Smiley’s People – John le Carré

Book #295

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


Back in October 2012 I reviewed the wonderful Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the first in the trilogy of “Karla” novels featuring spymaster George Smiley.
Today we visit the final chapter.

George is in retirement, ostensibly composing a monograph on Opitz.  He is totally unaware of the two events occurring as he sits in the London Library, researching and writing, that will bring his retirement to a swift end.

The first event happens in Paris amongst the Russian émigré community.  Maria Andreyevna Ostrakova is approached and told that there is hope that the daughter she chose to leave behind in Russia when she escaped to the west may be able to be reunited with her in France.

The second event occurs a few weeks later in Hamburg with a young man on a steamer following the precise orders of ‘the General’, scared and determined alternately as he does the work of a courier.  The same night that this young man returns to England Smiley is summoned by Oliver Lacon.

Lacon wants him to identify the body of a man killed on Hampstead Heath and to bury any connection he may have had with the Circus.   The man, an ex-Soviet General and covert British agent, had recently tried to re-establish contact with the Circus and his old handlers by telephoning in to say that he had something urgent for ‘Max’*.  Unlike the incumbents in the Circus and the Civil Service, Smiley believes that the General, Vladimir, was not simply trying to seek attention and had a genuine source of important information.  It is this belief that Smiley decides to follow and which eventuates in the succeeding happenings described in the remainder of the novel.

Just as Smiley follows the breadcrumb trails left by the General and his assistant, Otto Leipzig, we are taken along with him.  Le Carré takes us from one person’s story to the next, weaving them together as he goes, once again using a mix of memories with present day events.  He gives us hints of what is to come but never seems to lose the tension.  You are left on the edge throughout the story, as there are so many ways that Smiley’s investigation could go wrong and be found out before it reaches it’s end.

And what end will that be?  Will George Smiley manage to outwit and outmanoeuvre his Russian nemesis, Karla?  Or will Karla, once again, manage to stay out of reach?

You’ll just have to read and see.

In this novel we see the reappearance of Connie Sachs, the Circus’ retired researcher on Soviet intelligence, and Toby Esterhase the Lamplighter from Tinker Tailor and Vladimir’s old handler and “postman”, as well as Oliver Lacon.  We are taken from France to Germany, Germany to England, back to Germany and France and finally to Switzerland.  It is quite a ride.

I enjoyed it immensely and the 454 pages of my copy seemed to fly past.  The writing style and language, once you are familiar with the spy-world jargon, flows easily.  The characters are sketched in such a way that you are drawn in to them.  Take the unique style of Connie Sachs when Smiley goes to visit her in order to access her long wealth of knowledge of Karla and the Soviets.

‘Connie’s not coming back, George,’ she called as she hobbled ahead of him.  ‘Wild horses can puff and blow their snivelling hearts out, the old fool has hung up her boots for good.’  Reaching her rocking-chair, she began the ponderous business of turning herself round until she had her back to it. ‘So if that’s what you’re after, you can tell Saul Enderby to shove it up his smoke and pipe it.’  She held out her arms to him and he thought she wanted him to kiss her. ‘Not that, you sex maniac.  Batten on to my hands!’
He did so, and lowered her into the rocking-chair.
‘That’s not what I came for, Con,’ said Smiley. ‘I’m not trying to woo you away, I promise.’
‘For one good reason, she’s dying,’ she announced firmly, not seeming to notice his interjection. ‘The old fool’s for the shredder, and high time too.  The leech tries to fool me, of course.  That’s because he’s a funk.  Bronchitis. Rheumatism.  Touch of the weathers.  Balls, the lot of it.  It’s death, that’s what I’m suffering from.  The systematic encroachment of the big D.  Is that booze you’re toting in that bag?’

And that sums up the redoubtable Ms Sachs.  And Mr le Carré’s very clear characterisation.

If you are looking for something light, but interesting, and have not considered wandering into the world of the Cold War spy then you could do no better than choose to read the Karla trilogy, Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyThe Honourable Schoolboy, and this excellent conclusion, Smiley’s People. But do start at the beginning.  Although they can be read on their own, it will be much better to have the foreknowledge of that which has past before in the series.

As for myself, I am considering hunting down the remainder of the novels featuring George Smiley, including the famous The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, in which he has a minor role and the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor to see if Gary Oldman can carry my vision of George.  This series of books will certainly be added to my bookshelves at home in due course, they are eminently readable.

Happy reading everyone.

* Max = Smiley.


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