— Advert for Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
- Call for the Dead (1961): adapted as The Deadly Affair (1966), with James Mason.
- A Murder of Quality (1962): Smiley takes a brief retirement and ends up investigating a murder at a public school. Not a spy novel so much as a straight murder mystery featuring some retired spies. Adapted as a TV movie in 1991 with Denholm Elliot as Smiley.
- The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963): adapted into a film, with a TV adaptation by the people behind The Night Manager planned. Both film and book are considered classics. Le Carré wrote it as a response to Ian Fleming, telling readers curious about the "secret world" to Do Not Do This Cool Thing.
- The Looking-Glass War (1965): adapted into a film.
- A Small Town in Germany (1968): Set in Bonn
- The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971): Le Carré's only non-spy novel.
- The Quest for Karla trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley's People (1979). The first and third were dramatised by The BBC (two, considering its setting—mid 1970s SE Asia—is a bit harder to do, but a radio adaptation exists) and starred Alec Guinness as George Smiley. A feature film of Tinker was released in 2011, starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley.
- The Little Drummer Girl (1983): Le Carré's first departure from the Cold War, focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps the furthest Le Carré has strayed from Stale Beer-flavored Spy Fiction: It features sexy honey traps, a Tall, Dark, and Handsome Israeli field agent, and an extended sequence on Mykonos. Its ending, though far from happy, is one of Le Carré's more optimistic ones. Adapted into a film starring Diane Keaton.
- A Perfect Spy (1986): a semi-autobiographical novel, dramatised by the BBC.
- The Russia House (1989): adapted into a film starring Sean Connery.
- The Secret Pilgrim (1990): For a long time the last novel to feature Smiley, a collection of reminiscences from Ned of The Russia House.
- The Night Manager (1993): The first post-Cold War novel, adapted by the BBC in 2016 in a very expensive manner as a six-part series starring Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston.
- Our Game (1995)
- The Tailor of Panama (1996): the film of which starred Pierce Brosnan.
- Single & Single (1999)
- The Constant Gardener (2001): adapted into a film starring Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes.
- Absolute Friends (2003)
- The Mission Song (2006)
- A Most Wanted Man (2008): adapted into a film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last roles.
- Our Kind of Traitor (2010): adapted into a film starring Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, and Damian Lewis.
- A Delicate Truth (2013)
- A Legacy Of Spies (2017): George Smiley's protegé Peter Guillam is called to account for something that happened long ago - the death of Alec Leamas. He revisits Smiley for advice. A reflective post-script to the whole series.
His other novels contain examples of:
- Adaptational Attractiveness: In the books (Call for the Dead at any rate), George Smiley is described as short, plump, and always wearing ill-fitting clothes. "Shrunken toad" are the exact words used. Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman are both tall, thin, and very snappily-dressed for a Stale Beer-flavoured spy.
- Anachronic Order: common; le Carré often goes back in time to explore the psychological development of his characters.
- Anti-Villain: The first novel in particular. Two Jews who survived the Nazis, one in a concentration camp, wind up as spies because they fear another Holocaust.
- Arc Welding: A Legacy Of Spies does this for the Smiley novels - specifically The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It is revealed that characters from Tinker, like Jim Prideux and Connie Sachs were part of the group that planned the mission Alec Leamas was sent on in Cold. Moreover, it is also revealed that after the events of Cold, Hans Dieter Mundt was exposed to the Soviets as a British mole by Bill Haydon.
- Badass Israeli: A whole operational team of them in The Little Drummer Girl.
- Based on a True Story: Most of his books have at least a grain of true events in there; Smiley is thought by some to be based on SIS chief Sir Maurice Oldfield, although Le Carré himself identified author and MI-5 officer John Bingham, 7th Baron Clanmorris, as Smiley's model.
- Defictionalisation: Some spy-speak that le Carré just made up, such as "tradecraft", is now actually used by MI-5 and MI-6 agents in Real Life.
- Bittersweet Ending: Very, very common. One of le Carré's trademark touches is that the price of success in matters of espionage is permanent emotional and psychological damage to those who have had to participate in betrayal.
- Blackmail: Both by the Circus (a "burn") and by criminals.
