Ranking le Carré’s Novels

Notes from a fan who's seen it all.
May 8 2013 11:30 AM

Ranking Le Carré’s Novels

Which is the master’s greatest? And where does his new one fall?


Courtesy of Alfred A Knopf

A Perfect Spy remains le Carré’s greatest novel, at once his most autobiographical, his most technically assured, and his most touching. I like to call it the author’s Tender Is the Night; Magnus Pym is a total Dick Diver, just with a few more passports. The Honourable Schoolboy beats out Tinker, Tailor at No. 2 for the simple reason that it contains le Carré’s finest prose. The first chapter, in which the novelist sketches the Hong Kong press corps in the vivid curlicues of classic English burlesque, could practically be Dickens. I place The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at No. 4 not because its structure isn’t near perfect, but because the prose reads almost stilted when you compare it with the novels of the ’70s and ’80s.

At the bottom of the heap, I have included three of le Carré’s lesser early works (The Naive and Sentimental Lover, A Small Town in Germany, and The Looking-Glass War). These aren’t uninteresting, per se, but they are derivative in a far baser way than even The Tailor of Panama (No. 12), itself an overt homage to Graham Greene; these novels often read like upmarket Agatha Christie—stylish in moments, pat on final reckoning. (Le Carré’s best early sentences are actually in his first novel, A Call for the Dead, No. 7.) And I wouldn’t want to suggest that A Most Wanted Man, at No. 20, is a poor novel at all. It does, however, exemplify the occasional predictability of latter-day le Carré, with an ending both inevitable and painfully abrupt. The more his own political commitments enter into his art, the more transparent the novelist becomes, and one can admire le Carré’s post-9/11 politics without valuing all its ramifications.

The new novel, A Delicate Truth, follows this ideological trend in certain obvious ways, and like Wanted Man it runs out of steam in the finale. Nonetheless, A Delicate Truth sits at No. 15 above A Most Wanted Man and Our Kind of Traitor because its guiding metaphor (the liminal rock of Gibraltar) is integrated so deftly, and because le Carré has drawn Toby, his protagonist, in vivid strokes that smack of an author's affection. In the cold spaces of le Carré's fiction, his moments of sudden and surprising love are like a promise that keeps us coming back.


Also read Ted Scheinman's essay on what he gleaned from reading the complete works of John le Carré, and watch the clips in Scheinman's ranking of le Carré–based movies.

Ted Scheinman has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. His first book of nonfiction will appear in 2014. Follow him on Twitter.


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