read several of his books — mainly the George Smiley novels — back to back. This was at a time when I was actually living in Moscow while studying Russian. I’m a little embarrassed to admit my language skills sucked — in part because there was far too much to see besides the strange Cyrillic letters in my outdated textbook.

Oddly enough, I met a Russian spy in the flesh in Moscow, not to mention a smattering of American intel people. One of the things that struck me was how very ordinary they were. “My” Russian intel officer once gave me a brown scarf his Latvian wife knitted and its chunky plainness came to symbolize how very different real-life agents were from the James Bond villains I’d seen in movie theaters.

The same went for the American spooks I crossed paths with — some were whip-smart, others not so much, but none of them were what I’d call glamorous. Le Carre’s characters — with their insecurities, their weary souls and their endless chess games that may or may not have had any meaning — resonated with me. His most famous spy, George Smiley, is near-sighted, a bit plump and hopelessly married to an unfaithful woman.

I had been toying with the idea of revisiting le Carre’s books not long before he died. So I was only slightly shocked this past December when I stumbled across a first edition of Call for the Dead, his debut novel, stashed out of sight on my chaotic bookshelves.

Whether you’ve never check out le Carre or are a dedicated fan, the list below is a great place to start if you want to read (or reread) his work. Though his best books date back to the 1970s, they seem more relevant than ever.

1. A Legacy of Spies (2017)

Published decades after the seven Smiley novels, A Legacy of Spies might be a good way to acquaint yourself with le Carre. The novel is both a prequel to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and a sequel. It begins when former Smiley sidekick Peter Guillam, now an old man, receives a letter summoning him to London. The spies who run GCHQ, formerly known as “The Circus,” are being sued and they want answers about Guillam’s role in the demise of M16 agent Alec Leamas. Decades have passed but Leamas’ son doesn’t care: he wants justice for his father.

Written at a time when le Carre was deeply dissatisfied with his official biography, the novel not only gives important background on Smiley, it also serves as a kind of reckoning for the author himself.

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2. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)

According to Graham Greene, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was the best spy story he ever read. Le Carre’s third novel made him famous and it remains a classic in the genre. When operative Alec Leamas visits “Circus” chief Control, he wants one thing: to get out of the business. Control convinces him to agree to one last mission for the Brits — to travel to East Germany as a faux defector in order to frame a powerful Stasi agent.

Leamas agrees, in part because he believes the Stasi agent is responsible for the murder of Karl Riemeck, a man who worked undercover for him. Le Carre meant the novel as a sharp criticism of the amorality — or immorality? — of Western spycraft but many readers consider Leamas a tragic hero. .

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3. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)

This is far and away my favorite Circus novel — make that my favorite le Carre novel — and it was the first I read. If you only have time for one le Carre book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the Gold Standard when it comes to thrillers. It’s also the first of “The Quest for Karla” trilogy, which marked the apex of le Carre’s career. If you are short on time, the movie version with Gary Oldman as Smiley and Benedict Cumberbatch as Guillam is also great.

At the beginning of the novel, Control is found dead and Smiley has been forced into early retirement while the spooks they ran up against are running the Circus. With Guillam’s help, George sets out to discover the mole his former mentor believed had penetrated the highest levels of the British secret service. Smiley must suspect everyone, even those he considers friends, and he’s forced to match wits with his nemesis, Karla, who runs Moscow Centre.

Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll just say le Carre based the plot on a real-life British mole who duped even James Angleton, the long-time chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence division.

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4. The Honorable Schoolboy (1977)

The second novel in Karla trilogy centers on Smiley’s efforts to uncover and repair the damage wrought by the mole at the Circus. He soon learns the head of Moscow Centre still has double agents everywhere, even in the Far East. To help find out exactly what Karla has been up to, Smiley enlists Gerald Westerby, a young British agent who passes himself off as a journalist. On Smiley’s instructions, Westerby travels to Hong Kong in search of information about a secret bank account the KGB has been funneling money into for years.

The Honorable Schoolboy doesn’t romanticize the West’s efforts to dominate other parts of the world. In fact, it goes further in its criticism of intelligence agencies— and American intelligence agencies in particular — than any of his previous novels.

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5. Smiley’s People (1980)

The third installment in the series pits Smiley against Karla for a final face-off — and it is the only time the two actually meet. Le Carre even sagely referenced Holmes and Moriarty in the novel, though Smiley is far more jaded, far more tired, than Sherlock ever was.

When an agent turns up dead in a London park, George returns (again) from retirement again to tidy up loose ends. He quickly learns Karla had good reason to kill General Vladimir — and, even more importantly, he finds out that his counterpart may have made a mistake. After so many years, he may get the chance to defeat his opponent once and for all.

Smiley’s People is a brilliant conclusion to the trilogy. The keyword throughout the book is betrayal, a concept which permeates all of le Carre’s work but is especially pronounced in the series denouement.

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6. The Night Manager (1993)

After the Cold War waned, many wondered if le Carre would fail to adapt to the changing world. The Night Manager proves he was more than capable of capturing the modern-day complexities of international affairs. His novel exposes illegal arms dealers and drug cartels, not to mention their allies in the intelligence community — who are as ruthless as those they should seek to destroy.

The plot introduces ex-British solder Jonathan Pine, who is on duty as a night manager at a Zurich hotel when “the worst man in the world shows up.” Pine immediately recognizes Richard Onslow Roper, but will the corrupt billionaire remember him? Thus begins a story that shifts from Zurich to Cairo to the Caribbean to Canada in a darkly complex tale of power and deceit. Sadly, The Night Manager is as grounded in reality as le Carre’s Cold War novels were.

The Amazon Prime adaption with Tom Hiddleston as Pine is also worth watching, either in addition to or in place of the novel.

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7. The Constant Gardener (2000)

Like The Night Manager, this le Carre novel gives an all-too-real account of what happens when greed and self-interest prevail. The story begins with the death of Tessa, wife of low-level British “diplomat” Justin Quayle. Tess, an activist and free spirit, has been investigating AIDS medical testing in Africa. As Justin retraces her movements in the weeks before her murder, he learns that nothing is what it seems to be.

Le Carre based the book on events in Kano, Nigeria and dedicated it to French humanitarian Yvette Pierpaoli, who died in a car accident in 1999. As is also true of so many of his books, love doesn’t fare very well. Even so, The Constant Gardener is one of the most poignant love stories I’ve read.

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When choosing titles for this list I had to cut many novels that deserve a mention: The Little Drummer Girl, A Perfect Spy, The Russia House, A Most Wanted Man, A Perfect Pilgrim and others. Wherever you start, you probably won’t be disappointed.

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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