Nobody does it like John le Carré (or did it, I should say — RIP John), and by “it”, I of course mean the modern spy novel. A true master of the genre, he helped guide what was an obscure niche of fiction out of the shadows and into the literary spotlight.
You might say that he brought it… in from the cold. A lot of his edge came from the fact that what he was writing wasn’t entirely fiction.
With first-hand experience in the espionage industry, he wove his own life seamlessly into his stories, steadily building a complex oeuvre propped up by unparalleled realism.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, his third novel (and inspiration for my little “joke” a few lines back), is considered his seminal work and the jewel of the George Smiley series.
However, as his books are inextricably tied to the political and cultural landscapes of the times he wrote them, it’s important not to skip ahead.
What’s more, while it’s best to start your exploration of le Carré’s work with the aforementioned series, it accounts for only 9 of 35 publications, so you’ll need help establishing the chronology of his entire back catalog.
About The George Smiley Series
The George Smiley series is without a doubt John le Carré’s most read and celebrated contribution to the modern literary world — Many of these books have been adapted for film or TV.
These books predominantly follow British spy and agent of “The Circus”, George Smiley, as he takes on dumbfounding investigation after dumbfounding investigation (typically a new case with every book), but the eponymous Smiley isn’t always the protagonist.
In some of the titles, he’s more of an ancillary character, and while these can be read as stand-alone books, you’ll still be left scratching your head for pages on end if you haven’t checked out the preceding Smiley-centric titles first.
George Smiley Books In Order
Call For The Dead (1961)
Set in the late 50s and early 60s, Call for the Dead is equal parts spy thriller and murder mystery, introducing le Carré’s most famous character with aplomb.
When Samuel Fennan – a senior intelligence employee – is found dead from an apparent suicide, something about this tragedy doesn’t sit right with George Smiley.
Under investigation for alleged affiliations with the Communist Party, Fennan left a note intimating that it was the end of his career that drove him to take his own life.
However, Smiley – who was in charge of the investigation – had established that there was no evidence to substantiate the allegations directed at Fennan.
The question then becomes, why would a man of Fennan’s stature commit suicide over a concluded investigation that Smiley describes as nothing more than a routine security check?
- Remarkably well written for a debut novel
- The unspooling of the mystery is well paced and fascinating
- The characters are described so well you’ll feel like you know them
- Not “spy-ey” enough for diehard spy fiction fans
- The plot isn’t overly complex, which is what most love about John’s work
A Murder Of Quality (1962)
Miss Alisa Brimley, editor of a modest newspaper outlet, calls in a favor from her old friend George Smiley after she receives a letter from a reader stating, “I’m not mad. And I know my husband is trying to kill me.”
The sender turns out to be the wife of an esteemed employee of the prestigious Carne School, and when the sender’s prediction of her own demise proves accurate, Smiley gets to work uncovering the darkness that secretly suffuses this distinguished educational institution.
- The dark secrets of Carne School keep you hooked
- Exquisitely written
- Still not a true spy fiction novel
At the height of The Cold War, Alec Leamas is called to London following the death of his last subordinate agent. He dreams of retiring in old blighty — In from the cold, if you will.
However, Control – his aptly named spymaster – isn’t ready to let his man rest just yet. Instead, Leamas is sent to East Germany where he must pose as a disgraced former spy with a drinking problem in order to gain information about captured colleagues.
What proceeds is a labyrinthine tangle of deception and plots the likes of which Alec has never seen before.
- This is where le Carré’s legacy of spy literature really begins
- Hyperrealistic portrayal of intelligence services
- Really quite dense writing that may not engage everyone
The Looking Glass War (1965)
“The Department” and “The Circus” used to have distinct roles: Military matters were The Department’s, well… department, while The Circus handled all things political, but the line between these agencies has blurred over the years, with The Circus assuming quasi-hegemonic power.
When The Department – low on agents and resources – is called into action to verify the position of Soviet missile bases near the German border, they contact Fred Leiser.
Pole-turned-Englishman, spy-turned-mechanic, the fluent German-speaking Leiser thought his days of espionage were in the past, but now he must serve his adoptive nation once more.
- Plot driven by lots of human flaws, helping to ground the story
- Most realistic book in the Smiley series
- Certain characters aren’t fully developed yet
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
In this, the book with the catchiest title of all time, the mission is both simple and mind-bendingly complex, not to mention critical — A mole has infiltrated the highest echelons of British intelligence, and George Smiley has to sniff out and eliminate the traitor!
Note — This book marks the beginning of a trilogy within the series with a single evolving arc. Known as the Karla Trilogy amongst fans, it also includes the next two le Carré books in sequence, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People.
