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If you've never read John le Carre, here's where to start

Jason Steger shares his top picks of the spy master's novels.

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.

Some of John le Carre's works.

Some of John le Carre's works.Credit:Jo Gay

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.

A Perfect Spy

This 1986 novel about the traitor, Magnus Pym, is one of two autobioographical novels le Carre wrote. Pym has disappeared and is writing a memoir that reflects an early life based heavily on le Carre’s own with his conman father, Ronnie. Speaking to The Age in 2001, le Carre said he wondered whether he could have been recruited as a Soviet agent. ‘‘I was in danger if you like. I examine that possibility of my own character. I don't know. I'm nearly 70; I can't remember who I was very clearly at 30. I don't believe I was seducible. I think I was if anything and still am a rather old-fashioned patriot at heart.’’

A Legacy of Spies

The final outing for Smiley as his old colleague Peter Guillam goes in search of both him and the truth behind the operation at the heart of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. This is one of those novels - like A Most Wanted Man – that reflects le Carre’s increased radicalism and disillusion with the west’s political morality. In one interview, le Carre said this poignant book was making a case for Europe.

Agent Running in the Field

Le Carre’s last novel burns with a distaste for current British politics, an anger at the country’s exit from the European Union. and a horror at the presidency of Donald Trump. As one central character puts it: ‘‘It is my considered opinion that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterf--- bar none.’’ In a sense, le Carre is enacting E.M. Forster’s comment about treachery: ‘‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’’ But there is more to than that, of course.

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Jason Steger is Books Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald

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