- Blue Blood: George Smiley's wife, Lady Ann. A Murder of Quality spends some time unpacking their relative social discrepancy; many people in her circle consider him a totally inappropriate husband.
- Book Ends: The Smiley books are bookended by Smiley's involvement with Mundt and poor Alec Leamas, as decades later, Peter Guillam is held to account for that Berlin operation.
- Con Man: Toby Esterhaze of the Circus, in The Secret Pilgrim, convinces the CIA that an exiled Hungarian professor - a charlatan, completely worthless agent - is an anti-Communist hero, so that the Americans take him off the British hands and put him on their own payroll.
- Double Agent: Several.
- Downer Ending: In more than one case.
- Feed the Mole, Fake Defector... actually, most of the serious Espionage Tropes appear somewhere in le Carré's novels.
- Gender Flip: Burr from The Night Manager is made a woman in the miniseries, played by Olivia Colman, adding the institutional sexism of MI-5 and a pregnancy in the middle of the operation to her troubles.
- Knowledge Broker: Connie Sachs, an ex-spy.
- Mandatory Unretirement: George Smiley just can't stay retired. Call For The Dead, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People all have him pulled back into the Circus after an attempt at retirement. (And A Murder of Quality has him investigate a murder during one of those periods as a favour to an old friend.)
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Le Carré uses his own made-up code names for various organisations in order to avoid revealing classified information. For example, the KGB is always referred to as "Moscow Centre" and MI-6 is referred to as "The Circus" because its headquarters is on Cambridge Circus. (In reality, it wasn't. He saw a building there that he thought would be a good HQ for the agency.)
- Prequel: A Legacy of Spies effectively serves as one for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In addition to exploring Alec Leamas' backstory, the novel reveals how and why Hans Dieter Mundt became a British mole, and the planning of the covert operation that Leamas was sent on.
- Retcon: Smiley loses about a decade or so off his age between Call for the Dead and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
- Ripped from the Headlines: Several of his books have come out in advance of the headlines from which they might have been ripped. A few months after Single & Single was released, there was a minor scandal involving Citibank laundering money for Russian Mobsters. Le Carré's submitted his manuscript for Our Game, a book about a civil war breaking out in the Caucasus, about three months before the rekindling of war in Chechnya. And The Constant Gardener came out just as the New York Times published a series on the misdeeds of pharmaceutical companies in Africa.
- Said Bookism
- Setting Update: The miniseries of The Night Manager moves it from 1993 to contemporary 2015, with much use of updated technology, and Jonathan Pine's first encounter with Roper's machinations taking place during the Arab Spring.
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: Often shows up to a greater or lesser extent for different characters.
- The Looking-Glass War ends with Control sending Smiley to roll up the Department's little operation, leaving Fred Leiser to the Stasi and, it is implied, ending the Department's frankly pathetic attempts to compete with Control and the Circus. To make it worse, it seems the Circus knew all along their source was a fake, but the Department's bullheaded attempt to show up their competition meant they never learned this because they turned down the offers of help.
- A Most Wanted Manends with all the central characters' efforts being effectively for naught, as Abdullah and Issa are subjected to extraordinary rendition. This is, of course, the entire point of the novel, as le Carré wrote the novel as a critique of the policy.
- A Legacy of Spies does this for A Spy Who Came In From The Cold; it is discovered that the grand deception plan that cost Alec Leamas his life at the Berlin Wall was for naught as Hans-Dieter Mundt was shortly afterwards called to Moscow for a conference - and never seen again; the implication being that Bill Haydon 'blew' him to the KGB. It also reveals that Karla killed himself after his defection.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Quite cynical.
- The Spymaster: "Control" and later Smiley himself.
- Spy Speak: "The Sandman is making a legend for a girl" and thousands of other examples.
- Truth in Television
- The 'Verse: Some of his non-Smiley novels share characters in common. The Russia House and The Night Manager are unambiguously in the same continuity as the Smiley stories, for instance.
- Who Murdered the Asshole?: In Le Carré's second novel, A Murder of Quality, it turns out that the victim, one Stella Rode, ran the gamut from taunting people to outright blackmailing them (which is what finally gets her killed).