- Illustrates the connection between world issues and the secret conflicted corners of the individual’s heart
- One of the most gripping, high stakes le Carré plots
- You’ll find yourself re-reading complex sentences to unpack meaning
The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
In the second installment of the Karla Trilogy, the British Secret Service, otherwise known as The Circus, is in tatters following the actions of a long-standing Soviet double agent.
Smiley – now the ringmaster of The Circus – is hellbent on revitalizing the once mighty organization, that and… revenge!
To prepare this dish best served cold, he handpicks operative Jerry “The Honourable Schoolboy” Westerby, who is deployed in a multicultural graveyard of the Far East where the ghosts of British, French, and American colonialism still haunt the land.
- Incredibly detailed representation of espionage
- Global focus gives you an insight into how international intelligence agencies co-exist
- First 150 pages or so aren’t that exciting
Smiley’s People (1979)
In the third and final installment of the Karla Trilogy, a retired Smiley is woken in the dead of night by the ringing of his phone — The urgent news that couldn’t wait until the rising of the sun?
An ex-Circus agent has been murdered, and George is being called for an encore to get to the bottom of it.
Smiley’s carefully maneuvered operatives act out a multinational chess move across London, Paris, Switzerland, and Germany, all the while, Smiley himself moves towards a potential checkmate play against his arch nemesis, the Soviet spy, Karla.
- Satisfyingly complex plot
- All characters are highly nuanced at this point
- Some find it to be quite dry and slow-moving — A typically British story
The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
Ned’s entire career was based around The Cold War, so when this conflict of threats is winding down, so too does his professional life.
After taking on a role at a spy training academy, he invites his old mentor, one Mr. George Smiley, to come and give an address at the institution, during which, Ned reminisces the triumphs and failures of his career, questioning if he made any difference.
It’s the most conceptual story of the series, taking place entirely during Smiley’s address, with his words influencing the memories brought to Ned’s mind.
- Adds even more depth to preceding books in the series
- Questions the morality of the espionage industry in a thought-provoking manner
- Episodic style is a distinct deviation from le Carré’s previous approach
A Legacy Of Spies (2017)
Life is good for ex-spy and Smiley disciple Peter Guillam until a letter from The Circus sends his serene existence on a Brittany farm into a nosedive. He and his former colleagues are to be put on trial for the ruthlessness of one of their operations during The Cold War.
He must defend his name and his actions, in a world that no longer tolerates the brutality that he and his colleagues deemed necessary in the past.
- Brevity makes it a swift and insightful read
- Can be enjoyed as a stand-alone
- Wealth of flashbacks removes urgency from the story
About John Le Carré’s Stand-Alone Books
John actually wrote more stand-alone novels than he did serialized novels, and even though each book in sequence isn’t contextually reliant on the preceding title, as le Carré often captures the zeitgeist in his writing, it’s still a good idea to read them chronologically.
What’s more, as was the case with his Smiley series, he puts a lot of his own experience into his stories, and by reading them in order, you’re permitted a fleeting yet intimate glance into the legendary writer’s life.
For example, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, was partially inspired by an affair he had, and the much later released Agent Running in the Field comprises exceedingly modern, Brexit-era-inspired politics.
Stand-Alone John le Carré Books In Order
A Small Town In Germany (1968)
The year is 1960 and civil unrest in West Germany is reaching boiling point.
Amid the havoc, Second Secretary of the British Embassy, Leo Harting, has vanished, alongside a large stash of highly classified embassy documents, and it’s Alan Turner’s job to bring both the fella and the files home safely.
- Incredibly rich portrayal of Cold War atmosphere
- Not as tightly composed as some of his other works
Judicious Aldo Cassidy’s comfortable existence composed of luxurious clothes, safe cars, and a loving family is sent into a spiral after he encounters Helen and Shamus, a Bohemian couple who live a distinctly opposite life to his own. This is le Carré’s only non-spy genre novel.
- Offers something a little different delivered in the familiar le Carré writing style
- Fans of John’s usual spy fiction might not enjoy this spy-less story
The Little Drummer Girl (1983)
Israeli spymaster Martin Kurtz recruits English actress, Charlie, as a double agent tasked with infiltrating a Palestinian terrorist network to take down the culprit of several Jewish-targeted bombings across Europe.
All goes more or less to plan initially, but will her growing sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians endanger her mission?
- Sympathetic to Palestinian plight without being propagandist
- Detached from the stark realism of the Smiley series
A Perfect Spy (1986)
Magnus Pym is a devoted family man, a virtuous friend, and, in true le Carré fashion, the perfect spy.
Trained to fade into the background, he’s devastatingly good at what he does, but when he legitimately disappears after the death of his estranged father, those closest to him are concerned, and, strangely, even some who aren’t close to him.
Is this disappearing act part of his grieving process, or is there something more mysterious and malevolent at play?
