When he died in December 2020, it marked the end of a long career that saw him write international bestsellers in every decade from the early 1960s to the present. Readers and critics loved Le Carré’s work, and it has been made into movies and TV shows many times. This makes him one of the best-known and most important authors of our time.
A lot of people think that Le Carré is the best author of espionage stories ever written, because he wrote about George Smiley, an anti-James Bond who isn’t very good at what he does.
It’s a little difficult for people who aren’t familiar with le Carré’s work because his prolific writing career began nearly 60 years ago, and his last full-length novel, Silverview, came out this week. So where to start? Here is a reading guide to help you get started with the book.
A Perfect Spy (1986)
We don’t start with le Carré’s first book. Instead, we start with one that moved the goalposts from critics thinking of him as just a brilliant spy author to a literary giant. A Perfect Spy may be the best English book since the war, after all. Philip Roth, a US author, once said that. It’s also a great first book by Le Carré because of its masterful plotting. It’s about British spy/double agent Magnus Pym, and le Carré has said that it’s based on his early life and conman father.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
Le Carré’s third book and his first big international hit. It was revolutionary when it was written, and it still has the same impact today. It lays out what is at the heart of much of his work: that most spycraft is morally bankrupt and completely at odds with the values of Western democracies. ‘What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a group of vain fools, traitors, pansies, sadists, and drunks. They play cowboys and Indians to make their lives better.
Julian Lawndsley has moved from his high-flying job in the city to run a bookshop on the seafront in this new book. Then, when a British spy chief and an ex-Polish citizen start paying attention to Julian’s shop, his peaceful retirement is about to take a dark turn. What do you owe your country when you no longer believe in it? Silverview looks into this question and asks what you should do when you don’t believe in your country anymore.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)
A big question for people who have never read any of Le Carré’s books is whether or not they should start with “Smiley.” You can, but all five of the novels in which the overweight, bespectacled, and often underestimated spymaster is the main character can be read on their own. With a high-level Soviet mole on the loose in MI6 (or, “the Circus,” as le Carré calls it), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is at its peak Smiley. It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in this tense search. When Smiley meets his KGB enemy, Karla, in the first of three books, it’s called “Karla.”
The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
There is no need to read the books in order, but we think you should read The Honourable Schoolboy right after Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s part two of the Karla trilogy, and Smiley is trying to fix the damage done by the MI6 mole. He turns to part-time sleuth Jerry Westerby for important undercover work in Hong Kong. Then, Westerby pretends to be a silly newspaper reporter and falls for Lizzie Worthington, the mistress of a shady financier named Drake Ko, who has a crush on him. Beautiful and heartbreaking: Westerby and Worthington’s love story is both beautiful and heartbreaking, but it’s worth it.
The Constant Gardener (2001)
When the Cold War came to an end, it was hard for some spy novelists because there was no KGB anymore. Who would be the bad guys now? But Le Carré, on the other hand, was energised. He often wrote about the bad things that happen in the West, such as dodgy multinational corporations, gun runners, and people smugglers. The Constant Gardener is one of his best early books after the fall of the Soviet Union. In it, a British diplomat is sent to Kenya and his activist wife is found dead soon after. He finds out that the official investigation is a cover-up, and he gets sucked into an international conspiracy.
The Tailor of Panama (1996)
It’s a little bit different from the dark books we usually recommend, but they’re still great. This is how the author himself said it: “Casablanca without the heroes,” which is how it is now. Harry Pendel is a British ex-pat, a tailor for Panama’s elites and powerbrokers, and a former convict. His family didn’t know that. Andy Osnard, a spymaster, wants Harry to report back on his clients. Harry, who is in debt to his eyes, agrees. Right-wing media moguls and arms dealers want to destabilize the country so they can make money. Harry soon finds out that he’s not working for MI6 but for them. It was the darkest of comedies.
The Little Drummer Girl (1983)
A title that will be familiar to a few generations because of the Diane Keaton movie from the 1980s and the recent BBC miniseries with Florence Pugh in the lead. If you’re a newbie to le Carré, this book is a must-read because it features his best heroine, Charlie Ross, a left-wing actress who is hired by the Israelis to infiltrate a Palestinian cell that is bombing Europe. One of the best books I’ve ever read about divided loyalties, with a Palestinian/Israeli political background that is still very relevant today.
Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
This 2010 book is a must-read for anyone who hasn’t read any of le Carré’s work before. It bridges the gap between le Carré’s early and late periods. Perry Makepiece is a typical “honorable schoolboy,” but the sleazy underworld he and his lawyer girlfriend Gail get into when they meet Russian oligarch Dima Krasnov on vacation isn’t honorable in any way. Dima is very happy to say that he is “the world’s number one money launderer.” He asks Perry and Gail to help him get in touch with British intelligence. Gail and Perry at first don’t want to do it, but soon they’re in over their heads.
A Most Wanted Man (2008)
There are so many different shades of gray in the world of le Carré that you’ll be used to them by now. You’re ready now for what may be his most subtle look at what makes someone become a spy and where their loyalties lie, so let’s start. The book is about a young Chechen named Issa who is found in Hamburg and may or may not be a terrorist. She is a lawyer for people who have been wronged by the government. So is a British banker who is a little older than he looks. But what are the real motives of the people in this story?