John le Carre is a master of the modern spy novel. His books are also analytical and critical studies on the politics of the time. Reading all the John le Carre books in order will take you from the post-Cold War climate into the 21st-century with the depiction of tensions surrounding Brexit.
Le Carre not only had first-hand experience in the industry he was writing about, but he also visited the locations which made their way into his books. He committed the details he observed into his little pocket notebook and his stories have since become bestsellers.
About John le Carre
Lending his books a realistic charm is the fact that John le Carré was a member of the British Foreign Service at various points between 1949 and 1964.
What readers may not know is that le Carre was a pseudonym. The English author was born David John Moore Cornwell in Poole, Dorset in 1931 and died in Truro, Cornwall on December 12, 2020. He left behind a remarkable legacy as well as a lasting impression on the genre of spy thrillers.
Le Carre attended the University of Berne from 1947 to 1948 studying German before he caught the attention of the Secret Intelligence Service and was recruited as an intelligence officer. Following this he began attending Oxford University studying modern languages, where he continued to work as an intelligence agent compiling dossiers on fellow students suspected of leftwing activity.
With a brief departure due to a bankruptcy scandal of his father’s, le Carre was awarded a first from Oxford in 1956. He then taught at Eton College for two years, before returning to the employ of the SIS.
All of this practical experience bleeds into his writing, which secret service leaders from various countries found infuriating.
His debut publication came when he was still a British Secret Service member, but he was quiet and discreet about his service. Until the publication of a biography in 2015, he skirted around many questions about his time in the employ of the British Secret Service. However, he did send manuscripts to the SIS for pre-publication vetting until the 1980s.
Unlike another popular spies during the post-Cold War era, le Carre’s characters weren’t suave and action driven. His main character George Smiley is a good spy because of his analytical mind; he is far from a perfect character.
John le Carre Books in Order
George Smiley Books
These are the books that began le Carre’s illustrative career as an author, which makes them a great place to begin. As with many spy thrillers, most of these books follow a new case and investigation. Some of the George Smiley books even largely focus on different agents, with Smiley taking more of a supporting role.
The books, especially in following different service agents, could be read as standalones. However, there is a linear path to the novels as the books build upon another to culminate in a reflective conclusion. Therefore, it is highly recommended to read these John le Carre books in order.
- Call For the Dead (1961)
- A Murder of Quality (1962)
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
- The Looking Glass War (1965)
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
- The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
- Smiley’s People (1979)
- The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
- A Legacy of Spies (2017)
The Karla Trilogy Books
There is one large exception within the George Smiley books of following new protagonists and antagonists. That is the Karla Trilogy. While this trilogy takes place within the Smiley series, there is a distinct theme throughout the three books that forms its own arc.
All follow Smiley as he pursues his nemesis, Karla, a soviet master spy. Therefore, it is particularly important to read these books in order of publication to fully understand the nuance and progression.
But most of the novels John le Carre wrote were standalones. While these can obviously be read without the contextual support of previous books, there is still great benefit to reading these John le Carre books in order.
He often wrote in tandem with contemporary events, whether from the news or from his personal life. Therefore, in reading the books in publication order, you will get a glimpse into his mind at the time of writing. For example, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover contains influences from his own affair, and in more recent memory, Agent Running in the Field pertains to the modern-day politics of Brexit and global affairs.
- A Small Town in Germany (1968)
- The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
- The Little Drummer Girl (1983)
- A Perfect Spy (1986)
- The Russia House (1989)
- The Night Manager (1993)
- Our Game (1994)
- The Tailor of Panama (1996)
- Single & Single (1999)
- The Constant Gardener (2001)
- Absolute Friends (2003)
- The Mission Song (2006)
- A Most Wanted Man (2008)
- Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
- A Delicate Truth (2013)
- Agent Running in the Field (2019)
- Silverview (2021)
This short story was first published in The Saturday Evening Post in January 1967. It takes place during the Cold War and is about a grocer who must carry out his dying father’s last wish to have his burial in West Germany. Koorp must risk everything to bring his father’s body across the border.
- Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn? (2016)
Short Story Collection
John le Carre has also published one slim collection of short stories.
- Sarratt and the Draper of Watford (1999) (Out of Print)
If you want to learn more about the man behind the famous spy novels, then these two books are perfect for you. Both are autobiographical works about his life; the second will be available this December.
- The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016)
- A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré (Expected: December 6, 2022)
Finally, John le Carre also contributed to a handful of anthologies throughout the years, the titles of which are below.
- Great Spy Stories (1978) (Out of Print)
- Favourite Spy Stories (1981)
- The Book of Spies: An Anthology of Literary Espionage (2003)
- Not One More Death (2006)
- Ox-Tales: Fire (2009) (Out of Print)
Finally, in 2016 there was a movie adaptation of Our Kind of Traitor starring Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgård.
All of these adaptations retained the same names as le Carre’s novels. The only difference is that the 2011 adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy dropped the commas with its movie title.
Are there any John le Carre adaptations?
There are so many adaptations of John le Carre’s books that it would perhaps be quicker to list his books which do not have any. He had tremendous success with the adaptations of his novels.
