So you want to read your first John le Carré novel but don't know where to start We understand, that it can be overwhelming to see shelves full of John le Carré books and not know which one you should read first. Allow us to help you pick the right one with our Spybrary Firsts spy book recommendations.
John le Carre has written 25 spy books and one memoir of sorts called The Pigeon Tunnel. Later this year sees the publication of A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré.
Here are our Spybrary Spy Podcast listener's recommendations on where to start with John le Carre's books. Drop me a note if you also have a recommendation you would like to share.
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I’d recommend The Spy Who Came in From The Cold. It’s a complete classic, it’s literary in its ambitions, savage towards Cold War hypocrisy, and set the template for so much that came afterward. In some ways despite it being one of his earlier works I think it might be the best.
I know the classic answer is The Spy Who Came In From the Cold but I feel strongly that reading Call for the Dead before that really enriches the experience of reading that classic. So I’ve advised multiple people who intended to start with SPY to read CALL first instead. All of them have gone on to read SPY; no one’s given up after CALL. Because the truth is, that’s a pretty great little book, too, even if it’s less ambitious. And it’s certainly more accessible… perhaps JLC’s most accessible work, in fact. And it’s a super-fast read. And a good transition from a more basic spy or mystery novel to le Carré’s more literary style. Basically, no harm can come from reading it first!
Matthew also added: ‘Great as they are, I don’t think THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY or SMILEY’S PEOPLE make viable introductory books because both spoil Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy If you’re going to jump right into Karla, that is the only option to start with.'
Do check out Matthew's thoughts on the spy genre over at his Double O Section blog
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. I was very young when I first read it, and it hooked me in. Certainly at a young age, something like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would almost certainly have put me off – in fact, I was a bit intimidated to read it anyway until I was about 30, and although I enjoyed it, I was thoroughly confused the first time around. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is elegant and bleak and not too difficult to follow (though I do remember being a bit confused, but not unbearably so.) And the ending is eternally haunting, in fact, one of the great endings in literature.
Read Clarissa's poetry at The Stone and The Star.
If you want to know what the fuss is about, start with Spy Who Came in from the Cold, then move on to the Karla Trilogy, and then read the other excellent and very good books.
If you are nervous about his style and want something easy to introduce you to things you could try Call for the Dead first or something like Tailor of Panama or Absolute Friends.
BUT: Make sure you read the Karla trilogy in order and do not read anything with Smiley in it written after Tinker Tailor until you read all three because it will spoil the reveals.
My general advice would be to try to read something from each era to get a flavor of how he dealt with the different shapes of our world.
Check out Tim's Every John le Carre Novel Ranked list, curated by era!
It depends on the reader. Literary reader: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. James Bond fan: The Night Manager. Balance between thrills and literature: The Little Drummer Girl. Non-thriller reader/character novel reader: A Perfect Spy. Political activist: The Constant Gardener.
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I think there's a strong consensus here for ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold', and I'd agree with that. But ‘Call For the Dead' and ‘A Murder of Quality' should be Number 2 and 3. Then it's the Karla Trilogy, and after that ‘The Little Drummer Girl.'
I get asked this a lot. My answer has changed over time. At first, it seemed logical that ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' would be the easy answer. Not so. More than one person came back to me mystified and confused and never went any further. I then reverted to ‘The Night Manager' which most liked but never seemed to elicit a real ‘wow'….lately, I've offered up ‘The Little Drummer Girl' as the starter and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The 4 or 5 people who've taken this one up have all come back to me saying, ‘Fantastic! What's next?'..
Steven is a well-known collector of John le Carre's books. Do listen to his fascinating interview on the Spybrary Podcast and hear more about his journey collecting John le Carre's work, being mentored by the legendary Otto Penzler on book collecting, and what happened when Steven met the man himself, John le Carre.
Michael Smith (Author and Journalist)
Smiley’s People is his real masterpiece. Everything else was leading up to this, creating the characters, and building the background. I disagree with those who claim that everything thereafter went downhill. It didn’t. A Legacy of Spies was in my view a serious mistake but apart from that, his post trilogy books were all good, if sometimes inconsequential, just never again as good as Smiley’s People. Yes, it was part of that famous trilogy, but while it was fixed in that world, Smiley’s world, which le Carre had created, it was a completely self-contained book. A single operation, a perfect operation. The perfect operation and better even than The Human Factor. Producing a better-written spy novel than Graham Greene was a tremendous achievement. This was it. This is why he is the best there ever was.
Michael Smith is the number one best-selling author of a wide variety of books on spies and special forces. He served in British military intelligence before becoming an award-winning journalist, working for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times. Check out his website for more information.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's George Smiley, but the first George Smiley that ticks all the boxes – a true espionage tale instead of a disguised murder mystery and one where Smiley is a central figure instead of on the sidelines – The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is great, and Lemas a tragic and compelling character, but Smiley is still king.
It's a mystery, but the stakes are not unmasking a murderer as much as the future of national security. It's a spy thriller, a continuation of Le Carré's examination of the wilderness of mirrors where one side is just as bad or good as the other, and has some genuinely tense moments. It's a good novel on its own, with deep thoughts about war-weary soldiers fighting a war that they've to some degree forgotten what it's for, until the end of fighting comes not as a triumph but a relief. It's also a decent mystery, and watching the pieces come together is equally thrilling,(It's also easier to follow – if one gets bogged down one can always turn to the movie or the television series)I started with Smiley's People, but Tinker Tailor is still my go-to when I want my comfort food for Le Carré… inasmuch as there's anything in Le Carré that can be said to be comforting.
“The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” is the best starter novel. It does not focus on George Smiley, but it gives a great introduction to “C” and provides the atmospherics in general for the Circus.
A Murder Of Quality. Though not a spy novel it's well written and is a perfect example of an author who would thrive no matter which genre he was classified under. I'm going to reread that in April.
More John le Carré Books Resources
- Penguin's John le Carre Readers Guide.
- Which is the best John le Carre to read? The New Yorker
- John le Carre Books in Order
- Spybrary John le Carre Podcast episodes
- The Le Carre Cast hosted by Jeff Quest
- More Soon
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