Although John Le Carré is undeniably famous, I have to admit that he first entered my radar through the movies based on his books.
After realizing that two of my favorite spy movies had been based on his novels (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and A Most Wanted Man), I decided that I should really give his books a chance. I was immediately hooked.
At the start of this year, I had never read any of John Le Carré’s novels. Yesterday, I finished my eighth of his books. I don’t remember the last time I binged through an author’s works so quickly.
So what is it that makes Le Carré’s novels so spectacular?
Spy Stories About Spying
First and foremost, Le Carré’s spy novels are actually about spying. I know this may sound like an obvious point, but unfortunately it really doesn’t go without saying.
For comparison’s sake, consider two of the most famous modern “spy” franchises: James Bond and Mission Impossible.
The titular Bond and Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt are both nominally spies, but neither character engages in much actual spying. They’re far more likely to be getting into fistfights than entering into deep cover. These are really action heroes who just happen to be members of spy agencies.
In contrast, the spies in Le Carré’s world spend their time developing sources, updating their cover backgrounds, and patiently gathering breadcrumbs of information which may never even turn out to be useful. In other words, spying.
The effect of all this is to create a feeling of “realness” even as Le Carré adds a healthy dose of comedic exaggeration to the characters.
A Cynical Take
The exaggerated characters are themselves another aspect of Le Carré’s novels that I absolutely love. As someone who’s worked in the government, I found myself recognizing coworkers (and maybe even sometimes myself) in the characters that Le Carré enjoys lambasting.
Although their quirks are sometimes over-the-top, the spies in Le Carré’s novels are not the super human characters found in typical spy movies. Instead, they’re normal, flawed human beings.
They get tired and worn down. When they sabotage one another, it might be to further a grand conspiracy or it might be out of mere pettiness.
Le Carré also recognizes that the agencies themselves are merely collections of these men, and rarely the smoothly run machines that other authors imagine.
And despite all the cynicism, sometimes you’ll still find that you just can’t help rooting for them.
Where to Start
If you’re new to Le Carré like I was, I think that the absolute best place to start is his class novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It contains all of his trademarks, including his most famous character, George Smiley.
The story revolves around a hunt for a mole who has infiltrated British intelligence at the highest levels. (As an interesting aside: this book is actually the first time the word “mole” was used to mean a spy. The word then spread from fiction back to reality.) The book is the first in a trilogy, but can absolutely be read on its own.
I’d recommend Le Carré’s books to anyone interested in spy stories, but especially to those of you looking for a more cynical take on the genre.