John le Carré, who died on Saturday, was credited with developing the cold war-era spy thriller, quickly becoming synonymous with the genre. But his 25 novels, which spanned a writing career of almost six decades, ranged well beyond the great power stand-off between east and west.
From the murky Soviet landscapes of his George Smiley spycatcher series to illegal arms dealers and Colombian drug cartels in 1993’s The Night Manager, the war on terror and a pharmaceutical scandal that leads to murder in northern Kenya in his 2001 bestseller The Constant Gardener, his canvas was broad and his core subject — the human condition — universal.
Here are five of le Carré’s best novels, chosen by the FT’s thrillers reviewer Adam LeBor:
The first volume of le Carré’s subtle, complex Karla trilogy still sets the gold standard for spy thrillers. Ageing spymaster George Smiley hunts for a traitor inside The Circus (the author’s nickname for MI6), while playing a careful, menacing game of chess with Karla, his Russian opposite number. The 1979 BBC adaptation, starring Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, evocatively captures the feel of the book where the main cold war arena is the minds of the two spymasters.
Le Carré’s bleak breakout novel was a game-changer for the espionage genre. It tells the story of Alec Leamas, an intelligence officer who is finally being called home by The Circus after years living in East Germany. But Leamas, a weary, cynical anti-hero, has one more mission to complete before he returns to London. A nuanced portrait of the amorality of espionage and its many shades of grey.
The third volume of the Karla trilogy sends Smiley once again on the trail of his Russian nemesis before le Carré masterfully weaves their stories together in a stunning conclusion. Smiley — bland in appearance, physically slight and thoroughly cuckolded — is the antithesis of James Bond, and the depth of characterisation lifts this far above most espionage novels.
When Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Nairobi, learns that his wife Tessa was killed in a remote region of Africa, he refuses to believe the official explanation. Quayle soon uncovers a global conspiracy connecting the darkest reaches of Big Pharma and corrupt politicians. Faster-paced, with more action than many of his previous novels but no less skilfully told.
Barley Blair is not a spy but a publisher. But even this everyman protagonist understands the potential value of a Soviet scientist’s manuscript full of nuclear secrets — and the possibility of using it to extract the beautiful Katya from the tottering Soviet Union. Published the year the Berlin Wall came down, The Russia House reflects the hopes of the lost era of Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika.
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