le Carré: Smiley’s People

July 8, 2019

Smiley’s People
John le Carré
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1980)
384 p.

Persistence pays, in this case. After a perplexing but still satisfying experience with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I was very nearly thrown by a merely baffling experience with the sequel, The Honourable Schoolboy. But here, in the third and final part of the Karla Trilogy, the story returned to the realm of comprehensibility. Indeed, Smiley’s People might be the most straightforward of the lot, and a corking good tale it is.

George Smiley is (still) retired from the British intelligence service, and so is unavailable to receive an urgent call from one of his former agents. When this agent turns up dead, Smiley is recalled to prevent the police investigation from uncovering links to the Circus. This he does, but he also begins a long process of uncovering the reasons why his agent was killed — killed in a manner betraying Soviet involvement. Smiley gathers evidence, follows clues, lays traps, and — persistence pays — gradually works his way back to the person ultimately responsible, whom we are not surprised to learn is Karla himself, Smiley’s Soviet arch-nemesis. More, what Smiley learns allows him to put the screws on Karla, bringing the trilogy to a sombrely triumphant conclusion.

As in the previous volumes, much of the book is devoted to conversations. Smiley is usually after something, and part of the pleasure of the book is seeing how obliquely he goes about getting it; sometimes an interrogation works best when the subject doesn’t realize an interrogation is taking place. In addition, though, this book shows us a good deal of Smiley’s nuts-and-bolts spycraft: misdirection, assumed identities, forensic deduction. There wasn’t much of this in the earlier Karla books, and I found I enjoyed it here.


At the conclusion of the trilogy I’m in a position to briefly sum up. I haven’t read much spy fiction, but I understand that le Carré has a strong reputation, and I can see why. He is a patient novelist, taking time to develop characters and writing compelling dialogue. He asks a lot of his readers; the machinations of the plot, which in some sense are the meat and potatoes of the stories he is telling, are almost entirely submerged, merely suggested, rather than spelled out. The reader has to think things through to follow what is happening. (I, evidently, failed to think enough in the second volume.) And his stories, befitting their cloak-and-dagger nature, have a labyrinthine complexity that convinces the reader of their plausibility.

On the other hand, as with many stories that are, at some level, “procedurals”, I’m not sure that there is much depth to these books. The best of them is Tinker Tailor, which has an ambience of quiet paranoia that gives it a fair claim to being a quintessential Cold War novel. Perhaps the best feature of the trilogy as a whole is Smiley himself, who is indeed a fine creation, a man whom, by story’s end, we feel we know. But beyond that, though the prose can be mesmerizing and the plot engrossing (when apprehended), I’m left with a curious sort of empty feeling in the end. This usually happens when I read genre fiction, so perhaps it’s just me.

4 Responses to “le Carré: Smiley’s People”

  1. Rob G Says:

    I feel the same way about genre fiction as you do. As much as I love good detective novels and police procedurals, it’s just not the same reading experience as with things with more depth. I do a fair amount of re-reading of things I like but there are only two crime writers that I’ve ever considered re-reading: P.D. James and Ian Rankin. Both have strong characterizations and deeper than usual psychological and moral insight, which sets them apart somewhat from typical crime fiction.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Yes, P.D. James is a mystery novelist whom I think I could read again. Maybe Dorothy Sayers too. I’ve actually never read anything by Ian Rankin, though I think I’ve heard of him.

  3. Rob G Says:

    Rankin is the author of the “John Rebus” series, which is set in Edinburgh; the titular character is a police detective, a “noble loner” whose desire to see justice done and his willingness to bend the rules frequently get him into trouble. He’s an extremely well-drawn character, the main one among many, and Rankin’s plots are complex but not head-scratchingly so.

  4. dollymix Says:

    I’d recommend giving The Spy Who Came In From The Cold a shot – I think it’s more thematically rich than the Karla novels, and benefits from being a contained story. Or at least see the film, with Richard Burton in a very good performance as the lead.

    I think it’s worth noting that, in contrast to a lot of novels and films set with a political backdrop, Le Carre’s work is explicitly political. I think the emotional resonance of his stuff comes across in the relationship between individuals and the political system in which they operate, and the way different large-scale systems interact.

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