John le Carre, who died aged 89 on Sunday morning, introduced George Smiley to the world in his first novel, Call for the Dead. The reader meets him through his estranged wife, Ann, who describes him as ‘‘breathtaking ordinary’’. He was ‘‘short, fat, and of a quiet disposition’’. But Smiley is far from ordinary. And while his relationship with Ann is the cause of grief, his professional life is far more satisfying.
Smiley is one of 20th century literature’s great characters and even if le Carre had written nothing other than the trilogy that began with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, his reputation as great novelist would have been assured. But le Carre wrote 25 novels (and a memoir), however, and picking five of the best is a tough task.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Le Carre’s third novel brought him huge success and preciptated his departure from MI6. Alec Leamas is a British agent sent back into East Germany for one last mission. But its true nature exposes the dubious morality and cynical manipulation of Leamas’ handlers. Le Carre gives us a bleak account of the reality – as opposed to the Bond-like glamour – of an agent in the service of the intelligence system. Bleak, brutal and brilliant, the novel was filmed with Richard Burton as the wretched Leamas.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Graham Greene called this the best spy story he had read and he’s not alone in that assessment. It’s about the hunt for a mole in the Secret Intelligence Service, known as the Circus. It follows on from a disastrous mission in Prague that results in the capture of a British agent. This is the novel in which Smiley really comes into his own and le Carre made the Cold War spy novel his own and in so doing captured the moral compromises and dismal practices seen on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Read this and follow it with the rest of the Smiley trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.