- Write What You Know
“The best spy novel of all time.” That’s what Publishers Weekly called “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” in 2006, forty-three years after the book’s publication. John le Carré’s international best-seller is dynamite—fiendishly clever, as Arthur Conan Doyle might have said, and morally alert in a way that puts it way above the usual run of espionage fiction. Yet it’s not le Carré’s masterpiece. The author, born David Cornwell, wrote it at the peak of the Cold War, and he made the startling decision to portray the intelligence methods of both Western and Communist countries as vile and morally senseless. By this, his third book, he had found his great theme, betrayal, which he has dramatized with infinite variation ever since. The plot depends on a series of reversals—as you read, you have to revise your understanding of what’s going on, which is part of the fun—but, in the end, all mysteries solved, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” seems as schematic as an architect’s drawing.
The book reproduced the East–West conflict as a set of obscure, fascinating, and dubious strategies. Who gained from the complex role-playing? The double agents, the planted insinuations, and the endless treacheries? What was won? After reading le Carré, you may think that the struggle against Communism is still necessary, but only a fool would think of it as anything but sordid. For some of us, this bleak and witty thriller was an introduction to grownup reality. No pessimistic book ever gave as much pleasure.
Yet the question of which is le Carré’s best book remains in play. Certainly, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the first of the trilogy later known as “The Quest for Karla” (which includes “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People”) is the most entertaining of le Carré’s books. It came out in 1974, when everyone still remembered how badly British intelligence had been compromised in the forties, fifties, and sixties by Soviet double agents like Kim Philby and Guy Burgess. The scandal was still alive. (Sir Anthony Blunt confessed in 1964 that he had worked for the Soviets, but he was at large in the seventies. Margaret Thatcher didn’t reveal the truth about him until 1979.) In “Tinker,” le Carré tells us very little about how treason begins, but he creates a fictional account of how it might be shut down. As all the world knows, the meek-mannered cuckold George Smiley, roused from retirement and disgrace, uncovers a mole in M.I.6. (the Circus) by setting traps so intricate that only a spy could fall into them (funny, in its way).
Like Raymond Chandler, another so-called genre writer (in this magazine, Pauline Kael once described Chandler as a skilled creator of pulp), le Carré offers a specialized view of life, but one so persuasive that many readers begin to see things in his ripely jaundiced way. Chandler was a master of the sleaze and alluring amorality of Los Angeles. Le Carré recorded the club banter—suave, heartless, knife-edged—of educated Englishmen drawn to espionage. He created the cryptic jargon of tradecraft—lamplighters, scalphunters, babysitters, joes, mothers, burnboxes—some of which got taken up by actual spies. In his masterpiece “Kim,” Kipling did the same for the lingo of Russo-British rivalry (“the great game”), but Chandler and le Carré devised, as they say, an entire world, increasingly detailed and comprehensive, a joy for adepts and for the quickly initiated. By the mid-seventies, however, the author of “genre books” was obviously a major novelist who understood the complications of deceit and self-delusion as well any writer.
Some time after “A Perfect Spy” came out, in 1986, Philip Roth remarked that it was “the best English novel since the war.” So that was le Carré’s greatest book. Yet many were puzzled. Since the war? That would cover at least forty-one years, and works by George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, Angus Wilson, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess, and Anthony Powell. Still, I was willing to trust Roth’s judgment, so I began to read. And, on two separate occasions, I found “A Perfect Spy” so densely worked and allusive that I fell out of the saddle, slightly embarrassed, after about fifty pages. But redemption lay at hand. A couple of months ago, prepping for a movie review, I read le Carré’s excellent late novel, “A Most Wanted Man” (2007). The toughness and complexity of that book re-launched me into “A Perfect Spy.” And it turns out that Roth was right.
The perfect spy is one Magnus Pym, a name that suggests a man who is somehow both superlative and ordinary. It’s the late seventies or the early eighties, the Cold War is winding down, and Magnus is in the twilight of his career. His mentor in London—the extraordinary spymaster Jack Brotherhood—wants to believe in him, but the rest of what used to be called M.I.6. (now S.I.S., or the Firm) has suspected for years that Pym is a double agent. London, leaving him at large, posts him to Vienna, a relative backwater for espionage. In all, British intelligence, including Magnus, seems less concerned with Communist espionage than with the possibility that the well-funded C.I.A. will muscle in on British operations.
