I was going to post these three books in separate reviews, but putting them all together feels like a neater package. I have several other John le Carré book reviews in the queue, so I’ll likely be posting them fairly soon.
On a side note — one thing I’ve always noticed when reading John le Carré’s books is that I often feel as if I happened to be reading a book in translation. There’s a certain carefulness to his word choice, a very deliberate precision that I don’t often detect in books that haven’t been translated from another language. I still don’t quite know what to make of that sensation, but it’s one of the reasons why I truly enjoy reading the le Carré canon.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief….’
Although the title of this book comes from the words of a children’s counting rhyme, John le Carré places these simple words at the heart of a darkly sinister tale of high Cold War espionage. The book opens in an already tense atmosphere, an unsettled time for those who work in and for British Intelligence. The high-profile failure (and subsequent exposure) of an important operation in Czechoslovakia has led to a massive shake-up in the service, and those who have managed to keep their jobs want nothing more than to put the failure behind them. But one of the most senior Intelligence officers, who had lost his place and was forced into ‘early retirement’, believes that there is something far more sinister behind the operation gone wrong. George Smiley, the officer in question, believes that there is a traitor concealed somewhere in the highest levels of the service — a Soviet mole who bears the ultimate responsibility for countless betrayed agents and blown operations. Since he has nothing left to lose, Smiley decides to use all of his old contacts and intelligence tricks to unearth the mole…and in the process, he must confront past mistakes and interrogate old rivals and friends, all the while aware that one of those friends might be the traitor he intends to destroy.
John le Carré’s world is really a classic image of the old-school spy novel: more tame than Ian Fleming, more down-to-earth than Tom Clancy, but gripping nonetheless. He deals in all in shades and variations of grey, from the grey skies of London to the grey buildings in Cambridge Circus (the home base of the British Intelligence network) to the grey areas of morality where his characters always seem to dwell. George Smiley, though fantastically clever, is a rather faded character — as if years and years of working on Her Majesty’s Secret Service had washed all the colour out of him. The story is crafted carefully enough to make the reader second-guess most every first impression of the characters as the tale spins itself out and the story become more intricate. The story has a resolution, not a happy ending, but then again a happy ending would likely feel somewhat out of place in le Carré’s world.
The Honourable Schoolboy
In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley manages to discover the identity of the Soviet mole who had infiltrated the highest echelons of British intelligence — and also finds out that the man in question had been sleeping with his (Smiley’s, that is) wife. So The Honourable Schoolboy opens onto the essential wreckage of Smiley’s personal and professional life. But Smiley is determined to clear up the mess that has landed in his lap, and so he sets out on the track of his oldest enemy — Karla, his counterpart in Soviet intelligence. His weapon of choice in this round is the Honourable Jerry Westerby, a brilliant but erratic agent who is set on Karla’s trail through Hong Kong and Cambodia against the backdrop of the end of American involvement in Vietnam. By the end of the novel, it might seem as if Smiley and the reader are no closer to Karla than they were before, but the stage is set for the final showdown in the final book of the trilogy.
The Honourable Schoolboy is another of Le Carré’s terrifically convoluted tales of Cold War espionage. The action keeps flashing back and forth from Smiley, stuck in London and trying to hold the fort against the criticisms and attacks from Whitehall and the American ‘cousins’, to Westerby, running all over the Far East and delving deep into the urban jungle of colonial Hong Kong. And whereas Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy introduces the reader to George’s Smiley’s secret world, it’s in The Honourable Schoolboy where the deeper contradictions of that world begin to show. One of Smiley’s colleagues reflects on the strain of intelligence work and how it is clearly beginning to affect his superior’s view of the world:
…one of two things will happen to George. He’ll cease to care, or the paradox will kill him. If he ceases to care, he’ll be half the operator he is. If he doesn’t, that little chest will blow up from the struggle of trying to find the explanation for what we do.
And while in some respects it’s apparent that this book is the second of a planned trilogy, a bit of a stop-gap between Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, it is still a cracking good read in its own right.
Smiley’s People was initially published in 1980, and in some ways it definitely reads like a lament for the ‘good old days’ (such as they were) of the Cold War. George Smiley, the hero (or at least the protagonist) of the previous two books, is still bogged down in the bureaucratic war that the intelligence services are always fighting with Whitehall. Most of his old colleagues have faded away, and his purpose is becoming more and more difficult to justify to himself. And when one of his ‘people’, an elderly exile from a country now behind the Iron Curtain, is found murdered in a manner that unmistakeably points in the direction of Moscow Centre and Karla, Smiley must pick up the chase again and track his quarry to ground. In doing so, though, he cannot help but reflect the far simpler and more straightforward past — a past that, like Smiley and his people, is on the point of becoming irrelevant.
The final book of the Smiley trilogy is a good deal bleaker than the first two, which is saying quite a bit for Le Carré’s style of writing and the nature of the story itself. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that this really is the final chase — and Smiley himself is aware that if he succeeds in catching his nemesis, he will only do so by exhausting his own ability to function in the secret world to which he has devoted his life. In his old age, Smiley finds himself questioning the very methods he has to use to track Karla. If he uses Karla’s methods, the same methods he has simultaneously admired and deplored for so long, can he really savour the final victory if and when it comes?
In the conclusion to the Smiley trilogy, Le Carré proves once again that he is a master of classic espionage fiction. His world isn’t flashy and seductive or gung-ho and full of technology. It’s a world that is worn at the edges, tired but serviceable and yet certain to vanish the next time some high-flying civil servant takes it into his head to ‘re-evaluate’ or ‘prioritise’. Le Carré knew it well enough at one point, and in this particular book he gives it something approaching a Viking funeral — dignified, certainly, but not quite so pleasant to watch.