Le Carré’s first lines


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I highlighted the first lines from Eric Ambler’s novels a few weeks back and in honor of John le Carré’s newest release, The Pigeon Tunnel, I thought it would be interesting to look at his first lines and whether any changes or trends could be discovered. Hard as it was, I tried to stick with just the first sentence, although I couldn’t stop myself a couple of times.

Call for the Dead (1961) –

When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.

A Murder of Quality (1962) –

The greatness of Carne School has been ascribed by common consent to Edward VI, whose educational zeal is ascribed by history to the Duke of Somerset.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) –

The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.”

Leamas said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.

The Looking Glass War (1965) –

Snow covered the airfield. It had come from the north, in the mist, driven by the night wind, smelling of the sea.

A Small Town in Germany (1968) –

Ten minutes to midnight: a pious Friday in May and a fine river mist lying in the market square. Bonn was a Balkan city, stained and secret, drawn over with tramwire. Bonn was a dark house where someone had died, a house draped in Catholic black and guarded by policemen.

The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971) –

Cassidy drove contentedly through the evening sunlight, his face as close to the windshield as the safety belt allowed, his foot alteras close to the windshield as the safety belt allowed, his foot alternating diffidently between accelerator and brake as he scanned the narrow lane for unseen hazards.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) –

The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.

The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) –

Afterwards, in the dusty little corners where London’s secret servants drink together, there was argument about where the Dolphin case history should really begin.

Smiley’s People (1979) –

Two seemingly unconnected events heralded the summons of Mr. George Smiley from his dubious retirement.

The Little Drummer Girl (1983) –

It was the Bad Godesberg incident that gave the proof, though the German authorities had no earthly means of knowing this.

A Perfect Spy (1986) –

In the small hours of a blustery October morning in a south Devon coastal town that seemed to have been deserted by its inhabitants, Magnus Pym got out of his elderly country taxicab and, having paid the driver and waited till he had left, struck out across the church square.

The Russia House (1989) –

In a broad Moscow not two hundred yards from the Leningrad Station, on the upper floor of an ornate and hideous hotel built by Stalin in the style know to Muscovites as Empire During the Plague, the British Council’s first ever audio fair for the teaching of the English language and the spread of British culture was grinding to its excruciating end.

The Secret Pilgrim (1990) –

 Let me confess to you at once that if I had not, on the spur of the moment, picked up my pen and scribbled a note to George Smiley inviting him to address my passing-out class on the closing evening of their entry course – and had Smiley not, against all expectations, consented – I would not be making so free to you with my heart.

The Night Manager (1993) –

On a snow-swept January evening of 1991, Jonathan Pine, the English night manager of the Hotel Meister Palace in Zurich, forsook his office behind the reception desk and, in the grip of feelings he had not known before, took up his position in the lobby as a prelude to extending his hotel’s welcome to a distinguished late arrival.

Our Game (1995) –

Larry went officially missing from the world on the second Monday of October, at ten minutes past eleven, when he failed to deliver his opening lecture of the new academic year.

The Tailor of Panama (1996) –

It was a perfectly ordinary Friday afternoon in tropical Panama until Andrew Osnard barged into Harry Pendel’s shop asking to be measured for a suit.

Single & Single (1999) –

This gun is not a gun.

The Constant Gardener (2001) –

 The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at nine-thirty on a Monday morning. Sandy Woodrow took it like a bullet, jaw rigid, chest out, smack through his divided English heart.

Absolute Friends (2003) –

On the day his destiny returned to claim him, Ted Mundy was sporting a bowler hat and balancing on a soapbox in one of Mad King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria.

The Mission Song (2006) –

My name is Bruno Salvador. My friends call me Salvo, so do my enemies.

A Most Wanted Man (2008) –

A Turkish heavyweight boxing champion sauntering down a Hamburg street with his mother on his arm can scarcely be blamed for failing to notice that he is being shadowed by a skinny boy in a black coat.

Our Kind of Traitor (2010) –

At seven o’clock of a Caribbean morning, on the island of Antigua, one Peregrine Makepiece, otherwise known as Perry, an all-round amateur athlete of distinction and until recently tutor in English literature at a distinguished Oxford college, played three sets of tennis against a muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle fifties called Dima.

A Delicate Truth (2013) –

On the second floor of a characterless hotel in the British Crown Colony of Gibraltar, a lithe, agile man in his late fifties restlessly paced his bedroom.

The Pigeon Tunnel (2016) –

‘I know what you are,” cries Denis Healey, a former British Defence Secretary in the Labour interest, at a private party to which we have both been invited, his hand outstretched as he wades towards me from the doorway. ‘You’re a communist spy, that’s what you are, admit it.’

A Legacy of Spies (2017) –

What follows is a truthful account, as best I am able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation, code named Windfall, that was mounted against the East German Intelligence Service (Stasi) in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, and resulted in the death of the best British secret agent I ever worked with, and of the innocent woman for whom he gave his life.

Agent Running in the Field (2019) – 

Our meeting was not contrived. Not by me, not by Ed, not by any of the hidden hands supposedly pulling at his strings.

Silverview (2021) –

At ten o’clock of a rainswept morning in London’s West End, a young woman in a baggy anorak, a woolen scarf pulled up around her head, strode resolutely into the storm that was roaring down South Audley Street.

6 thoughts on “Le Carré’s first lines

  1. Pan

    Yes, its quite distinct…that sense of being privy to ‘certain goings on’ and landing right in the middle of the muddle sit were. Thanks for sharing. I re-read, with great pleasure, the opening lines from Call For The Dead,
    “When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.”
    Its quite extraordinary that Le Carre remained so faithful to this initial characterisation of Smiley – all the way into Smiley’s People. Its that very ‘ordinariness’ that fooled so many colleagues and enemies alike. Thanks again.

  2. Always loved Small Town in Germany opening line.It presented a powerful image for me of a place viewed from above as being connected by tram wires,Politics of the book much about Common Market & Neo- Naziism a subject not interesting to many but a great book.The main character is ghostlike and that seems a metaphor of his life ,young refugee from Germany,not British & certainly not German.

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