We here at Mumble Books are always keen on giving authors a spotlight with out Author Profile blogs. We have had one planned for John le Carre for early next year, however, with the sad news of his passing on 12th December, we felt it prudent not just to talk up this literary giant, but to list five of his best novels throughout his near sixty-year career.
So, who was John le Carre? Born David Cornwall in 1931, his upbringing was tumultuous, with his mother abandoning him at the age of five and his father’s life as a con-man and eventual associate of the Kray twins. Through this, however, he was able to attend public school, which he hated, and eventually join the intelligence corp in 1950. He would eventually begin working for MI5 in 1954, and move to MI6 in 1960, during which time he wrote his first three novels, Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, under the pseudonym John le Carre. He would leave the secret service in 1964 to write full time, and the rest, as they say is history.
There’s an old adage with the writing profession that states “write what you know”, and le Carre did just that. While his first two novels were firmly mystery fiction, it was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold that eschewed the glamour of Ian Fleming and James Bond in favour of the real-world murkiness and amorality of the spy game. It was one of the first instances in fiction to portray espionage in such dispiriting shades of grey, resulting in an immediate international best seller.
With only one novel outside the mystery/spy genre, 1971’s The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, le Carre quickly established himself as the foremost writer in espionage fiction. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s, he shifted his focus from the Cold War other more prevalent issues, such as arms dealing in The Night Manager, big pharma in The Constant Gardener, and money laundering in Single & Single. He’s even tackled contentious issues like the war on terror in A Most Wanted Man, and, most recently, Brexit in Agent Running in the Field.
It is sad when news of such a lauded author has passed away, yet there is so much to celebrate too. Considering Agent Running in the Field was released as recently as 2019 – le Carre was 88 when it was published - it seems he had no intention of stopping. While it’s unlikely there’s a manuscript awaiting posthumous publication, one can look back at his body of work and applaud. In life, he was one of the world’s finest modern authors, and he will continue to be remembered as such in death.
In honour of the good man himself, we here at Mumble Books have listed 5 of le Carre’s works to engage your brain.
1. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold:
The one that started it all. A shorter tale – it clocks in at just over 200 pages, but it’s honest portrayal of subterfuge propelled le Carre into the big leagues. Still remains a stone-cold classic nearly 60 years on. It was followed up in 2017 with A Legacy of Spies, which sees an elderly Peter Guillam, a recurring le Carre character, questioned on his involvement in the mission.
2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:
Part one of the Karla Trilogy - it was followed by The Honourable Schoolboy and the equally brilliant Smiley’s People – follows le Carre regular George Smiley and his hunt for a Russian mole within the highest echelons of the secret service. This is le Carre’s masterpiece: thrilling, impossibly well plotted and a welcome return to the spy genre after the lacklustre response to The Naïve and Sentimental Lover. The cold war never felt so urgent.
3. The Little Drummer Girl:
While still set within the Cold War, The Little Drummer Girl shifted its focus to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that continues to rage to this day. The Drummer Girl in question is Charlie, an actress with Socialist sympathies who is recruited by Mossad to help them bring down Khalil, a Palestinian terrorist wanted for attacks in Europe. Much like The Honourable Schoolboy before it, The Little Drummer Girl is not only about espionage, but asks our spies how much they’re willing to sacrifice for the good of the mission.
4.The Night Manager:
Le Carre’s first foray outside the Cold War, sees the eponymous night manager, and ex-military man by the name of Johnathan Pine, being recruited by MI6 to bring down an international arms dealer. While the set-up sounds similar to The Little Drummer Girl, the labyrinthine plotting ensures the novel doesn’t show it’s true cards until the half way point. So popular was the novel upon release, it was immediately optioned for a movie adaptation. It eventually became a six-part mini-series in 2016 staring Tom Hiddleston.
5. Agent Running in the Field:
The final novel of the spy master saw him tackle the subject of Brexit and its knock-on effect within the secret service. With the author approaching 90 when writing, it’s deeply impressive just how ageless the themes are. The story could be transposed back to the Cold War, the subject communism in place of Brexit, and its ideas would remain relevant.
Honourable mentions: Smiley’s People, A Perfect Spy, The Tailor of Panama, The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, and A Delicate Truth.