Posts Tagged ‘Karla Trilogy’

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.

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.