Smiley’s People: Last but not least

All-text dust jacket of Smiley's People
Like George Smiley, this cover does what it must

Smiley’s People is the last John Le Carré novel centered on George Smiley, an unsexy, unegotistical, unflappable, unheroic, and unrelenting British Cold War era spymaster.

When a former agent is found murdered after having tried to contact him with information about Sandman, Smiley is brought back from retirement to “help.”

Sandman is the nickname agents had given to Smiley’s opposite number in the Russian spy apparatus.

Smiley does a deep dive through the memories of his former staff people, seeking clues to who murdered Vladimer and why.

He also does a little sleuthing on his own.

Le Carré’s novels are always more about personalities and procedures than about high speed chases and high-caliber shootouts.

In Smiley’s People, that spotlight focus is particularly chilling. Smiley is old, alone, unloved. He’s filling time until he dies. He gets one more chance to pull off something spectacular.

Everything he’s worked his whole career for depends on getting one thing right. He must solve the murder and the problems it presents for the agency.

The secret service heads want him to succeed, but not so well that he shows them up.

Le Carré’s ending is dark and plausible with the perfect amount of surprise.

Smiley’s People by John Le Carré
Knopf, 1980, ©1979. 374 p.
1979 bestseller #10 My grade: A-

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

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The Honourable Schoolboy

The Honourable Schoolboy is a John Le Carré tale from the dark underside of the West’s Cold War spy operations.

Cover of The Honourable Schoolboy: gold text on black.
Gold text suggests the gold seam of The Honourable Schoolboy 

After his unmasking of British secret service chief Bill Haydon as a 30-year Russian agent, told in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley was appointed its caretaker.

Exploring investigations that Haydon surpressed, Smiley sends Jerry Westerby, a.k.a., “the honorable schoolboy,” to Hong Kong where he learns the owner of a trust fund to which the Russians have been covertly a “gold seam” is millionaire Drake Ko.

Ko has never touched the fund, which amounts to a half-million dollars.

Smiley wants to know what the Russian are buying.

To find out, Westerby follows some very unsavory characters in Cambodia, Thailand, and in Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army captures it.

As in the other le Carré novels about the Circus, Schoolboy holds stories nested inside one another like a wedding gift of mixing bowls.

There’s plenty of action, but the toughest work is done men and women poring over documents looking for patterns and anomalies and asking, “Why?”

The novel requires similar close attention from readers just to keep up with the twists of the story.

The Honourable Schoolboy
by John le Carré
Knopf, 1977. 533 p.
1977 bestseller #4. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Cold-War relic

There's 1 red figure and 1 black figure among gray crowd on the cover of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The man in the glasses is George Smiley.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a novel about ex-spymaster George Smiley’s efforts to uncover the double agent responsible for virtual collapse of the British Intelligence Service in the Cold War era.

Smiley had been forced out of the Circus, the British spy agency at which he’d been Control’s number 2, when a group of four young men rose to leadership and Control himself died.

When the novel opens, Smiley has been called out of retirement to find out which of the four is the double agent. His isn’t a cloak-and-dagger job, but a tedious search for patterns in data.

The excitement in the novel, which the film version probably captures far better than print, is provided mainly through characters’ recollections of what happened years before.

Tinker swings between then and now, telling about characters with multiple names and identities, which made me long for one of the whiteboards seen in police procedurals with photos and brief descriptions of the characters.

In his introduction to the 1991 paperback edition, John le Carré tells of the difficulties he had plotting Tinker and his sense that the story was already regarded as historical fiction.

Today it feels about as dated as When Knighthood Was in Flower.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
Penguin Books [paper] © 1974, 381 p.
1974 bestseller #4. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Vanished resurrects Cold War era anxieties

Letters of Vanished on novel jacket in progressively smaller letters

Vanished is a Cold War era political thriller that will sound familiar to readers who grew up in that era.

White House Press Secretary Eugene Culligan relates the events.

One election year, a good, personal friend of President Roudebush vanishes from Burning Tree Golf Club.

Investigators learn Steve Greer left the country by a circuitous route.

That raises speculation that Greer’s in trouble, and that the President may be involved, too.

The President’s party gets jittery; so does Wall Street.

The President assigns the FBI to handle the investigation, which infuriates the CIA director and raises further speculation of something shady going on.

Culligan gets nervous because he can’t get information.

The press is hounding him, but he has nothing to say because he knows nothing.

Eventually, Culligan learns everything, but not before the American public and Fletcher Knebel’s readers do.

