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The Essential John le Carré

John le Carré, who died over the weekend at age 89, left behind a remarkable literary legacy. He wrote 25 novels over nearly six decades, zeroing in on the machinations of the espionage community and distilling complex interior conflicts into eminently readable tales.

For millions of readers across the world, his allure lies in the authenticity and believability of his novels. Le Carré worked as a British agent until his literary success allowed him to quit his undercover work to write full-time. His spies are morally ambiguous, genteel, solitary — a marked departure from the suave and high-octane figures like James Bond, who glamorized the practice of espionage. His books feature labyrinthine plots and high stakes; the greatest betrayals and acts of deception are often internal.

One of his most enduring heroes, Alec Leamas, perhaps best summarized le Carré’s feelings about espionage in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.” “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”

If you’ve never read any of le Carré’s work, start with any of these seven books.

Newcomers might begin with this novel, which catapulted le Carré to international fame and which Graham Greene called “the best spy story I have ever read.” Alec Leamas is a Cold War-era spy who takes one last assignment before he can retire — or so he hopes — sending him down a twisty path of betrayal, deception and tragedy.

This is the first in a trilogy (followed by “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People”) in which George Smiley, the dowdy, pudgy, restless and brilliant intelligence official, faces off against his Russian nemesis, Karla, a K.G.B. mastermind. “I don’t think that anyone is likely to write a better suspense novel than this one,” the critic Anatole Broyard wrote in these pages. “And it is probably unfair to restrict it altogether to that category, because this book is not about the good guys against the bad guys, but about most of us against ourselves.”

It’s 1979 and Charlie, a young British actress, has been recruited by the Israelis to infiltrate a group of Palestinians. The setup makes many of le Carré’s literary preoccupations literal — the fuzzy lines between acting, self-deceit and manipulation, for starters — and the story is rare among his novels for its female protagonist.“‘The Little Drummer Girl’ is about spies as ‘Madame Bovary’ is about adultery or ‘Crime and Punishment’ about crime,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in The Book Review. “He is a very powerful writer. His entertainment is of a high order. He gives pleasure in his use of language. And his moral focus is interesting and provocative.”

It’s never a good sign when a spy goes missing. Magnus Pym, a British double agent, retreats to the Devon coast after the death of his father, a remorseless cheat whose negligence drove Pym to find comfort and order in the intelligence service. The novel is also his most autobiographical work; le Carré’s father was a charming and flamboyant con man, too. As he told Vanity Fair: “Though I’ve never been to a shrink, I think that writing ‘A Perfect Spy’ is probably what a very wise shrink would have advised me to do anyway.”

The murder of a British diplomat’s wife in Kenya sets off an international hunt for justice and an emotional reckoning, too. Justin, a career officer in the foreign service, is jolted out of professional and personal complacency after his wife, Tessa, is killed. As he investigates, he is forced to consider the possibility that a huge pharmaceutical company — or even the British government — may have been involved in her death.

The moral and political outrage which fueled le Carré’s books was especially strong in his later novels. In post-9/11 Hamburg, Issa, a Russian-Chechen fugitive, appears with a bag of money around his neck, claiming a fortune in a private bank account there. Issa has been jailed and tortured in Russia and Turkey, leaving him with profound psychological wounds. Who, exactly, is he? Alan Furst, who reviewed the book for the Book Review, wrote, “The sheer desperation of those whose job it is to prevent another 9/11, another Madrid commuter train, another London Tube attack, is written as a slow-burning fire in every line, and that’s what makes it nearly impossible to mark the page and go to sleep.”

A British couple, Gail and Perry, are drawn into an international conspiracy thanks, in part, to an impeccably stylish game of tennis. Perry’s opponent, Dima, is a flashy Russian mobster hoping to defect to England. The themes and subject matter may be au courant, however, “the appeal of the book is not in its modernity, but in its stubborn embrace of the past,” our reviewer Chelsea Cain wrote. “It’s sort of thrilling to inhabit a world, even briefly, where characters are surprised when people and institutions fail to live up to their expectations.”

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