Farewell to George Smiley

I just finished the last two books in my read-through of John LeCarré’s George Smiley stories. Reviews of the first seven books can be found here, here, and here. These last two books (written over 17 years apart) both take the form of reminiscences by aging spies associated with Smiley. I’m pretty sure that The Secret Pilgrim was supposed to be the last book, but LeCarré couldn’t leave well enough alone. Whether he was bored, broke, had a nagging discontentment with Secret Pilgrim, or something else, I’m glad he wrote A Legacy of Spies because it was a much more satisfying farewell to the pudgy little spy. Below you’ll find shortish reviews of the last two books and my final recommendations on which five of the nine books I think are really worth reading.

Title: The Secret Pilgrim
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 335
Rating: 3 of 5

This is basically a collection of loosely connected short stories strung together in the memory of an aging spy as he listens to the retired George Smiley answer the questions of eager young recruits. The theme of the stories seems to be “I’m a nasty philanderer and all the spy work I did was pretty much pointless, petty, and wasteful of human life including my own.” LeCarré always has seedy characters and a healthy dose of “is the spy business worth the human cost?” in his books, but he’s definitely in full bleak mode for this one.  George Smiley gives some final words of wisdom before bumbling out the door for the last time, but it’s all pretty vague and unsatisfying (which I suppose is typical George so it kind of works). Overall: well, written as always, but far from my favorite.

Title: A Legacy of Spies
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 265
Rating: 4 of 5

In this final (I assume) book, Smiley’s protege, Peter Guillam, is called in from his tranquil retirement in France to answer for his actions during operation Windfall (otherwise known as the events recorded in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). This book is largely an excuse to show what was going on before, after, and behind the scenes in that book since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold focuses almost entirely on the field agent involved rather than those pulling the strings (aka Control and George Smiley assisted by Peter Guillam).

LeCarré covers completely new material (mostly relating to setting up the mission and its aftermath) rather than subjecting us to watching the exact same scenes play out from a slightly different point of view. As an added bonus, in one brief aside we also get to find out what happened to Karla after the events of Smiley’s People. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it.

The framing story (Peter Guillam answering for his involvement in the mission which resulted in multiple deaths) just kind of petered out, but not before we finally get a relatively solid answer from George Smiley on what his “higher cause” was that kept him going all those years in spite of the beating his conscience took every time he destroyed someone’s life. Overall, I enjoyed it (though the “look how much of a womanized Peter Guillam is” got a bit old) and it was a nice end to the series.

 

Recommendations on which books to read (unless you’re a glutton for punishment like me and want to push through all of them):

You know how with the Star Trek movies only the even-numbered ones are worth watching? George Smiley has something similar going on, but I’d recommend the odd numbered books:

#1 – Call for the Dead – Worth reading as a good introduction to major characters and a decent story in its own right

#2 – A Murder of Quality – Not terrible, but not a spy novel either. George solves a murder at a boarding school. If you really like George it’s an okay read, but it contributes little to characterization or overall plot.

#3 – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – If you only read one John LeCarré novel, make it his one! This is THE Cold War spy novel. It is fairly stand-alone, but you would benefit from reading the relatively short Call for the Dead first.

#4 – The Looking Glass War – Probably my least favorite book of the series…incredibly bleak.

#5 (Karla Trilogy #1)-  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  George Smiley goes on a mole hunt. The events of this excellent book (based on the discovery of real life traitor Kim Philby) heavily impact the rest of the series.

#6 (Karla Trilogy #2) – The Honourable Schoolboy – A thoroughly seedy protagonist and overlong storyline that rather aimlessly rambles all over the conflict zones of the Far East make this pretty meh, and it does practically nothing in terms of advancing the Smiley vs. Karla conflict.

#7 (Karla Trilogy #3) – Smiley’s People – The endgame between Smiley and Karla isn’t as intricate as some of the other books, but is well worth reading.

#8 – The Secret Pilgrim – The author is in an extremely bleak mood again and George does relatively little in the book.

#9 – A Legacy of Spies – As stated above, a fitting end to the series (but it will make very little sense if you haven’t read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold).