- Maps out the back story of a master spy in great detail
- Shifts in perspective make it a challenging read
The Russia House (1989)
Small-time publisher Barley Blair loves whiskey and jazz, and that’s about it, two passions that have led to a life antithetical to that of a Serviceman, yet, it’s his appetite for the sauce one night in Peredelkino that amounts to his employ by British Intelligence.
Blair makes an inebriated promise to a brilliant Soviet scientist, a promise that he’s forced to fulfill a year down the line, and before he knows it, he’s on his way to Moscow on a mission that will push him to confront the tensions between personal and national interests.
- Keeps you guessing right until the last few pages
- Not all that action-packed
The Night Manager (1993)
Ex-British soldier, Jonathan Pine, is now a night manager at a luxury hotel in Zurich having fled to Switzerland from Cairo to escape the men who killed his lover, men affiliated with international arms dealer, Richard Onslow Roper.
Roper’s criminal outfit has risen to prominence in the power vacuum left by the fall of the Soviet Union, making him a person of interest in intelligence circles, namely, the agents of Whitehall, who weaponize Pine’s desire for revenge to try and topple this criminal kingpin.
- Intricate plot that focuses on the very real aspects of a spy’s duties
- The ending is a little contrived
Our Game (1994)
With the Cold War over, Tim Cranmer goes into early retirement to enjoy life in rural England with his partner Emma, but when Emma goes missing (alongside his double agent protégé), he’s forced to rekindle the fury of his old life to find the truth.
- Grabs you by the collar of your shirt from page one
- A real slow burner
The Tailor Of Panama (1996)
Tailor to the most powerful men in Panama, Harry Pendel is a fantastic hiding-in-plain-sight spy for British Intelligence, but in an attempt to further his own secret agenda, he quickly loses control of the situation — All he values in life is now in jeopardy!
- Intriguing insights into Panamanian culture and history
- First-person perspective me be too stylized for fans of le Carré’s earlier work
Single & Single (1999)
Customs and Excise officer, Brock, tails Tiger Single, a fraudster as elusive as he is infamous. With the help of Oliver, Tiger’s son, Brock investigates a multinational money-laundering operation steeped in mystery and danger.
- Fast-paced for a le Carré title
- Unresolved aspects of the plot can leave you feeling unsatisfied
The Constant Gardener (2001)
Based on a real-life event, The Constant Gardener follows British diplomat Justin Quayle as he investigates the murder of his activist wife, leading to the gradual untangling of a web of bureaucratic and pharmaceutical corruption.
- The real-life aspect of this story has you gripped from the get-go
- Inauthentic representation of modern African life, culture, and politics
Absolute Friends (2003)
Ted and Sasha meet as student protestors in West Berlin. Bonding over political ideals, they form a fast friendship, one that leads to a whirlwind of espionage, mystery, and, with the help of billionaire philanthropist, Dimitri, a chance to change the world.
But is Dimitri as virtuous as he seems? Ted has his doubts!
- The characters are relatable despite their adventurous conflict-laden lives
- It’s quite a disheartening tale
The Mission Song (2006)
Told from the perspective of unfortunate interpreter Bruno Salvador, The Mission Song is a story of a Western-supported coup in East Congo.
Working for British Intelligence, Bruno is asked to interpret at a secret meeting held between Western financiers and African warlords, but after hearing a little too much, he’s forced to reassess his cultural identity in the midst of globalism and neocolonialism in Africa.
- The dialogue is impeccable, giving you a keen understanding of the characters
- There are a couple of very minor plot holes
A Most Wanted Man (2008)
A young Russian man, an idealistic civil rights lawyer, and an owner of a collapsing British bank in Hamburg form an unlikely alliance and are targeted by the spies of three different nations. Will they survive the onslaught?
- Very suave and modern spy fiction concept — But still a far sight from Flemming’s ludicrous Bond stories
- Far too many characters to keep up with
Our Kind Of Traitor (2010)
What starts as a holiday in Antigua ends in a young couple being used as hapless pawns in a game contended by multiple nations, revealing morally ambiguous allegiances between various facets of British Intelligence, the British government, and the Russian mafia.
- Explores all the intriguing themes of classic le Carré novels
- The plot isn’t le Carré’s most plausible
A Delicate Truth (2013)
A Delicate Truth focuses on “Wildlife”, a counter-terrorism operation mounted in Gibraltar. Though it was sold as a success, information has come to light to suggest the contrary — That it caused a tragedy and was subsequently covered up by the powers that be.
Will the truth emerge? It’s up to Toby Bell, Private Secretary to Junior Foreign Office Minister Fergus Quinn. Toby must choose between his conscience and his service… which will it be?
- A darkness pervades the story, a tension that keeps you hooked
- The writing isn’t quite as polished as it is in le Carré’s earlier books
Agent Running In The Field (2019)
A tale of love, double agents, nations pretending to be other nations, and… badminton, Agent Running in the Field follows British Secret Service spy Nat, who, just shy of 50, accepts a post in London after being stationed abroad for his entire career.
