Last year I started reading through all of John LeCarré’s George Smiley novels (you can find reviews of the first four here and here). I just finished books 5-7 which make up the Karla Trilogy. These three books pit George Smiley of The Circus (MI6) against his nemesis from Moscow Centre (KGB), the shadowy Karla. The books can be read independently but are much better together.

Title: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 400
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Control, head of the Circus, is dead (cancer) and his legacy in shambles after a disastrous operation into Eastern Europe. The old guard (including George Smiley) have been retired or shuffled off to unimportant corners of the institution…but it looks like someone in the new leadership is a Karla-trained Soviet mole; a mole who may have been in place for decades. The main plot follows George Smiley and his few trusted allies on their methodical mole hunt.

The story can be a bit fragmented and confusing (e.g. it takes quite a while to see the relevance of the opening story line), but this is part of the brilliance as Smiley slowly pulls all the pieces into place to make a coherent picture. Some of the action and leaps of reason toward the end were almost too elliptical to follow (thus the half-star deductions), but it’s obvious why this is a classic of realistic spy fiction.

Title: The Honourable Schoolboy
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 624
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Following the events of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the Circus is a shadow of its former self, largely dependent on “the cousins” (CIA) for actual fieldwork. Combing through the damage done by the mole, George Smiley (now the interim head of the much reduced intelligence agency) discovers an opportunity to interfere with and profit from Karla’s intelligence apparatus in the far East. Much of the story is based in Hong Kong and branches out through various conflict zones in the waning days of the Vietnam War. It focuses mostly on an unreliable, womanizing British field agent who uses his cover as a reporter to travel around and pry into all kinds of sordid corners.

To me the book seemed meandering and overlong. LeCarré seems more interested in describing the horrors and corruption of Southeast Asian politics, warfare, opium smuggling, etc. than he does in really advancing the Smiley vs. Karla storyline. Many of the George Smiley bits felt more like maneuvering characters into place for the next book than anything directly related to the plot. Overall, it’s not terrible, but it’s the weak middle book of a great trilogy.

Title: Smiley’s People
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 416
Rating: 4.5 of 5

George Smiley is retired (again), but when he is called upon to routinely tidy up after the death of one of his former agents (a Russian defector), he stumbles across what might be a last chance to destroy Karla. He unofficially assembles many of his old associates and makes one last push against his Soviet equal. In the end we will find out just how alike or different the conscientious Smiley and zealot Karla are. This isn’t as intricate as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it is an excellent and fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

One thought on “Smiley Vs. Karla

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