That goes for le Carré, too, who has always been scornful of American spying. The Americans lack style, subtlety, patience. They burst forth from an incoherent, mongrel society, innocent of family and tradition and manners—every lack that Henry James complained of a hundred fifty years ago—before departing for London. Worst of all, they fail to enjoy spying as a treacherous game; they think they are saving the world, whereas the Brits know that, apart from Britain’s dwindling interests, there’s nothing to be saved, just the endless struggle itself, well or poorly joined. Among other things, “A Most Wanted Man,” set in Hamburg in the mid-aughts, is an outraged protest against American blundering after 9/11.
At the beginning of “A Perfect Spy,” Magnus suddenly and silently disappears, retreating from Vienna to a tiny English boarding house near the sea. He wants to write—about his life, his career as a spy, his loyalties and betrayals. He wants to make an accounting for himself and for his splendid teen-age son, Tom. Now, as far as I know, le Carré has never been called an experimental or modernist writer. (It’s very unlikely that Susan Sontag would have been interested in him.) But “A Perfect Spy” is actually a meta-fiction. It’s about a man writing his life—in effect, writing a novel—and the text that Magnus produces is frequently coy and unreliable, which makes the complexities of the book staggering. There are overlapping tales, stories within stories, ricocheting versions of Magnus’s career. Le Carré doesn’t just stick to Magnus Pym’s discourse; he offers the point of view of Jack Brotherhood and of Pym’s staunch and frightened wife, Mary, both of them trying to find the missing man while worrying through their memories of him. Jaunty and comprehensive, le Carré jumps around in time, recounting Magnus’s life as son, lover, husband, embassy social lion, and spy.
Most of all, as son. Magnus wants to finally unload his obsession with his father Richard (Rick) Pym, a swindler, liar, scoundrel, and enchanting son of a bitch; a Falstaff who does genuine harm. Rick screws people, and they almost always come back to him. He’s where the action is, right up to the end of his life, and Magnus adored and imitated him, becoming not a criminal but a professional con man and teller of tales, an agent. Like Rick, he betrays everyone, which is why he’s “perfect.”
The book ranges over space as well as time—there are scenes from Magnus’s story set in Vienna, in Prague, in London, and even in Washington, where the C.I.A. begins to doubt his loyalty. But, most centrally, le Carré has written a book about England from the twenties to the seventies, particularly the upper-middle-class values and tone of those years, which he presents as a strange, semi-fathomable mixture of piety and duplicity. Le Carré knows the ways in which such people preserve recognition and intimacy—the shorthand that is just as pervasive in casual social meetings as it is in the S.I.S. headquarters, in London. As the great British critic Noel Annan wrote of le Carré in 1986, in The New York Review of Books, “The intricacy of the dense plot would be unendurable but for his talent as a mimic.” There’s the bullying authority of Brotherhood: “You’ve done your job. Fade away quickly. Now.” There are the clipped evasions of a closeted aristocratic friend of Magnus: “Didn’t care about money. Can’t lose what you haven’t got. Can’t miss what you don’t care about. Can’t sell what isn’t yours.” There’s also Tom’s public-school slang, and much else.
As le Carré revealed, “A Perfect Spy” is heavily autobiographical. David Cornwell’s father, Ronnie Cornwell, was an ebullient criminal and a seductive charmer, whom David adored for decades—and finally loathed. Like Magnus Pym, the young David became a spy, posted to Germany after the war. Magnus became a great novelist, even if his novel was created by le Carré. The wheel comes full circle. For le Carré, spying has always been devoted to fiction-making—the creation of false identities, elaborate mirages, lies both preposterous and subtle, many of them sustained for years. What works in spying can also work in fiction. By the time he wrote “A Perfect Spy,” le Carré understood that espionage is an extreme version of the human comedy, even the human tragedy. It will very likely remain his greatest book.
Correction: an earlier version of this post misidentified the year "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" was published.