He becomes the champion of his local badminton club, earning a challenge from Ed, but little does Nat know that this challenge will extend beyond the court.
- Decidedly less bleak than his other work, making for a refreshing read
- Enjoyment requires a very specific political view
Renouncing city life for a simple existence running a bookshop in a small seaside town, Julian Lawndsley feels he’s made a healthy decision.
Until, that is, a Polish émigré living in the grand Silverview house just outside of town seems to know a little too much about his family and business.
- A poignant study on the pitfalls and contradictions of belief
- Characters are somewhat thinly drawn
About John Le Carré’s Short Stories
Much preferring longer-form writing, John le Carré wasn’t a consummate writer of short stories, but he did publish a few throughout his career, most of which arrived in a single collection.
John Le Carré’s Short Stories In Order
This autobiographical short story was compiled in Sarrat and the Draper of Watford, and other unlikely stories about Sarrat from international authors, written as part of a money-raising drive for the village of Sarratt in Hertfordshire.
- John’s contribution is charming and highly enjoyable
- If you’re not familiar with the area, it can be difficult to get into this collection
Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn? (2016)
When Herr Dieter Koorp receives word of his father’s untimely death, he’s compelled to carry out the deceased’s last wish by driving across the border and ferrying his father’s corpse back to their hometown of Lübeck in West Germany for burial.
- A deep and realistic rumination on the complex relationship between fathers and sons
- Less memorable than most of his other works
About John le Carré Non-Fiction Books
Having worked in espionage for British Intelligence, it goes without saying that le Carré led an interesting life, one that warrants its own telling, unobscured by fiction, which is exactly what you’ll get in the writer’s two non-fiction works.
John le Carré Non-Fiction Books In Order
This was le Carré’s first and last comprehensive memoir, and it’s positively teeming with tantalizing tales that are often as humorous as they are shrouded in the darkness of their political and conflict-strewn contexts.
- John’s life was just as thrilling and complex as his works of fiction
- Some of the content is made up of previously published pieces
If you fancy spying on the spy, then this is the book for you. Detailing a myriad of revealing letters sent to friends, family, and colleagues, A Private Spy, invites you into the most private sphere of John’s life.
- Very entertaining and revealing
- Won’t necessarily grip the average le Carré fan
About John Le Carré In Anthologies
While le Carré’s name and work were big enough not to need anthologizing, as a preeminent writer of spy fiction, it was inevitable that he’d end up in a few here and there.
Most contain a work of his fiction (or a snippet at the very least), but one collates the anti-war essays of its contributors.
John Le Carré Anthologies In Order
Great Spy Stories (1978)
Allen Dulles curates this jaw-dropping anthology of the best spy stories ever written, explaining eloquently why each one was chosen.
- Dulles’s forwards are very insightful
- Fans of le Carré may not enjoy the other contributors’ work
Favorite Spy Stories (1981)
A fantastic anthology if you’d like to read the work of both classic and more contemporary spy fiction masters, Favorite Spy Stories contains the work of le Carré, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, and Len Deighton.
- Includes fantastic reads from different points in the evolution of the spy genre
- Readers may not enjoy all the stories here
Considered one of the modern spy fiction masters, there’s no one better to piece together an anthology of the best writers in the genre than Alan Furst. John le Carré’s contribution is an excerpt from his novel The Russia House.
- You know you’re getting the best of the best from Alan Furst
- You only get excerpts — No full stories.
Not One More Death (2006)
This is a collection of Iraq war protest essays written by various notable figures, from John le Carré, to Brian Eno.
- Sheds light on the realities of the Iraq war that Blair and Bush tried to sweep under the rug
- No spy stories
Ox-Tales: Fire (2009)
Each of the four Ox-Tales books (written to raise money for and awareness of the charity, Oxfam) focuses on a different element, and the one that contains le Carré’s contribution is centered around the theme of fire.
- Contributions by fantastic authors, including Lionel Shriver
- Loose theme means the stories don’t have much in common
There’s a lot to dig into when it comes to John le Carré’s work, which can be daunting, but once you finish Call for the Dead and fall in love with this great author’s writing, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars he was so prolific in his lifetime.
Frequently Asked Questions
Have There Been Screen Adaptations Of John Le Carré’s Work?
An easier question to answer would be “Have any of John le Carré’s books not been adapted for screen?”.
Almost every single book he published has been adapted for TV or cinema, including The Looking Glass War, A Perfect Spy, The Little Drummer Girl, Our Kind of Traitor, The Russia House, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Constant Gardener, and Smiley’s People.
When Did John Le Carré Die?
John le Carré passed away on 12 December, 2020, at the ripe old age of 89.