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Which Is the Best John Le Carré Novel? (2014) (newyorker.com)
68 points by keiferski 64 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments

What I liked about "they spy who came in from the cold" was the pacing. Its small. "a small town in germany" is similary small, as is "the looking glass war" which has a nice quality that its really about inter-service rivalry more than the fieldman.

Peter Wright "spycatcher" made me think this stuff is more true than not. UCL (london) is next door to the kind of grey curtained (bomb-proof chain mail apparently) anonymous doors and blocks which we are told once housed outlier farms of the more elite services in the seventies. The big place down on the Thames up-ended all this, as did GCHQ's remake.

(Duncan Campbells writing on how the british state listened in pervasively to all telephone calls in the days of the microwave backbone up the spine of the UK is also worth reflecting on)

The atmosphere of the remake of 'tinker tailor' was really good. the grimy, flare-trouser, italian-design feels of the place was spot-on for time. I am less sure it was spot-on for what the secret services were like inside, but it felt like it should be: its what we want to believe. I've stayed in those grotty kings-cross hotels, they are alas, all too true.

I love all his books, but the later ones are frankly bloated. He's returned to small. His biography about his amoral father ("the perfect spy" is of course about the same family dynamic and probably has echoes of reality all through it) but you can't call autobiography novels, so thats out.

I thought "the russia house" was a better film adaptation than "the little drummer girl" and I thought "the night manager" was terribly adapted. All three are much the same as books I find.

"the constant gardener" is in some ways, the most depressing. I think it very probably speaks more truth than we would want.

If we are speaking movies, the old BBC TV mini-series "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "Smiley's People" with Alec Guinness as Smiley are absolutely great.

The original BBC mini-series is a must watch. For me is the best of all of his material turned to a motion picture. Followed by the “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”.

I can only guess but I think plain old nostalgia must be the biggest reason people are so fond of the original BBC series. It certainly doesn't hold up very well. I think Fry and Laurie's caricature highlights the BBC series’s biggest weakness, its ponderous obviousness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i18bH4XCmHw

How would you compare to Gary Oldman's "Tinker"?

For me, they are (or were) both great actors, but there is something masterful about Alec Guinness’s portrayal of George Smiley.

The film has the better supporting cast by far[0], but the original series is worth watching just for that portrayal. Watch his face as he slowly puts on his glasses during the beginning of the interrogation scene with Ricki Tarr for example.

[0] with the possible exception of another great performance by Ian Richardson

Edit: I very much enjoyed the film too, including Gary Oldman. But the miniseries captured the bleakness of the era, had time to explore more of the detail, and left more things implicit rather than explicit. All styles of production that I personally enjoy.

Phenomenal cast in that film - you would be hard pressed to hire even one of the supporting cast members these days with the $20m the film apparently cost at the time.

I want to see Cathy Burke do more stuff. Her scenes with Oldman were just outstanding.

Agreed. It's a scene like that which separates the very good actors from the truly great. While I enjoyed the remake, I don't think it comes close to the original.

I watched the TV series some weeks or months after having seen the Gary Oldman movie, I enjoyed both, but the TV series is great while the movie I thought was just good. Both have excellent cast and are worth watching just for this reason, but the story with all the nuance seems better suited for the mini-series format than for a 2 hour movie.

I liked the scenery and set dressing of the new one greatly.

The old TV series had a superb ensemble cast. The new one in some ways let itself down. Hungary for Czechoslovakia. Turkey for Hong Kong. Peter Guillaim has a gay lover. Minor changes but also.. why?

I saw the movie with a friend who had never read the book nor seen the miniseries and he couldn't really follow it. I could (barely) from my experience from the book and series. Two hours is just too short to convey such a complex story.

I had read the book as well and I still had to watch it several times to appreciate all the nuance and really put it all together.

For example (warning: potential spoilers, though you'd have to be pretty super attentive to detail if you ended up noticing this the first time through the film):


Fortunately, it is (or was) on Netflix so I was able to do that.

I probably watched it at least a dozen times and with every viewing I would still manage to find some new little meaningful detail I had missed before. If I can't find anything new that interests me on Netflix (not hard), I'll usually just queue it up again. Great film.

> UCL (london) is next door to the kind of grey curtained (bomb-proof chain mail apparently)

Which building are you thinking of? The nanotechnology building (image below) does have a grey metal curtain infront of it, but just as a sunshade.


There definitely are buildings around, but I think they are (usually) more discreet


It was behind the Slade, en route to Euston Rd. Were talking back in the 1980s.

