A Small Town in Germany is John le Carré's fifth novel. It was published in 1968 and is the story of the search for a British Embassy officer who goes missing in Bonn. It is an espionage novel, but doesn't include le Carré's signature spy George Smiley or his workplace, the Circus.

The book deals with the Cold War as it manifested itself in a divided Germany after World War II. On that level, it's very interesting. It suffers if you read it after some of le Carré's other novels, particularly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the rest of the Karla trilogy, because by then you'd have read enough about Smiley to know that his non-espionage specialty is baroque German literature — so you'd be forgiven for expecting him to show up.

Le Carré had yet to turn Smiley into his tour-de-force protanogist, so it figures that he might not have included him here. It's just a touch more challenging (worth it, but challenging) to keep track of an entirely new set of characters in different roles when one is very accustomed to the people and structure of the Circus.

A Small Town in Germany is probably one of le Carré's least memorable works. I say this as a person who's read roughly half of his books, some more than once, and who plans to read the rest. I enjoyed it, though it didn't leave me enthralled the way Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy did, or haunted the way The Spy Who Came in From the Cold did. I had to go scouting around the internet to remind myself of half the plot before I could write this; while I'd needed a refresher on a few points of Call for the Dead and The Looking Glass War, I remembered much more of those novels than this one.

None of this to say that it's a bad novel, just not one of le Carré's true greats. And the man's still pretty compelling when he's not at his peak. The New York Times review said it was on par with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which is debatable. What's a given is that A Small Town in Germany was only his fifth novel and, while well crafted, that his masterpieces were still to come.

It makes one wonder whether a reading of his complete works is best done in chronological order. That might better enable each to be fully appreciated on its own merits, as well as allow the reader to get a sense of le Carré's growth as a novelist.

A Small Town in Germany hasn't been adapted as a film or audio drama from what I can see.

Book page on the author's official site
New York Times review from 1968

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