The first adaptation of his was the 1965 movie of his book The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Very swiftly after was the adaptation of Call of the Dead in 1966 with the title The Deadly Affair, and then The Looking-Glass War in 1969.
In addition to the more recent adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 2011 starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, and Tom Hardy, there was also a TV series in 1970. Alec Guinness starred as George Smiley in the TV series. There was then a sequel adaptation of Smiley’s People in 1982, also starring Guinness.
Next, there was a 1990 movie adaptation of The Russia House starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer. As well, The Tailor of Panama adaptation in 2001 stars Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis, Brendan Gleeson, and Daniel Radcliffe.
The Constant Gardener movie adaptation in 2005 was another star-studded affair with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in the leading roles. Following which was an adaptation of A Most Wanted Man in 2014. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, and Willem Dafoe.
A Summary of John le Carre Books in Order
As previously mentioned, the George Smiley books are a great place to begin with John le Carre’s bibliography if you have never read anything by him before. This series contains some of le Carre’s most well-known work such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
1. Call For the Dead
George Smiley had liked Samuel Fennan, and now Fennan was dead from an apparent suicide. But why?
Fennan, a Foreign Office man, had been under investigation for alleged Communist Party activities. But Smiley had made it clear that the investigation — little more than a routine security check — was over and that the file on Fennan could be closed.
The very next day, Fennan was found dead with a note by his body saying his career was finished and he couldn’t go on. Smiley was puzzled…
2. A Murder of Quality
George Smiley was simply doing a favor for Miss Ailsa Brimley, and old friend and editor of a small newspaper. Miss Brimley had received a letter from a worried reader: “I’m not mad. And I know my husband is trying to kill me.”
But the letter had arrived too late: Its scribe, the wife of an assistant master at the distinguished Carne School, was already dead.
So, George Smiley went to Carne to listen, ask questions, and think. And to uncover, layer by layer, the complex network of skeletons and hatreds that comprised that little English institution.
3. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
When the last agent under his command is killed and Alec Leamas is called back to London, he hopes to come in from the cold for good. His spymaster, Control, however, has other plans.
Determined to bring down the head of East German Intelligence and topple his organization, Control once more sends Leamas into the fray. This time to play the part of the dishonored spy and lure the enemy to his ultimate defeat.
4. The Looking Glass War
Once upon a time the distinction had been clear: The Circus handled all things political while the Department dealt with matters military. But over the years, power shifted and the Circus elbowed the Department out.
Now, suddenly, the Department has a job on its hands. Evidence suggests Soviet missiles are being positioned close to the German border. Vital film is missing and a courier is dead. Lacking active agents, but possessed of an outdated mandate to proceed, the Department has to find an old hand to prove its mettle.
Fred Leiser, German-speaking Pole turned Englishman — once a qualified radio operator, now involved in the motor trade — must be called back to the colors and sent East…
5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
It is now beyond a doubt that a mole, implanted decades ago by Moscow Centre, has burrowed his way into the highest echelons of British Intelligence. His treachery has already blown some of its most vital operations and its best networks. It is clear that the double agent is one of its own kind.
But which one? George Smiley must identify him. And once identified, the traitor must be destroyed.
6. The Honourable Schoolboy
In the wake of a demoralizing infiltration by a Soviet double agent, Smiley has become the ringmaster of the Circus (aka the British Secret Service). Determined to restore the organization’s health and reputation, and bent on revenge, Smiley thrusts his own handpicked operative into action.
Jerry Westerby, “The Honourable Schoolboy,” is dispatched to the Far East.
A burial ground of French, British, and American colonial cultures, the region is a fabled testing ground of patriotic allegiances — and a new showdown is about to begin.
7. Smiley’s People
In London in the dead of night, George Smiley, sometime acting Chief of the Circus (aka the British Secret Service), is summoned from his lonely bed by news of the murder of an ex-agent.
Lured back to active service, Smiley skillfully maneuvers his people — the no-men of no-man’s land — into crisscrossing Paris, London, Germany, and Switzerland as he prepares for his own final, inevitable duel on the Berlin border with his Soviet counterpart and archenemy, Karla.
8. The Secret Pilgrim
Nothing is as it was. Old enemies embrace. The dark staging grounds of the Cold War — whose shadows barely obscure the endless games of espionage — are flooded with light. The rules are rewritten, the stakes changed, and the future unfathomable.
Ned has worked for the British Intelligence all of his life — a loyal, shrewd officer of the Cold War. Now approaching the end of his career, he revisits his own past. He invites us on a tour of three decades in the Circus, burrowing deep in the world of spies from every corner of the globe.
9. A Legacy of Spies
Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is living out his old age on the family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London.
The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, with such characters as Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, George Smiley, and Peter Guillam himself, are under examination by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications.
John le Carre did alter the course of spy thrillers and leave a huge impact on the genre. He has become a classic within modern publishing and choosing to read the John le Carre books in order will reveal to you the brilliance of his writing.
While he was largely quiet about his own secret service work, his proclamations, opinions, and thoughts can be read between the lines of his books.
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