Of course! The one where the Wellcome building now is? Sorry, I was being a bit slow this morning.

Yes, and I think some other stuff in Bloomsbury was like. After the IRA bombing almost any government offices had these mesh curtains but the word on the Pavey was these ones were espiocrats.

> and I thought "the night manager" was terribly adapted

Can you expand on this? As someone who loved the series and the book it'd be interesting to hear a different viewpoint.

Not OP. My take is it was far too Bond, far too little le Carré. No problem that they modernised the setting and locations, or the cast that should have been great - and to be fair, they tried with what little they were given.

Trouble was it took a subtle suspenseful novel and turned it into a formulaic and predictable US TV series. It was uninspiring TV wallpaper but in fancy locations. Quality source and cast let down by horrible direction and story adaptation. The best I can say is it wasn't terrible. Nor was it a patch on the old or new BBC adaptations of Tinker Tailor.

I grant that it far from le Carré's best novel, but it was a damn sight better than this!

OP. This is almost exactly what I would have said btw. The food stuff, was nice. The hotel stuff, was nice. The violence was remarkably pointless. The whole "she's a good woman but just fell into the wrong kind of man's hands" trope, well he's done that so many times now, its just boring.

The Serialization just bigged it up too much.

But the Night Manager novel really is a story about a stylish British tough-guy who seduces various beautiful women in different countries as he works his way towards the bad guys.

The only reason you can read it without it seeming Bondish is that Le Carre manages to make all that strangely bland, if not outright dull.

Bond is formulaic and predictable, but glitzy and absurd. That is what I felt the TV adaptation brought, along with ropy directing and scripting. The book was far less of all of those, retaining some subtlety - but probably one of his weakest books I can think of for characterisation.

The TV adaptation could have made it feel more le Carre, by adding more depth to the supporting characters, and more of the tradecraft and blurred grey areas.

I also think Bond was probably more influenced by the wartime SOE (which had all the gadgets & action) rather than the more cerebral world of the SIS.

Ian Flemming's older brother Peter worked with with people like Colin Gubbins who was head of the SOE for most of the war.



Seconded. I came here to say The Night Manager is my favorite of his and I also enjoyed the adaptation.

I think "the tailor of panama" says much the same about the corrupting nature of the west on small economies but better. The follow on stuff about Palfrey (from night manager) I rather liked.

Having read that and his other works I wonder if his "messed up" childhood is as an important source of his themes of betrayal as the Cambridge 5 where.

For me, it was The Secret Pilgrim.

It catches Le Carre at the precise moment when the final scales fell away from his eyes, and he found himself unable to defend even partially the corporatist state that his characters had inhabited and defended at such personal moral cost for the better part of half a century.

Edit: Lol, apparently this precise article was posted in 2016...when I posted this precise comment: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10862489

For me, it has to be Tinker Tailor. A truly great novel about the lies people tell to themselves and others. A spy novel in the same way that Crime and Punishment is a police procedural.

I do very much like the Karla trilogy.

the BBC Alec Guinness adaptation is wonderful(as is the house of cards, but thats a different beast.) The unabridged audiobooks are read by the person who played Peter Guillam

For me, I think his best "novel" is his autobiography. The Pigeon Tunnels is a series of brilliantly engaging short stories, but with out the tenancy for an anticlimactic ending.

It also vividly illuminated the background for baader meinhof, and to a certain extent the 70/80s Palestinian conflict (and how its relevant to the UK now, thanks to the useful idiot that is corbyn.)

I recommend Adam Sisman's JLC biography.( https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0062106279/ref=tmm_hrd_title_... )

There's also the autobiographical "The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life" [0].

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Pigeon-Tunnel-Stories-My-Life-ebook/d...

Look at the poster's name. Surely a touch of tradecraft there.

I'm currently working my way through the series of counter-intelligence novels written by his contemporary and friend Anthony Price. It's a look at a different aspect of military intelligence through a rotating cast of narrators, and with a deft use of military history as a plot driver.

Start with The Labyrinth Makers and go on from there. It introduces the key characters, Dr David Audley and Major Butler.

The whole Karla trilogy was great, but I enjoyed The Honourable Schoolboy the most. Loved the detail.

Read the books before I watched the recent Tinker Tailor film.

I think they utterly miscued the description of Jim's capture (if you please excuse the spoiler). In the book, I thought that part really helped to anchor the scale and scope of the trilogy.

I've read almost all of them. They're all excellent and some are great. To me, he writes tragedies disguised as spy novels.

My nod goes to "The Little Drummer Girl".

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