Top Five John le Carre novels, and further reflections on the passing of my favorite living author

Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

About this time of year, various publications — The New Yorker comes to mind — publish lists of best thises or thats during the past year. And when I see the “best books” lists, I tend to feel somewhat alienated.

Nothing against the books they list, exactly. The thing is, I haven’t read them, and don’t plan to read them, although I suppose anything’s possible. I look at books this way: I only have time to read a certain number in my life, and over the centuries since modern literary forms in English have arrived so many have been written that I want, and even feel obligated, to read. But the odds are against any of them having been written in the last year, or having made such a list.

Also, I’m not a trendy reader. My tastes don’t tend toward the latest, hottest thing.

Truth be told, in my lifetime I’ve only been interested in reading a few writers who have been among the living. But that doesn’t mean there have been none. Until the year 2000, Patrick O’Brian was still alive, and y’all know how I love him. (Although I’d never heard of him until after he had died.) And there are still people out there such as Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle — both of whom are so “living” that they are actually younger than I am.

But until he died over the weekend, my very favorite living author was John le Carré, which of course was the workname of David Cornwell. You know, the way “Ellis” was the workname of Jim Prideaux.

Not that I loved everything he ever wrote (The Mission Song, and a couple of others, left me flat). But there was a stylistic mastery and an insightful glimpse into being human even in his weaker work. Here’s where I should stop and give you a good excerpt, but I’m not going to because there are so many thousands of great passages, and I fear forgetting to give you one of the best ones.

And I’ll confess I didn’t get around to reading some of the last few. I was sufficiently disappointed in A Most Wanted Man that I sort of stopped there. Prompted by his death, I went and put Agent Running in the Field and A Legacy of Spies on my Amazon wish list. After all, the latter one has Smiley in it!

But we all have more productive periods in our lives, and it had been awhile since le Carré had done his best stuff.

It’s not just that the Cold War ended. Two of my very favorites came after the Karla Trilogy, and weren’t even in the same fictional universe (near as I can recall) as George Smiley. I should explain. I guess here is where I should give my Top Five Best list, so you know what I’m running on about:

  1. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold — Here, I’m being coldly analytical. This is not my personal favorite. The next four would come ahead of it on that score. But it’s the best book he wrote. It is the ultimate, textbook, perfect book about espionage in the Cold War. You can and will be fooled by this one. You go in thinking, OK, classic Cold War spy tale, starts with someone trying to cross the Wall in Berlin. And then Control has a chat with Leamas, asks him whether he’d like to get the guy who got his agent, and Leamas is like “Hell, yes,” and we’re off. But where to? Leamas thinks he knows, but he doesn’t. All the moral ambiguity, all the betrayal, all the darkness and — that word again — the coldness — of the secret world, at its most plainly brutal. It’s perfect. Just don’t plan to go away in a good mood at the end. But you’ll be impressed. This is the one that made le Carré, enabling him to quit his job with the spooks and become a novelist full-time. Because it was just that good, and the world could see that.
  2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — The best of the ones I really love, the first volume of the Karla Trilogy, the first one in which our hero George Smiley — the short, fat, cuckolded scholar of German literature — fully appears. Sure, he had been the star of those two Agatha Christie-type books before the big one named in the top position here, but this is the first, full-fledged, George Smiley spy book. This is the one full of characters you’ll love — Smiley, Connie Sachs, Jim Prideaux, Peter Guillam, Toby Esterhase. Read it, and enjoy.
  3. Smiley’s People — The whole gang is back for the denouement of the Karla saga. All the best of them, anyway — there’s Smiley, Connie, Peter and Toby, and of course the nemesis himself, Karla. And some fun new people, such as Otto Leipzig. This one’s for all the marbles. And of course, while he pursues his quarry, George is conflicted about it, because that’s our George. It wouldn’t be satisfying otherwise. George even goes back into the field in this one, as he probably hadn’t done since the war — because there’s no one else he can send, no one else who’ll do the job just right. There’s just one great bit after another. One of my favorites — the snatching, interrogation, burning and turning of Grigoriev, the small but essential piece of the puzzle. Very instructive, if you want to learn how to interrogate a hostile potential asset.
  4. The Night Manager — This may be my very favorite, which makes me feel disloyal to George and his People. It’s totally unrelated. No Soviets, no Russians, even. No Circus, no Moscow Centre. Just a decent guy with some gifts who undertakes to go deep to try to bring down the Worst Man in the World — a global superstar of an arms dealer. You just really care what happens to Jonathan Pine, a volunteer on a moral quest. He’s the night manager, you see. Did you see the series that was made for AMC? It was excellent, but it didn’t satisfy me, because it just wasn’t nearly as good as the book.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl — This is another that totally leaves the Cold War track, and it’s wonderful. It’s about a carelessly lefty actress recruited by the Mossad to penetrate a Palestinian terror cell. What’s best about it? I think it’s the recruitment of Charlie, the agent. It goes on and on for some time, but it’s all wonderful. It’s the heart of the book. Smiley himself couldn’t have done what Kurtz did in turning this Palestinian-leaning semi-activist into a fully committed asset for Israel. And she goes deep, all the way, and as unlikely as the premise seems, it works — you believe it. By the way, the movie with Diane Keaton is great, even though they had to make the British Charlie into an American, on account of her being, you know, Diane Keaton.

