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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy coverTom Clancy died last week. He was the best-selling author of Hunt for Red October and (author or co-author of) sixteen more best-selling “spy novels.” He once tried to buy the Minnesota Vikings. Before Tom Clancy, there was John le Carré.

So I thought, at least. After reading le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I can see that there isn’t as much common ground as I had always assumed. Where Clancy wrote technically-detailed thrillers, le Carré–if I can judge by this one novel–writes in a slower-paced style, relies less on technical detail and paints psychologically richer characters. At least to my ears he does.

It seems odd to say that “Clancy wrote” and “le Carré writes.” Afterall, Clancy was the younger man, and his first novel came out 25 years after le Carré’s debut. Clancy’s Command Authority (co-written with Mark Greaney) is due for posthumous release this coming December. It is true that le Carré, too, at the age of 81, is still churning out books (his A Delicate Truth was published in April of this year), but it seems to me that his star has long since been eclipsed by Clancy’s. My perception would likely be different were I living in Great Britain, but the last of le Carré’s novels to ring any sort of bell with me is 2001′s The Constant Gardener. It rings a bell because of the film, of course, which I had no idea was based on his novel.

John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is listed at #91 on Bachblog’s 113 Great Novels of the 20th Century. It is also ranked at #41 on Bachblog’s 46 Great Crime Novels of the 20th Century. It was first published in 1974.

I should have paid more attention to le Carré. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is much more to my taste than I assumed it would be. I’m not a big fan of “thrillers” generally and Clancy’s style doesn’t do much for me. Now it turns out that I had neglected le Carré’s novels on the mistaken assumption that they were just Clancy with a British accent. I should have known better. My surveys show that critics and readers seem to value le Carré’s work highly: two of his novels make my “best 20th century crime novels” list and, more impressively, the same two make my “best novels of the 20th century” list.

Father BrownI pictured the novel’s hero George Smiley as a sort of a Father Brown character without the clerical collar; physically, but also some small way, temperamentally. I now know that he is also featured in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (which was published eleven years earlier than Tinker and is the other le Carré on my reading list). I look forward to getting better acquainted with him and the rest of the Circus.

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