Smiley Vs. Karla

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.

Recapturing the Glory Days

The Looking Glass War: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley Novels Book 4) by [le Carré, John]Title: The Looking Glass War
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 290
Rating: 3.5 of 5

It’s time for the next installment in my read-through of the George Smiley Books (you can find my reviews of the first three books here). In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, LeCarré made an effort to show the ugly, amoral side of the intelligence game. Dissatisfied with the effect (since some readers still regarded some of the characters as heroic), he wrote this bleak spy yarn.

Rather than the relatively competent intelligence agency known as the Circus (basically MI6), this book centers on “The Department.” The Department is a pathetic remnant of an agency that ran military intelligence during WWII. It is now filled with stodgy, self-important old men (and one young man) who do very little besides archive the occasional intelligence report and dream of the good old days as the Circus gradually takes over more and more of what they used to handle (Smiley, Control, and others from the Circus make some appearances as the two agencies interact).

When a potentially important report of highly questionable authenticity crosses the director’s desk he sees it as an opportunity to run an operation and return to the glory days (the way it was “during the war”). What follows is an incredible display of incompetence and disregard for human life driven by pride, nostalgia, and inter-agency jealousy. You could almost call it a farce, but it isn’t at all funny…just pathetic and depressing.

Overall, the book is well-written, and the characters ring sadly true…it’s just incredibly bleak.

A Pudgy Little Spy

With the recent release of A Legacy of Spies I’ve decided to read through all nine of John LeCarré’s George Smiley books. The first seven will be re-reads for me, but last time I read them a bit out of order and spread out over several years so I’ll get a more coherent story this time. George Smiley is a stodgy, wistful little academic who is happier studying obscure German poets than moving (and sacrificing) human chess pieces during the Cold War. Unfortunately, his brilliant mind and sense of loyalty continually pull him back into the world of “The Circus” (basically, MI6). Here are mini-reviews of the first three books:

Title: Call for the Dead
Author:
John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 172 (including 15-page intro)
Rating: 4 of 5

A member of the Foreign Office commits suicide after a seemingly positive interview with George Smiley following an anonymous denunciation. Details just don’t add up, and the more Smiley examines the matter the less sense it makes. Smiley has a more actively-in-the-field investigative role in this book than he does in many of the others, but it is a good introduction to his character (as well as his protege Peter Guillam  and a major character from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). The style and themes are fairly typical of the other Smiley novels with plenty of twists and turns, not a lot of high action, and a clear depiction of the ugly human cost of the Cold War spy game.

Title: A Murder of Quality
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Murder Mystery
Pages: 173 (including 15 page intro)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is the odd one out of the George Smiley books in that it has nothing to do with international espionage. We find Smiley, during one of his not-employed-by-the-Circus phases, pulled into the investigation of a murder at a prestigious boarding school. Despite being purely a murder mystery, LeCarré preserves the same world-weary tone as his other books. I must say that from the writings of Charles Dickens, C. S. Lewis, and John LeCarré I have a pretty dim view of English boarding schools since they are consistently portrayed as havens of snobbery, brutality, and other perversity. Overall, this is a decent mystery that indulges in some cutting social commentary and does some character development of George Smiley, but it is probably completely skippable if you’re in this purely for the spy stuff.

Title: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 240
Rating: 5 of 5!

This is THE Cold War spy novel! It features an intricate chess game between the Circus and the Abteilung (LeCarré’s version of East German Intelligence) centering around a plot to eliminate the head of the Abteilung. George Smiley is very much in the background of this book, doing things behind the scenes as others take center stage. In addition to a masterful plot where nothing is as it seems, the book delves into concerns about the brutal pragmatism and wastefulness of human life by both sides. The spy business is ugly and LeCarré is perfectly willing to point it out without offering nice pat answers that make us feel good about the moral superiority of “our side.” If you only ever read one Cold War espionage novel, this is the one to read! It can definitely be read by itself, but, if you have the time, the relatively short Call for the Dead provides helpful backstory that makes for a richer reading experience.