You’ll notice that I list two of the three Karla-Trilogy books, but not the middle one. That’s because it, well, doesn’t fit. It was like le Carré decided to write a higher-toned version of a Bond novel, with shoot-’em-up violence and exotic locales. The Honourable Schoolboy didn’t work, and the author went back to what we all loved in Smiley’s People.

There are other bits and piece in his other books that sometimes exceed a lot of what you see on my list. For instance, the opening of The Russia House, the opening chapter, is a completely severable tale that sets up the longer one and then ends, and it’s perfect. But I’m not nearly as fond of the rest of the book.

Now I’m going to make like one of le Carré’s least-lovable American characters and air one of my complaints about his later career. Toward the end, he started reminding me of Bill Haydon from Tinker, Tailor, of whom it was said, “He hated America very deeply.” At one point, Haydon explained, “It’s an aesthetic judgment as much as anything… Partly a moral one, of course.”

With Haydon, that worked. Haydon didn’t suffer fools, and the Americans were so unsophisticated, so muscle-bound, so offensively puritanical and sure of themselves. And MI6 was just so much better, and yet they’d missed their chance. As Connie said so sadly of Bill and the rest, “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. Englishmen could be proud then, George.” (During the war, she means.)

And now they had to play second banana to the “cousins” across the pond, and it was cruelly grating. Reading it, and being the Anglophile I am, I could sympathize. As a fan of the genre, I certainly knew that English spy literature was better. (They had le Carré, Len Deighton, Graham Greene. What did we have over here? Tom Clancy?)

This worked in the early books. It was all part of the moral-ambiguity thing. Sure, the Bolshies were bad, but was our lot all that better? George Smiley was never entirely sure of that, but he did his best and soldiered on, believing that as awful as we might have been, liberal democracy was the way to go. More or less.

But later on, it got sort of ridiculous. In The Tailor of Panama (which had some good bits, but I preferred the original), and worst of all, in A Most Wanted Man. In the climactic scene of the latter, the Americans who swoop in and ruin everything might as well be wearing T-shirts that say, “Here Come the Bad Guys!” It’s cartoonish.

But there are still bits to love in those books as well, even though our man seemed to have gone a bit overboard on his distaste for us fools across the pond.

And he was still, no doubt about it, my favorite living author. Until Saturday…

Here I am a decade ago, at dusk, outside George Smiley's house on Bywater Street in London. I don't think George minded.

Here I am a decade ago, at dusk, outside George Smiley’s house on Bywater Street in London. I don’t think George minded.

11 thoughts on “Top Five John le Carre novels, and further reflections on the passing of my favorite living author

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        An interesting observation, in these days of wokeness and cancel culture, from that 22-year-old interview. Le Carre is talking about having been accused of anti-Semitism with regard to The Tailor of Panama:

        Sitting in the office of his American publisher — “an old Jewish publishing house, a legacy of the European intellectual exodus of the Thirties” — he realized that these were not “off-beat accusations of anti-Semitism as much as the whole oppressive weight of political correctness.”

        It was, he says, “a kind of McCarthyite movement in reverse which, in the name of tolerance proscribes all reference to gender, ethnicity, color of skin, sexual preference, social provenance and even age. It has no leaders, as far as I am aware, only terrified disciples.”…

        I especially like that last sentence. It rings true…

  1. Bryan Caskey

    I haven’t read any of his stuff. Coincidentally, I am reading a series of books about the British army in the 1800s by an with the last name of Cornwell. Bernard Cornwell.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, if there’s any relation, it might not be a connection le Carre would have embraced.

