le Carré: The Honourable Schoolboy

May 13, 2019

The Honourable Schoolboy
John Le Carré
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1977)
532 p.

It is fair to say that I have next to no idea what happened in this book. I do know — because I read it on the dust jacket — that the story has something to do with George Smiley’s efforts to revenge himself on the Russian spymaster Karla, whom we remember from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but what Karla has to do with what happens in the book is for someone else to answer. I can at least confirm that his name comes up a few times.

The story, insofar as I was able to discern it, concerns the infiltration of an opium smuggling operation into China. Some events take place in Cambodia, and some in Thailand, and others in Hong Kong. I gather that these smugglers are somehow working for Karla for some reason. There is a character whom Smiley is trying to capture — his name is Nelson — and it seems, from the hullabaloo that accompanies his eventual capture, that he is important in some way. Unless I am mistaken, he never appears on the page until the very end, so it is odd that he should be the novel’s focus. Actually, for much of the book I thought he was a child who had died.

There are some characters in the book. An English fellow called Westerby. A woman called Liz. Someone called Drake. Back in England there is a Circus operative called Collins, and he seemed suspicious to me, but that went nowhere. These characters did many things in the book and, by and large, I failed to understand their motives.

None of this amounts to a criticism of le Carré or his book, exactly. He is by reputation a very good spy novelist. He is comfortable with subtlety and elaborate hidden motives, and good for him. This book took the palm for crime novels in the year it was published, so others have appreciated, and presumably understood, it. Meanwhile, I am wondering if I should persist with my plans to read Smiley’s People, the final volume in the Karla trilogy. Nobody likes to feel a fool, much less twice over.

6 Responses to “le Carré: The Honourable Schoolboy”

  1. Joel D Says:

    I share your criticism of this book and have several others of my own. That said, I found Smiley’s People about a hundred times more enjoyable. The whole atmosphere and cast is more legible, which makes the mystery more enjoyable; every step (well, almost every) feels like a step: a small progression from something known to something as-yet unknown, rather than like being lost in a fever dream. I reread it once every few years (something I do with very few books). I have never even thought about rereading The Honourable Schoolboy.

  2. cburrell Says:

    This is encouraging! Thank you.

  3. Jim Farney Says:

    Smiley’s people is very very good. Almost everything after much less so, though I’ll admit that ‘A Legacy of Spies’ is an interesting ending to the Smiley saga.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Another vote for Smiley’s People! Very good.

    I know there are other Smiley books, but I think at this time I will, at most, finish the Karla trilogy.


  5. I posted a comment a while back (weeks at least) on your other Le Carre post. It never appeared and that was probably because…well, long irrelevant story, suffice to say that I have a problem with WordPress and my email address. I’ll see if I can get this one by.

    Anyway, I think the gist of what I said was that I think Le Carre is a really, really good novelist. It’s been decades since I read The Honorable Schoolboy but I don’t remember feeling baffled by it. But then I’m pretty cavalier about just saying “never mind” and plowing on if I’m confused by an intricate plot. I do recall thinking that Tinker Tailor was easily the best of that trilogy. I’ve read it twice, which is not true of the others, and would like to read it again.

  6. cburrell Says:

    I’ve searched for that earlier comment in the various folders into which WordPress occasionally dumps them, but I find no sign of it. Apologies.

    Based on its reputation, I expected “Tinker Tailor” to be the best of this batch. I’m also not much of a plot-reader, but I guess I like to keep my bearings, at least. I can’t even blame my lack of comprehension on the usual suspects — reading at bedtime, reading in 5 minute blocks — because I was on a trip while reading this one and actually had extended hours of daylight to devote to it. Oh well!

    I’ve started in on “Smiley’s People”, and so far I’m finding it easier to manage than “The Honourable Schoolboy”.


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