If seeing the film of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy has got you interested in George Smiley, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a sequel – both as a book and mini series (starring Alec Guinness) – called Smiley’s People. This is just a gentle reminder for those who already know it.
TTSS was published in 1974; Smiley’s People came out in 1979. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) which is also a Smiley story, came between them, and deals with the pursuit of another Soviet mole, this time in China. But while Smiley as Head of the Circus instigates the case, the main player is Jerry Westerby (who has a small part in TTSS); it is only incidental to Smiley’s battle with the Russian spymaster Karla. Smiley’s People resumes that struggle.
The book starts, as does TTSS, not with Smiley, but with the introduction of two of the minor characters, Ostrakova, a Russian émigré in Paris, and Villem, an English long distance lorry driver of Estonian extraction. But it is not long before Smiley is again called from retirement to tidy up after the murder of his former agents. This is Vladimir, once a general in the Russian army, now living in London and still in touch with the dwindling émigré groups who once provided important information to British Intelligence. The Circus in now prohibited from dealing with such groups; they just want Smiley to demonstrate that Vladimir no longer had links with the intelligence community. But Smiley soon has other ideas, and his quest to find out what information Vladimir possessed and why he was murdered leads him inexorably in pursuit of Karla.
Le Carré is a master story teller. Smiley starts with a small piece of evidence, which leads to an encounter with someone who provides more evidence, which leads to a further encounter, and so on. About three quarters of the book is taken up with this quest. In the final section, Smiley acts on the evidence he has amassed. This is not the stuff of the ‘action thriller’; there is no ‘bang bang kiss kiss’, as Ian Fleming put it. There is menace and violence, and Smiley increasingly feels he is working against time. But he is essentially solving a puzzle, not, for most of the book, directly confronting an enemy. It is a very clever story in that little happens by way of coincidence; Smiley’s steps are all soundly based. Perhaps he has an ability not shared by others to see significance and draw conclusions, but even his guesswork is informed by knowledge and experience. ‘Instinct – or better a submerged perception yet to rise to the surface – signalled to him urgently that something about these cigarettes was wrong.’ Or on another occasion:‘Some questions are hazard, some are instinct, some – like this one – are based on a premature understanding that is more than instinct, but less than knowledge.’ Le Carré is too clever a writer to rely on chance to resolve his plots .
The quality of his writing also shows in the development of his characters. Some, such as Oliver Lacon and Connie Sachs have already been introduced in TTSS; others, like Ostrakova and Villem, are new. But old or new, all are fully drawn. Le Carré does not mind spending time filling in the details of their lives, even though these might not be directly relevant to the story. Connie Sachs, now old and ill, is looked after by her much younger lover, Hilary, a former cipher clerk in the Circus. Hilary had a violent breakdown (smashing furniture and writing graffiti) which Smiley witnessed when he was in charge. There is no need for this information in terms of the plot, but it heightens the sense of both Smiley and Connie as outsiders, even rebels against the intelligence establishment. Lacon is as he ever was: ‘sophistry was Lacon’s element. He was born to it, he breathed it, he could fly and swim in it, nobody in Whitehall was better at it.’ It’s wonderful writing.
As I noted in an earlier post, Le Carré was short listed for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize. It is books like Smiley’s People that earned him this nomination; in writing about espionage, he explores the human condition.
You can read more about Le Carré here.