      One of the things that shaped him was his bizarre, traumatic upbringing. His mother left when he was very small, and his father was a notorious con man, a crook who did several terms in prison while the author was growing up.

      All that formed the basis for his semi-autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        One of the fascinating things about le Carre was that he looked and sounded like the very essence of a posh English gentleman.

        But he insisted he was anything but, he just learned to pass for one at the boarding schools his father the crook sent him to.

        A good skill to have when he started working for MI6 later…

  2. Mike F

    I’ll be very interested in your view of Legacy of Spies, since Peter Guillam has to look back through his career and justify what they did.

    Fascinating repeat of interviews he did with Terri Gross of NPR was played last night, worth looking up. Apparently he was separated from his mother at 6 and dad was indeed a crook. Betrayal of loyalty from the get-go.

    And I probably need to re-read The Little Drummer Girl and see what else I’ve missed.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, I’m eager to read Legacy of Spies. From the excerpt I heard read — I think on the Fresh Air segment — it sounded like Peter was being required to justify his actions in the Leamas case (going by the brief description of the casualties). But was he involved in that? I knew Smiley was, and of course Control…

      Anyway, it’s on my Amazon list.

      Did you ever read A Perfect Spy? A lot of stuff about the author’s father in that.

      I got a little miffed at Terri Gross repeatedly saying that Cornwell was “a spy” in MI5 and SIS, and sort of wanted le Carre to correct her. But that’s just me being pedantic, and the author being a gentleman — or not caring. Of course, his character in A Perfect Spy WAS a spy. Maybe le Carre liked to have us wonder about HIM…

      After you reread The Little Drummer Girl, let me know if you want to see the movie. I have it on DVD…

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Continuing my conversation with myself (George Smiley would have had a conversation like this — and it would go on for pages and pages), I’ll throw in a difference of opinion from a writer at The Atlantic (meaning that this is not entirely with myself alone):

    Le Carré, who died on Saturday at the age of 89, wrote many novels, on many themes, but for me Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will always be his greatest work. He wasn’t just a medicine man of the English imagination; he was a stylist, too. Perfectly weighted descriptive sentences, with just a flicker of dour lyricism. Open the book at random: “The rain rolled like gun-smoke down the brown combes of the Quantocks, then raced across the empty cricket fields into the sandstone of the crumbling facades.” That’s Thursgood’s Academy, where Prideaux teaches. Rain … gun … empty … crumbling facades. It’s all in there. Decline and fall. Weave old England’s winding-sheet. I can hear the lazy cawing of the rooks around the school grounds, those ancient, sardonic daubs of sound in a rheumy English landscape—I hear it and I become a little Manchurian candidate. I’m transported: a visitant, a spy in my own life.

    Nice. And I can’t argue with it. I debated with myself a bit for putting “Cold” first on the Top Five list, despite its glittering technical perfection. Because as I said, I loved “Tinker” more. And maybe, just maybe, it was better.

    But I’ve never been able to see it entirely straight and trust my own impression — sort of the way Smiley couldn’t trust himself to make a sound assessment of Haydon’s character after Ann’s fling with him. Something got in the way, something I couldn’t undo.

    The thing is, I read the second book in the Karla trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy, first. Not my fault. It was the first thing by le Carre I’d read, and I didn’t know better. I’d been meaning to read him for years, and I think it had just come out (which means I had no way of know there would be a trilogy).

    But anyway, reading that, I knew from the beginning the big reveal from Tinker, the huge puzzle that George had to figure out: I knew who the mole was.

    It didn’t ruin Tinker for me. I still loved it when I got to it (and probably love it best of all), and have read it over and over since.

    But I’ve always wondered: If I hadn’t known what I knew, how big a mystery would it have been? And how masterful a job of hiding, then revealing, it did le Carre do? I can’t judge that. I can guess, but I can’t know.

    So I can’t feel completely competent to judge how good it was. So, I punted on the list…

  4. Григорий

    The CIA team which works against Moscow has for many years been known as Russia House – a name which some believe is drawn from the 1989 novel of the same name. While Ian Fleming s James Bond was a Technicolor escapist fantasy, le CarrГ© s spies were rooted in a grey, complex and morally ambiguous reality.

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