The Smiley novels— Call for the Dead (1961); The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); The Honourable Schoolboy (1977); Smiley's People (1979); and The Secret Pilgrim (1991)—as well as his other two Cold War spy novels, The Looking Glass War (1965) and A Small Town in Germany (1968), depict the British spy agency ("The Circus") as a bureaucracy where cynical internal intrigues are as effective as patriotism. Le Carré's spies are morally ambiguous, often tragic, figures. George Smiley, the cunning old spy who eventually wins his long contest with Karla, the Soviet spymaster who specialized in the placing of moles (double agents), is a self-doubting liberal intellectual whose beautiful wife is unfaithful.
The semiautobiographical A Perfect Spy (1968), Le Carré's biggest literary achievement, explores the nature of betrayal through the story of a British spy who works for two masters. Le Carré's father was a con artist after whom he fashioned the character of Richard Pim in this book. The fall of the Soviet Union was foreshadowed in The Russia House (1989). Le Carré's post–Cold War novels are complex enactments of left-wing conspiracy theories.
Bold, Alan, ed. The Quest for Le Carré. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.