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Originally published Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Some le Carré favorites

Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn picks John le Carré's greatest hits: "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "The Honourable Schoolboy," "Smiley's People," "A Perfect Spy," "The Night Manager" and "The Constant Gardener."

Seattle Times book editor

Seemingly every other week, some publishing house or another announces that a writer in its stable is the "world's greatest living spy novelist." But John le Carré broke the mold, and other writers have been trying to patch it back together ever since.

Le Carré's dual burdens in life — he was the son of a confidence man and a spy for England during the Cold War — have given him material for a lifetime. Issues of deceit and betrayal, both personal and political, pervade all his books. Here are some of his best:

"The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" (1963): This was the first book to display le Carré's tendency to swim vigorously against the political stream. In the 1960s, political and intellectual elites on both sides of the Atlantic were out avidly fighting communists, but "Spy," the tale of a British agent who tries to smuggle an East German girl to freedom, was a devastating portrait of the inhumanity of the Cold War as played out on both sides of the Iron Curtain. "Spy" was made into an equally bleak and top-notch movie starring Richard Burton. In 1999, le Carré told The Seattle Times that "Spy" was based on his experiences in Bonn watching panicked East Germans trying to escape — with the help of West German firefighters and their ladders — just before the two Germanys were walled off from one another. "I didn't sleep for two or three nights," he recalled. "I found myself writing in anger and moral and political despair."

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (1974) "The Honourable Schoolboy" (1977) and "Smiley's People" (1980): This superb trilogy of novels is considered by many to be le Carré's masterwork. George Smiley, British spy and bureaucrat of great personal integrity, is banished from the corrupt undercover bureaucracy and only brought back to direct the discovery of a "mole" in the British espionage system. The author modeled his story on Kim Philby, the British agent/traitor who exposed le Carré's own position as a spy.

"Tinker, Tailor" and "Smiley's People" were made into superb BBC productions starring Alec Guinness. Guinness' characterization was so on target that le Carré joked in a Seattle Times interview: "I had my character stolen by Alec Guinness."

"A Perfect Spy" (1986): This, the most autobiographical of le Carré's work, is a devastating portrait of Magnus Pym, a British double agent secretly being run by the communists doomed by the life lessons taught him by his con-man father — one much like the author's.

Post-Cold War, le Carré branched out into books about international arms smuggling and other forms of geopolitical chicanery. One of his best is "The Night Manager" (1993), a breathtaking suspense novel about an international arms dealer and the obscure night manager of a Swiss hotel (with a checkered past) who attempts to undo him. Another is "The Constant Gardener" (2000), about an international pharmaceutical company that runs drug trials on an unsuspecting African population and which will stop at nothing to suppress the devastating results. Made into a movie of the same name starring Ralph Fiennes.

Now le Carré is back in the espionage game, peeling the onion to expose the human tragedies and betrayals inherent in the worldwide war on terror. Like all his novels, "A Most Wanted Man" is just one step down an alley and around the corner from tomorrow's news.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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