John le Carré’s George Smiley Novels in Order

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. I may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The most famous British spy after James Bond!

George Smiley Series by John le Carré

George Smiley is a creation of John le Carré. The spymaster made his first appearance in Call for the Dead in 1961 and will appear in a total of 9 books, from a minor role to main characters

Where to start with George Smiley?

If you ask yourself if you should read the George Smiley books in order, let’s me first tell you that this is not necessary, as the books can be easily read as stand alone.

With that information in hand, most people start to read the George Smiley Series (or John Le Carré for that matter with The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963), in which Smiley is only a side character, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974).

The George Smiley Collection

The Early novels – Smiley first appears and plays a central role in Call for the Dead, which also happens to be Le Carré’s debut novel. In those early novels, Smiley is also a central figure in the novel A Murder of Quality, but is a supporting character in the two next books, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Looking Glass War.

Call for the Dead (1961)
A Murder of Quality (1962)
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963)
The Looking Glass War (1965)

The Karla Trilogy – This trilogy follows Smiley in pursuit of his KGB archenemy — a forbidding and remote figure called Karla. Those are the most famous Smiley books.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)
The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
Smiley’s People (1979)

Smiley in retirement – As George Smiley didn’t appear in any Le Carré’s books during the 1980s, he resurfaced in 1990 as a man enjoying his retirement in a supporting role.

The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
A Legacy of Spies (2017)

Want to listen? The Complete BBC Radio 4 dramatization starring Simon Russell Beale is available on Audible.

Coming Soon! It has been announced a new George Smiley book will be published, written by Nicholas Cornwell, John le Carré’s son.

Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley in Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy

George Smiley, the Spymaster

A spy like George Smiley would never order a “vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.” Smiley was imagined by John le Carré to be the anti-James Bond character.

Smiley’s life was not glamorous in the slightest. The spymaster appears to be a middle-aged, short, plump, balding, and glasses-wearing guy. Smiley is bland and polite, allowing others to treat him badly as a better method to conceal his sly side.

Behind the appearance hides a cunning, brilliant spy with a sharp memory who takes advantage of people’s tendency to underestimate him to further his objectives.

While James Bond’s espionage life is highly fictitious and romanticized, George Smiley provides a more grounded perspective on this field, which has contributed to making him a pop-culture icon alongside Bond.

The Many Faces of Smiley: The British Spy in other media

Many actors have portrayed George Smiley, the most memorably associated with the part being the late Sir Alec Guinness who played him in two successful BBC TV Series, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979), and Smiley’s People (1982).

More recently, Gary Oldman portrayed the British spy in the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — a performance that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Aside from these two actors, Smiley has also been played by Denholm Elliott in The Deadly Affair, a 1966 film adaptation of Call for the Dead.

On the radio, he has been portrayed by Simon Russell Beale, George Cole, Bernard Hepton, and Peter Vaughan.

John le Carré Beyond George Smiley

John le Carré, real name David John Moore Cornwell, is regarded as one of the best writers of the postwar era. In the 1950s and 1960s, he worked for the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Under the pen name John Le Carré, he began writing Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) while employed by MI6. Employees of the Foreign Office were not allowed to publish under their own names.

One of le Carré’s best-known books is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), his third book that went on to become an international best-seller. After the book was released, le Carré quit MI6 to pursue writing full-time.

John le Carré wrote 26 novels (including one published posthumously). The Little Drummer Girl (1983), A Perfect Spy (1986), The Tailor of Panama (1996), Our Kind of Traitor (2010), The Constant Gardener (2001) and A Most Wanted Man (2008) are among his most recommended books without Smiley.

For more Spy Fiction, you can read Slough House by Mick Herron.