Knebel draws all his characters well enough that they are distinguishable but not particularly memorable. The focus is the story of what happened to Steve Greer and who’s going to break the story.

The ending fits its Cold War setting, but may sound a little simplistic today.

None the less, Vanished will entertain without deadening the brain cells.


Vanished by Fletcher Knebel
Doubleday, 1968. 407 p. (Book Club Edition). 1968 bestseller #8. My grade: B.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Small Town in Germany is a keeper, not a thriller

 A Small Town in Germany is cover art jacket of novel of that name
Dust jacket of A Small Town in Germany

A Small Town in Germany is a complex, Cold War era mystery that totters on the edge of a thriller.

In Germany, “an amorphous Movement* of popular resentments, popular protest and occasional violence” threatens Britain’s desperate attempt to gain admittance to the Common Market.

As if that weren’t enough, Leo Harting, a Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Bonn, has disappeared.

Boxes of documents disappeared with him.

London sends Alan Turner to Bonn to find Harting.

What Turner finds is a massive security screw-up: Harting had been a “temporary worker” at the British Embassy for 20 years without ever undergoing a security check.

The embassy staff are more upset by a missing tea trolley, typewriter, and electric heater than either their missing colleague or the missing files.

Instead of making Turner a sexy, James Bond type, John Le Carré keeps readers’ interest with the wealth of detail Le Carré accumulated during the two-and-a-half years he spent in Bonn doing the same Embassy job as the missing Harting.

Although Brexit has made a story about Britain trying to unite with Europe seem almost farcical, the populist movement of Small Town feels terrifyingly contemporary.

So, too, does the behind-the-scenes intrigue of men who want to rule without the annoyance of seeking office.


A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré
381 p. Coward-McCann, 1968. 1968 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.

*from the preface to the American edition of A Small Town in Germany. The full quote is “”An amorphous Movement of popular resentments, popular protest and occasional violence has come into being. The policies are immaterial: it is a Movement of the resentful mass; it is unified by its slogans, and fed by its dreams.”

 

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Topaz digs the dirt on Russian disinformation campaign

Topaz is a political thriller on a hot topic of the sixties: Russia’s attempt to put missiles in Cuba.Military dress hat and gloves adorn Topaz dust jacket of Topaz

As a dictator threatens the US with nuclear attack and the US investigates the Russians’ disinformation tactics in the 2016 election, Topaz seems timely again.


Topaz by Leon Uris
McGraw-Hill, [1967] 341 p. 1964 bestseller #4. My grade: B.

Leon Uris weaves a story that involves people at the highest levels of the diplomatic services in America, France, and Russia, including a fictionalized John F. Kennedy-like character.

The story begins when a KGB agent seeking to defect contacts Americans secret service agents in Copenhagen.

The US gives Brois Kuznetov and his family asylum.

Kuznetov insists André Devereaux, head of the French secret service in Washington, be present when he is interrogated.

Kuznetov revels he ran a secret department, code name Topaz, that specialized in disinformation.

Topaz accomplished much of its highly successful effort to mislead America by leaking information to their French allies who passed it on. The KGB’s work reached to office of the French president.

Characters interest Uris more than events: He makes opportunities to tell of their lives years prior to the story’s start.

His biographical sketches make his characters believably ordinary, despite their important political roles.

And political victories take a back seat to friendships.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Walking dead man reveals The Double Image

Passing through Paris on his way to Greece, historian John Craig runs into one of his Columbia professors, a former Auschwitz inmate on his way back to the states after testifying at the trial of Nazis in Frankfurt.


The Double Image by Helen MacInnes

Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. 309 pp. My grade: B.


words The Double Image shown as mirror image
Over drinks, Sussman confides that he’s seen a dead Nazi on a Paris street.

Craig wonders if Sussman is hallucinating.

Then he sees a man follow Sussman from the cafe.

The next day Craig learns the professor was found dead, apparently of suicide.

Those unsettling experiences—and a party hosted by his brother-in-law in the foreign service—plunge Craig into the grim world of Cold War international espionage.

Helen MacInnes keeps a tight rein on her complex plot. She sketches the main characters in only slightly more detail than necessary to make their behavior believable.

There’s nothing of James Bond about Craig. He can use his fists or a pistol, but his intelligence is his main weapon.

And he doesn’t get even one woman into bed—not even the one woman he’d like to have there.

The Double Image will please readers who like their entertainment fast moving and intellectually challenging.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni