Taking One All the Way Through, or how I learned to love le Carré’s bad alternative titles to his novels

I would imagine that many authors have debated multiple titles for their book before finally deciding on the right one. The decision itself is rather fraught. If you make the wrong choice are you destined to see your unread books piled in the remainder bins at the bookstore?

Over the past 60 years and 26 books John le Carré has had to mull over multiple title choices. In his biography, Adam Sisman details out the decisions involved in these choices throughout his thorough look at le Carré’s life. However, these names are delivered piecemeal over the course of the book. Here we’ll take a look at all of his alternate titles and how they were discarded or chosen.

Call For the Dead originally began life as A Clear Case of Suicide, which while accurate to the story is a little less mysterious than the title they landed on. More surprising was that the initial title for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was The Carcass of the Lion. Although the book may have been marginally successful with his evocative first title attempt, there’s no doubt that the second option pushed the book into the stratosphere. It was the canny publisher Victor Gollancz who suggested the final title pulling it from a line Control says to Leamas about coming in from the cold. 

It took until October of 2019 for us to read Agent Running in the Field, but an alternate reality might have seen it in 1986. It was given as a possible title for the book later released as The Perfect Spy. One of the other interesting potential titles for that book were The Burn Box, but le Carré preferred The Love Thief until a smart editor managed to talk him off that particular ledge at the last moment.

Agent Running in the Field reared its head again in 1991 when le Carré searched for a title for the book that was called at times Plain Tales from the Circus and The Silent Pilgrim until eventually being titled The Secret Pilgrim. Again, it’s a title that could have been appropriate but isn’t quite as strong as The Secret Pilgrim.

Would we love Smiley’s People as much if it had been called The Giant Hunter? Would millions have watched a mini-series in 2017 called The Camel’s Nose or The Last Clean Englishman rather than The Night Manager? I somehow doubt it. We certainly wouldn’t see a show on television called The Cage on the Roof or Taking One All the Way Through, rather than The Little Drummer Girl.

I happen to love the title Our Game. It manages to seem a bit mysterious, set up the prime conflict between the protagonist and his frenemy, and evoke thoughts of spying as the “great game.” All things that would have been lost if he had gone with The Road to Honeybrook Farm or A Man of the Caucasus.

Are there titles that work but he didn’t use? I happen to like The London Occasional, which had been in the running for The Honourable Schoolboy, as well as The Interrogators’ Poll.

Some final truly bad titles le Carré should feel glad he steered away from are All My Life I Have Been Terrified of Ridicule, The Death of Christopher Robin,  A Spy for Reasons of Politeness and finally, The Angry Gardener.

If nothing else, the above should give writers everywhere a reason to feel better about themselves. Picking a title, many times in consultation with editors, publishers and booksellers, can be a very stressful and fearful process. A good title can help, a neutral title can do no harm but a bad title can certainly torpedo your chances for success. So let’s raise a glass to all the writers out there struggling with their next title as we imagine a bookshelf of le Carré filled with titles like The Giant Hunter, The Camel’s Nose, and Taking One All the Way Through

More on John le Carré here.

A Full List of potential titles

A Clear Case of Suicide

The Carcass of the Lion

The Two-Stroke Lover

All My Life I Have Been Terrified of Ridicule

The Love Thief

The Death of Christopher Robin

The Reluctant Autumn of George Smiley

Operation Limberlost

The Twelfth Direction

The Pigeon Tunnel

The London Occasional

A Spy for Reasons of Politeness

The Giant Hunter

The Twice-Promised Girl

The Piper and the Tune

The Cage on the Roof

The Girl on the Casino Roof

Taking One All the Way Through

The Burn Box

A Man with Two Houses

A Spy with Excellent Manners

Plain Tales from the Circus

The Interrogators’ Poll

The Case Officer

The Silent Pilgrim

A Woman of Cairo

The Junior Leader

The Unknown Soldier

The Underground Soldier

The Last Clean Englishman

The Camel’s Nose

The Passion of his Time

The Road to Honeybrook Farm

A Man of the Caucasus

The Free Servant

The Siege of Heidelberg

Sasha’s Virtue

The Stay-Behind Man

Secret and Beyond

The Angry Gardener 

A special thanks goes to Adam Sisman whose book John le Carré: A Biography I pulled these titles from.

One thought on “Taking One All the Way Through, or how I learned to love le Carré’s bad alternative titles to his novels

  1. Pingback: Title Fight! The Good, the Bad and Ugly of Spy Book Titles with Jeremy Duns and Jeff Quest. (102) - Spybrary - Spy Podcast

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