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

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

Egos Are Deadly in The Looking Glass War

John Le Carré’s The Looking Glass War is a tale of Cold War espionage undertaken by a World War II military spy agency.

Le Carré focuses on what makes the characters tick rather than in what they blow up.

Dust jacket of Looking Glass War shows mirror image of word War


The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

[David John Moore Cornwell] Coward-McCann, 1965. 320 pages. 1965 bestseller #4. My grade: B-


Fighting to keep his agency viable, Leclerk sends agents to check reports of a suspected Russian missile site.

When the agent is killed, Leclerk sends his assistant, John Avery, to pose as Taylor’s half-brother, claim the body, and get the film he was carrying.

Despite inadequate preparation, Avery gets back to gets back to England alive, but without the film.

Next Leclerk recruits a man who served with the resistance during the war. Leister gets a month of training, which enables him to stay alive a couple of days when he’s slipped into occupied territory.

Each of these rather boring men is enticed, like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s children’s book, into an exciting world in which their expectations are turned against them.

Missiles turn out to be less deadly than inter-departmental feuds and civil service egos.

Looking Glass has too much blather for a spy story and too much spying for a good psychological novel.

It will keep your attention, but leave little to mull over later.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold Still Thrills

Section of Berlin Wall still standing 20 years after wall broken down
Section of Berlin Wall still standing 20 years after the fall.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a tense, gritty thriller in which even the good guys can’t tell the other good guys from the bad guys.

John le Carré sets the opening scene at the Berlin Wall. British operative Alex Leamas watches helplessly as his best agent is killed attempting to escape from East Berlin.>

Recalled to London, Leamas becomes the central figure in an elaborate plot to discredit Mundt, the East German spymaster responsible for Reimeck’s death.

Leamas is a complex character: driven, humorless, sartorially and psychologically rumpled. Compared to Leamas, James Bond is a toy spy.

Control promises that after this last assignment, Leamas can “come in from the cold” to a life where he need not be callous. Leamas has met a girl who makes that picture look good.

Le Carré paces the novel well, throwing in enough red herrings to keep readers interested while making sure there are no breaks in the story line. Some of the plot complications are too convenient for plausibility, but you’ll be too absorbed in the story to see its flaws until you’ve finished the last chapter.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
John le Carré
New York: Coward-McCann
1963
256 pages
1964 bestseller #1
My grade: B+

Photo Credit: Berlin Wall. Photo by Belobos of section of remaining wall near Checkpoint Charlie was taken 20 years after the wall fell.

 © 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni