Best-selling writer John le Carré, who died on Saturday, is celebrated as a master of espionage fiction. However, spy thriller doesn't quite capture the depth and dexterity of his writing, which was widely lauded by the finest names in literary fiction, from Philip Roth to Ian McEwan. Even Aung San Suu Kyi claimed to have derived solace from his books during her prolonged house arrest. His plots that galloped all over the world, she said, expanded her universe in those years of confinement.
Le Carré, who was born David Cornwell, was prolific, and most of his books are still in print. But unlike Ian Fleming's James Bond series, he went beyond the immediate rush of espionage novels. His plots went deep into the geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War, totalitarianism, and the moral ambiguities of western nations. Their themes remain urgent and relevant to this day.
While it is difficult to pick five novels out of a stellar career spanning over six decades and dozens of books, here is a beginner's guide that will hopefully get you hooked onto a writer of great daring.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963): Perhaps the most memorable of le Carré's novels, this is a classic story of intrigue and betrayal set in divided Germany at the peak of the Cold War. A trenchant critique of the methods adopted by so-called western democracies to further their espionage activities, the plot resonates especially in the 21st century, overwhelmed as we are by fresh waves of disinformation. It was adapted into a movie, starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, in 1965.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974): Former British secret service agent George Smiley is called out of his forced retirement to investigate a case of infiltration by a Soviet mole. The first of the much-acclaimed Karla trilogy, this gripping cat-and-mouse chase will keep you riveted with its complex twists and turns. It was adapted into a movie in 2011 by Tomas Alfredson, with Gary Oldman in the role of Smiley.
A Perfect Spy (1986): In this sinister tale about the disappearance of Magnus Pym, a British intelligence officer and double agent, le Carré explores some of his favourite and recurrent themes, especially the severe lack of trust that runs through the world of espionage. The narrative is notoriously complex, with the past and present deftly intertwined. The novel led to a TV adaptation by the BBC in 1987, featuring Peter Egan, and several takes for the radio afterwards.
The Night Manager (1993): Jonathan Pine, the hero of this chilling tale, is a former British soldier, employed as a night manager at a luxury hotel in Zurich. When his attempt to pass intelligence to the British government backfires, Pine gets embroiled in a murky world of drugs and arms trafficking, where the threat of retribution looms large and no one can be trusted. The book was adapted by BBC One, with Tom Hiddleston in the lead, and aired in 2016.
The Constant Gardener (2001): Adapted into a movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, the story revolves around the mysterious circumstances of the death of Tessa, the activist wife of Justin Quayle, a British diplomat posted in Nairobi, Kenya. Dissatisfied with the ostensible cause of Tessa's death, Quayle decides to embark on an independent investigation, one that leads him into a corporate scandal involving Big Pharma.