What John le Carré novel should I read first?

Like many of you, I was saddened by the death of John le Carré earlier this month. While I admired him as the anti- (counter-??) Ian Fleming, I’ve not actually read any of this work. Let’s fix that!

I’m looking for advice on what le Carré books I should target to read and where I should start. Should I limit myself to the George Smiley books? Start with his earliest works? Jump straight into his most acclaimed or popular stuff?

I’m not looking to read le Carré’s collected works, just a sampling. I’ll start with one and then probably read 1-3 more – depending on how that first one goes – as a COVID homebody over the next few months.

I’ve seen three film adaptations of his work. I’ve not seen any of the TV or miniseries adaptations.

  1. The Tailor of Panama (2001): saw it maybe 15 years ago. I remember the atmosphere and the setting but not the plot.

  2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011): saw it 5-6 years ago. Engrossed by it (and Gary Oldman acting his ass off) but don’t remember any of the intricacies, just the general setup (ferreting out a high-level mole).

  3. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965): watched it just last night! Enjoyed it but also saw several Dopers panning the book in the John le Carré has died thread.

I’m not opposed to reading the book from which any of the above are derived. So… where should I start?

You could do a lot worse than just continuing your own Le Carre Film Fest.

Since you’ve had exposure to Tinker Tailor on film I’d suggest that you start with it. George Smiley as a character is threaded through other novels, but this kicks off a clear sub-set of Le Carre’s output with him in the central role. The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People form a coherent and gripping trilogy.

And then find the Alec Guiness TV adaptations and an excellent bottle of wine.

Wait, people pan “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”? That book is amazing, and it’s where I’d start. That said, I’ve read maybe a quarter of the books he’s written, maybe less, so I could be persuaded otherwise.

Like any great artist, the only proper answer to this question will always be “chronologically.”

I just rewatched The Constant Gardener last night. It’s a fabulous movie, but he’s not one for happy endings (not really a spoiler, as will be apparent if you watch it, there’s no possible way it could end happily). I recall that someone pointed this out more eloquently in the obituary thread.

His worldview is definitely melancholy.

Absolutely chronologically, even if that means you can never see Guinness as anyone but George Smiley ever again.

Thanks, @dropzone and @lissener. I assume you’re talking about chronologically by publication date, yeah? Is there a clash between publication chronology and the setting chronology I should take into account (i.e., Star Wars-style episode 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3 shenanigans)?

The suggestion of @Banksiaman to go for the “coherent and gripping trilogy” of Tinker then Honourable then Smiley’s sounds appealing, though it would not be starting at le Carré’s own beginning.

I’ll add as a wildcard: I’ll also be influenced what the Chicago Public Library has available and any waiting list lengths. Last I checked, there was a run on his e-books while physical copies of his most popular works were generally available. But that’s my problem to sort out!

My habit tends to be to start reading not the first book in an author’s output, but maybe their third or fourth, when the have found their voice and a series should have settled down. If I like it I then commit and go back to the beginning with a bit of confidence.

If you’d like to follow the George Smiley thread from the beginning, then that is a perfectly good way of discovering Le Carre. While some other characters like Peter Guillam recur, sadly he never gave us a volume of Bill Hayden or Toby Esterhazy stories. That would have been epic.

Gary Oldman was good as George Smiley.
However Alec Guinness was George Smiley.

I strongly recommend the BBC adaptations of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, followed by ‘Smiley’s People’.
(They are certainly available: Amazon.co.uk : tinker tailor soldier spy dvd )

The BBC not only took Le Carre’s advice to cast Guinness, but recruited a lot of top UK actors.
The opening scene of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ shows real class. The actors simply enter a room for a meeting. However you can tell from their actions and reactions quite a bit about their characters.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) - Opening Sequence - YouTube

P.S. Make sure you get the DVD version with Le Carre’s comments, as they are insightful.

I recommend starting with the sequence of Smiley books. There’s pleasure in continuing characters and — despite loads o’ moral ambiguity — the books prior to the Soviet collapse have good guys and bad guys with obvious “real world” consequences involved.

Of the post-Smiley books, I remember Little Drummer Girl fondly, which is Isreal-themed, and very heavy on moral ambiguity. I did not care for the much-lauded A Perfect Spy which seemed more of an intellectual exercise than an involving character-driven story.

You can also buy it from Amazon, PBS, and Best Buy in the USA. Amazon has it available in both DVD and Multiformat. I think you would have to get the multiformat version (which runs about $40 or so) to get a version playable in the US. The $7 DVD version on Amazon says it’s only Region 2, which means unless you have a multi-region PLAYER, you can’t see it in the US. PBS and Best Buy offer only the multiformat version, and since both are US-based I think we can assume that it will play on US-only players.

As I posted on the other thread, all 6 episodes of the 1979 BBC series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are also on YouTube:

There are 7 episodes in the BBC version. I’m not certain if the multiformat version is 6 or 7, I haven’t been able to find the information.

Sorry - 7 - you’re right.

I’ve just finished reading A Perfect Spy, and I think it fully deserves all the praise it’s been given.

The whole book is a deep and subtle character study of the main character (and a few others too). It’s a fairly slow and ‘literary’ book, so I can understand why it may not appeal to everybody.

You could say that the main character is bit crazy. Through a series of long and detailed flashbacks, told in the first person - and not always told very logically or coherently - and in accounts that he’s busy writing to his son and to his mentor in the intelligence service, we see inside his mind. In fact, a lot of the book takes place inside his mind. We see his whole life from early childhood, and start to understand how and why he came to be a bit crazy. And why he was a traitor and double agent for decades.

It’s a powerful and profound book, and I found it compulsive reading.

… 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… it turns out that Roth was right.

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. … 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.

To me, it seems like one of those books that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.