You’ve read all of John le Carré’s novels, short stories, opinion columns, letters to the editor, his biography and autobiography. Before you go back to the beginning and start all over, you want to try something different. What to do? Read books le Carré has recommended of course!
Le Carré is very deliberate in what books he will offer a blurb or introduction, so there is a limited number of these. As the author himself says in his introduction to the stories of Sherlock Holmes “As a reader, I insist on being beguiled early or not at all, which may be why a lot of books on my shelves remain mysteriously unread after page twenty. But once I submit to the author’s thrall, he can do to me no wrong.”
The recommendations I found fall into three loose categories – people he met or subjects he explored starting in the mid-seventies while doing book research, spies and espionage and, finally, books written by friends or of personal interest.
Reading some of these books, I think one of the fun parts is hearing from some of the real people le Carré met and may have used to create his characters in their own words. It’s a great chance to discover some further insights into his writing.
This topic of le Carré blurbs or full recommendations came up on the great le Carré Facebook group and I’ve pulled a few from there as well as my own research. Thanks to who all submitted titles.
Without further ado, let’s explore some of the books that sit spines cracked and dog earred on JlC’s shelves. If you pull one down to read, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.
Dispatches by Michael Herr – JlC cover quote “The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time”
Hearts of Darkness by Don McCullin – JlC introduction
The Dark Room at Lonwood by Jean-Paul Kauffman – JlC Pigeon Tunnel quote “describe[s] with impressive empathy the solitude, claustrophobia and systematic degradation of the world’s most famous, admired and reviled prisoner.”
Siege : six days at the Iranian embassy by Brock, George; Lustig, Robert; Marks, Laurence; Parker, Robert; Seale, Patrick. With Maureen McConville Researched by Paul Lashmar. Edited by Donald Trelford – JlC introduction
The Body Hunters by Sonia Shah – JlC blurb “an act of courage on the part of its author”
This book explores Shah and her mission. Shah deals with issues memorably discussed in The Constant Gardner he wrote the following in the preface to her book “This book is an act of courage on the part of its author and its publishers…Using clear, accessible language and carefully annotated case histories, Sonia Shah struck a blow for all who dream of harnessing the huge power for good that is invested in the pharmaceutical industry, of seeing its products made available to those who most need them, and of curtailing the greed that drives its worst practices.”
I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation by Michela Wrong – JlC blurb “A splendid achievement … I was entertained, informed and angered. Wrong has made another essential contribution to our understanding of the post-colonial scramble for Africa”
Another Day in Paradise: International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories edited by Carol Bergman –
JlC forward – “What is it that makes this anthology of personal experiences in the field so particularly moving? Is it the courage and dedication of the contributors? To a point. Is it their self-humbling in the face of monstrous disaster? That too. But for my money, it’s their self-control. It’s their suppression of useless pity in favor of doing something practical. It’s their determination, in the foulest conditions that man and nature can dream up between them, to make human decency work rather than weep; to do what ever they can, again and again, knowing it can never be enough.”
A book on the years the author spent imprisioned at Guantanamo Bay.
Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo by Murat Kurnaz – JlC blurb “The most compassionate, truthful, and dignified account of the disgrace of Guantanamo that you are ever likely to read.”
Agent ZigZag by Ben MacIntyre – JlC blurb – “Superb. Meticulously researched, splendidly told, immensely entertaining and often very moving”
A spy among friends by Ben MacIntyre – JlC afterward “[an] excellent portrayal of the Philby-Elliott friendship”
The Philby Conspiracy by Bruce Page, David Leitch and Phillip Knightley – JlC cover quote “None of us is yet equal to the dimensions of this scandal. Like a great novel, and an unfinished one at that, Kim Philby lives on in us.”
Forged in Fury: A True Story of Courage, Horror…and Revenge by Michael Elkins – JlC comments from The Pigeon Tunnel ” ”
Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Mann – JlC blurb – “A gripping thriller, an unspeakable crime, an essential history.”
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle – JlC introduction – “The modern thriller would have been lost without them. With no Sherlock Holmes, would I ever have invented George Smiley? And with no Dr. Watson, would I ever have given Smiley his sidekick Peter Guillam? I would like to think so, but I doubt it very much.”
The Lives of Others a screenplay by Florian Henckel Von Donnersmark – JlC quote “Both a political document and an enduring work of art”
JlC wrote the forward to the screenplay The Lives of Others. The film follows a Stasi agent assigned to perform surveillance on a couple who slowly comes to realize he watching them for personal, not professional reasons.
A Century of Images: Photographs by the Gibson Family by Rex Cowan in collaboration with Frank Gibson – JlC introduction
‘We are standing in an Aladdin’s cave where the Gibson treasure is stored, and Frank is its keeper. It is half shed, half amateur laboratory, a litter of cluttered shelves, ancient equipment, boxes, printer’s blocks and books.Many hundreds of plates and thousands of photographs are still waiting an inventory. Most have never seen the light of day. Any agent, publisher or accountant would go into free fall at the very sight of them.’
This book is of photographs taken by generations of a family off the coast of Cornwall. JlC, who lives in Cornwall, wrote the introduction, which is actually more of a long essay. Of all the books that have introductions, this is one I would recommend searching out. Le Carré writes what I would consider comparable to a long form magazine article on Frank Gibson while at the same time taking a close look at the state of his current home of Cornwall. There’s even a mention of Don McCullin whom he had previously written an introduction.
My Name Escapes Me by Alec Guinness – JlC preface
John Bingham – His novels – JlC introduction “The two novels – My Name is Michael Sibley and Five Roundabouts to Heaven – comprise the best work of an extremely gifted and perhaps under-regarded British crime novelist, now dead, whom I would dearly like to have called my friend. And for a time, John and I were indeed close friends.”
Le Carré wrote an introduction for the reissue of a few of Bingham’s thrillers that discusses his relationship with Bingham and the problems that arose once le Carré began writing his espionage fiction.
Eric Amber – His Novels – JlC blurb “the source from which we all draw“
Ambler is a giant in the field but this quote is rather interesting. This has mainly appeared on reissues and I couldn’t find any place these direct words were drawn from. The closest I can was a Julian Symons article from The Times on June 23, 1989 that discussed a luncheon in honor of Ambler where le Carré spoke. Symons says of Ambler –
To say he is held in high esteem by his writing colleagues would be an understatement. Five years ago Len Deighton arranged a lunch in his honour at the Savoy. The 13 at table included le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, Gavin Lyall, Lionel Davidson. Graham Greene sent a cable: ‘To the master from one of his disciples’; le Carre said his works were the well into which everybody had dipped.
Symons doesn’t directly quote JlC but after that several publications begin using it as a direct quote from le Carré. Was it then repurposed into the new shorter blurb? Was that the actual quote? Or did the publisher ask JlC for a quote? It’s hard to say. All I know is I wish I’d been at that luncheon in London to hear exactly what one master said of another.
I’ve posted an update with some additional blurbs and forwards here.
If anyone has seen other blurbs or introductions to add to the list, please comment below!