Espionage 101: How to Read John le Carre

John le Carré/Photo © Nadav Kandar

A man named David Cornwell was serving undercover as agent for the Secret Intelligence Service (popularly known as MI-6) in West Germany in 1963 when a spy novel titled The Spy Who Came in from the Cold landed on the bestseller lists. This would ultimately lead to Cornwell’s cover being blown and the end of his career in intelligence. What exactly does an espionage novel becoming an international hit have to do with the end of a real-life spy’s career? Since 1961, David Cornwell had been publishing novels under the name John le Carré. Indeed, the author was also a bona fide spy.

John le Carré is the undisputed king of espionage fiction. His works deftly eschew the old tropes of the genre – the gadgets and the globe-trotting and the martini instructions – and concentrate on quietly unassuming men who read reports and monitor phone calls and fade into the background. Espionage in le Carré’s world is comprised of disciplined toil, intuition, and murky morality, often lacking such convenient and clear-cut aspects like “good guys” and “bad guys.” As with all spy fiction, le Carré’s realm is rife with shifting alliances, double-crosses, and ingenious plots, but here the tension comes from the internal struggles of agents navigating an increasingly amoral landscape.

Now, for the first time in more than twenty-five years, le Carré is revisiting his most famous spy, George Smiley, for his latest novel, A Legacy of Spies. This makes it the perfect moment to brush up on all things le Carré. Whether you’re a longtime fan or looking to delve into le Carré’s works for the first time, we’ve got a few essential recommendations to get you going.

  • The cover of the book The Pigeon Tunnel

    The Pigeon Tunnel

    Stories from My Life

    Let’s start with the man behind the page. The remarkable life of John le Carré has long informed – and added an unmistakable air of authenticity – to his writing. With the The Pigeon Tunnel, le Carré turns his penetrating observations of human nature and his unadorned prose to his own life story from his years in British Intelligence to his travels as a writer. At times reading like the best of his fiction, The Pigeon Tunnel is a fascinating, surprisingly humorous memoir that has the feel of sitting down for a drink with a master raconteur at the top of his game.

  • The cover of the book A Perfect Spy

    A Perfect Spy

    A Novel

    Simultaneously le Carré’s most technically assured and most autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy recounts the life of Magnus Pym – a family man, a loyal friend, an unassuming colleague, and the perfect spy. In this 1986 novel, le Carré draws on his own complex relationship with his con-man father and crafts a fascinating blend of coming-of-age fiction and modern espionage.

  • The cover of the book The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    A George Smiley Novel

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the novel that made le Carré’s career and remains his best known and perhaps most popular work. It is also the perfect introduction into the murky and layered morality of le Carré’s world. The 1963 novel centers on a spy named Alec Leamas who is sent to infiltrate East German intelligence. What follows is a complex and ever-evolving web of intrigue and betrayal.

  • The cover of the book The Night Manager

    The Night Manager

    A Novel

    With the 1980s left behind in the rearview, le Carré’s fiction itself evolved from a world of government spies and state-level intrigue to one of arms dealers and drug smugglers working in the vacuum left by the collapse of Cold War-era spy games. The Night Manager, released in 1993, and its underworld duel between criminal mastermind Richard Onslow Roper and former British soldier Jonathan Pine is arguably the best of this period of le Carré’s writing.

  • The cover of the book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

    A George Smiley Novel

    Perhaps the finest and most entertaining of le Carré’s George Smiley novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy centers on le Carré’s version of the quintessential spy, George Smiley. Quiet, mild-mannered, and disciplined, Smiley is the polar opposite of the gadget-laden, globe-trotting Bond-type spies. In this 1974 novel, Smiley is called on to root out a mole in the highest levels of British intelligence.

  • The cover of the book The Honourable Schoolboy

    The Honourable Schoolboy

    A George Smiley Novel

    Following the events of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, British Intelligence has been brought to its knees. In order to protect the spy service to which he has dedicated his life, Smiley goes on the offensive against the Soviets and enlists Gerald Westerby, a part-time operative, in his plotting. The Honorable Schoolboy, published in 1977, is the second entry in le Carré’s Karla Trilogy and a perfect follow-up to Tinker Tailor.

  • The cover of the book Smiley's People

    Smiley's People

    A George Smiley Novel

    The finale of le Carré’s Karla Trilogy sees unassuming spymaster George Smiley called out of retirement to investigate the assassination of the Chief of the Circus (le Carré’s name for the British Intelligence Service). In this 1979 novel, the investigation once again brings Smiley into conflict with his Soviet counterpart, Karla, and concludes the overarching story that began in Tinker Tailor.

  • The cover of the book The Tailor of Panama

    The Tailor of Panama

    A Novel

    The Tailor of Panama is a perfect example of le Carré’s range within the realm of espionage fiction. Centering on a charismatic tailor and informant to British intelligence, this 1996 publication showcases le Carré’s ability to weave wry humor and a subtle satirical edge alongside all the espionage, double-crosses, and rich atmosphere.

  • The cover of the book A Legacy of Spies

    A Legacy of Spies

    A Novel

    Now that you’ve caught up on what we consider the essential works in the John le Carré canon, consider his brand-new work, A Legacy of Spies. This new novel finds George Smiley’s colleague and disciple Peter Guillam pulled from his retirement on the south coast of Brittany and dropped into a cast of characters and a web of espionage that easily keep pace with the le Carré style we’ve come to know over the years.