The Little Drummer Girl, 1983
My favourite le Carré – the one that brought me to all the others – was (and is) The Little Drummer Girl. This, it seems to me, is where le Carré’s interest in tradecraft became secondary to his interest in his characters. At the centre of the novel is an aspiring actress named Charlie. She is the first of le Carré’s anything but ordinary “ordinary people” who are sucked into the unforgiving machinery of spies and their masters, those great, grey bureaucracies that le Carré first distrusted and then came to loathe. I fell in love with Charlie, who is taught to understand that the Israelis are just and good, then must believe just as passionately – as actors must – that the Israelis are monsters. Le Carré gives us both sides, with a few points (perhaps) going to the Palestinians … but le Carré never shies from the hideous tactics the terrorists espousing the Palestinian cause employed. Charlie comes to dominate both the book and our thoughts as characters in novels rarely do. And she opened the way, it seems to me, for a way of thinking that led to le Carré’s later books, like The Night Manager and The Constant Gardener.
Stephen King’s If It Bleeds is out now.
Call for the Dead, 1961
Neither the most popular nor the best known of the Smiley books, Call for the Dead is frequently denigrated (along with A Murder of Quality) as more mystery than spy novel. As a writer of crime fiction and a lover of origins stories, it is precisely my cup of tea.
In fact, there is a strong flavour of espionage in this taut, carefully paced and politically astute tale of a civil servant’s suicide. We are given a foretaste of the dark machinations of Circus folk and a glimpse of shabby 1960s Chelsea, but it is the introduction to le Carré’s “breathtakingly ordinary” hero that makes the book so memorable. George Smiley is a “bullfrog in a sou’wester”, a man “who could reduce any colour to grey”. Canny, dogged, disappointed and deeply unattractive, Smiley is a compromised pragmatist, a believable antidote to the tedious machismo and casual cruelty of fiction’s more glamorous spies.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1963
Although he wrote many fine novels telling great stories, my thoughts always stray back to le Carré’s breakthrough, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It was not his first but his third, the first two having made no mark until they were relaunched later. But The Spy broke the mould. Prior to that, espionage was about people like W Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden and other gentlemen. Then came Alec Leamas, crumpled, rumpled, malodorous, immoral. A deceiver in a world of deceivers. And the brilliant plot – using a foolish, gullible patsy to destroy an East German enemy by subterfuge. It briefly introduced the subtle, devious George Smiley, who will later be revealed as the infinitely devious controller. The twists and turns of the East German court case are riveting and the double – or is it triple? – sting in the tale masterly. It established le Carré for all time as the master spy-novelist.
Aya de León
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1974
I first encountered my mother’s copy of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the house as a teenager, but I didn’t read the book until I was an adult. Le Carré’s generation of espionage writers perfected the classic third-person point of view that I and many other spy authors use to this day. Tinker Tailor weaves a tense and grim cold war tale of betrayal among men. It features few female characters, and most romantic storylines have a grimness of their own. Both TV and film adaptations open and close with the gripping, labyrinthine plot.
But I’m also fascinated by the novel’s beginning and ending at a boys’ prep school. One of the spies is sent there to lie low and recover after nearly being killed. These sections are largely told from the perspective of an isolated new student whom the wounded teacher deploys as his assistant and spy. This connection between two loners has the most transformative arc of all the novel’s relationships. Although tangential to the plot, le Carré uses it as a frame, contrasting the easy loyalty of youth with the jaded mistrust of adult men. Those sections read almost like a middle-grade novel, with a brighter tone and sensibility. Le Carré infuses warmth into this harsh cold war tale but, instead of romance, he uses the optimism of intergenerational found family.
Aya de León is the author of A Spy in the Struggle and the forthcoming novel Queen of Urban Prophecy.
A Perfect Spy, 1986
It is a pity that the word “spy” is in the title, for this is not a spy yarn, in that the trappings of le Carré’s spycraft are of little moment in the book’s intricate unfolding. It is the most closely biographical of le Carré’s fictions, concentrating as it does on the protagonist Magnus Pym’s relations with his conman father. To the very end of his life David Cornwell, AKA John le Carré, was obsessed with his own father, Ronnie, who could have conned for Britain in the Olympics – he would have pawned his gold medal afterwards. There is little doubt that David despised, feared and loved the rascally Ronnie, and that awful melange of emotional responses is what informs A Perfect Spy and makes of it a work of art. The story is trite – Magnus is a double agent on the run, pursued by his old friend, the significantly named Jack Brotherhood – but the richness and diversity that le Carré finds in it are the mark of an artist working at full power.
The Honourable Schoolboy, 1977
The Honourable Schoolboy is, by some measure, le Carré’s longest novel, close to 700 pages in the edition I have, and is a sequel to Tinker Tailor and the second novel in the so-called Karla trilogy, featuring at its centre the mythic figure of George Smiley. Consequently, if you only had to read one le Carré novel to gain some sense of the author and his unique achievements, then Schoolboy is perhaps the perfect candidate. Set largely in Hong Kong and south-east Asia during the 1970s, it tells the story of an operation Smiley develops to exfiltrate, then interrogate a Soviet agent from China, where he has been spying on the Chinese.
Smiley’s key component in this endeavour is one Jerry Westerby – the eponymous schoolboy – who is sent to Hong Kong to initiate the highly complex espionage plot of bluff and double bluff, feint and counter-feint that Smiley has devised. But Westerby becomes a traitor and compromises the plan because he falls in love. As in many le Carré novels, it’s the human heart that gets in the way of being a successful spy.
Le Carré realised that artful complexity, creative bafflement and surprising revelation are at the core of the serious espionage novel, and these aspects are nowhere better exemplified than in Schoolboy. It’s not a perfect novel – as ever, le Carré has his own idiosyncratic writerly flaws mixed in with his overall mastery of the detail and the considerable moving parts of the plot – but Schoolboy does show him at the height of his powers. It’s a very ambitious, dense and confident novel, and the fact that it’s never been filmed is a telling, backhanded tribute to its scale and heft.
A Legacy of Spies, 2017
There is something almost ceremonial about starting a new le Carré: the expectation, not knowing where we’ll be taken but trusting that wherever it is will be both terrible and magnificent; the reassurance that the story will be entirely original, and yet the author’s voice comfortingly familiar.
Having started a new job with a long commute and no risk ever of getting a seat, and fretting as my own first quasi-spy novel was out on submission, in 2018 I downloaded A Legacy of Spies as an audiobook read by Tom Hollander. Both a prequel and a sequel to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (how deliciously le Carré), the story is timeless and at the same time a perfect reflection of the recent period in which it was written. Capturing his cast in exquisite detail, with every passing face perfectly drawn, the story soothed as much as it riled me, demonstrating his essence and skill as a writer. I remember thinking that, frankly, it didn’t matter whether my own book was ever published, as long as we had storytellers like him in the world. And how lucky that we did.
The Little Drummer Girl, 1983
In 1985 I began writing my first novel. I had never written before and had no idea what I was doing. About the same time I read The Little Drummer Girl, and when I was finished I immediately read it again, something I had never done before and haven’t done since. I was smitten with Charlie, the heroine, and I was enthralled by the supporting cast. I began to see that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had two sides. The story’s plots and subplots were crafted by a genius. The suspense was so smart, so clever.
I almost stopped writing, but with time convinced myself that I didn’t have to be as good as John le Carré to co-exist in the vast world of international publishing. I vowed, though, to at least try. And I’m still trying.
John Grisham’s new novel The Judge’s List is out on 26 October.
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