Smiley’s People by John Le Carre

Having enjoyed watching the BBC adaptations of John Le Carre’s books Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People on DVD over the Christmas break, I thought I’d go back and re-read the novel Smiley’s People, first published in 1979. I chose this novel because against my expectations I enjoyed the TV series more than I did Tinker Tailor (it was the other way round when I first read the books, probably around the time of original publication). Le Carre, with John Hopkins, wrote the script of the BBC Smiley’s People, which perhaps partly accounts for its superiority, but also I think the plot is better. Tinker Tailor focuses on which of four people running “The Circus” (the British Secret Service) is a Soviet mole, and though the story is compelling as well as brilliantly acted, it is somewhat simplistic in outline. (The novel is better, being more layered.) Smiley’s People is constructed more as a classic detective novel, in which we do not know the central mystery until near the end (unless we guess it before the author reveals it) – but pretty soon we can see that it is both nested and, at its core, obscure.

As the book opens, George Smiley is again retired, having reconstructed The Circus in the wake of the mole’s identification in Tinker Tailor, but having been elbowed out by the odious Saul Enderby while away in the Far East (a tale told the The Honourable Schoolboy, the middle novel in the trilogy – and a real favourite of mine). Smiley is called to a safe house by the home office security minister Oliver Lacon, where it emerges that an ex-Russian general in exile, “Vladimir”, has been shot on Hampstead Heath while attempting to meet a representative from The Circus to show him some vital information – information which is greeted with derision or total lack of interest when Vladimir makes initial contact to try to pass over the crucial evidence. Vladimir had been part of Smiley’s circle of informants, but in a round of cost-cutting, Lacon and Enderby had “let go” the old networks, so Vladmir’s adherence to the old procedures is considered mystifying or quaintly ridiculous. But when he is murdered, Lacon becomes desperate that news of Vladimir’s death is not associated with secret-service (botched) activity, and that no blame attaches to his department. He therefore assigns Smiley to “clean up” to ensure nobody who might know anything talks to the press or anyone else.

Smiley is quietly furious about the treatment meted out to his old network, and sets out to find out what Vladimir had discovered that was so urgent. The rest of the book is told from Smiley’s perspective as he slowly and minutely follows up every train of thought and every possible shred of evidence, interviewing a range of tenuous and close associates of Vladimir and his circle in several European countries, ranging from an old Russian warehouse worker in Paris, to a long-distance lorry driver based in the East End of London, to a German night-club owner, and more. Gradually he uncovers more and more of a picture, bringing in the sparkling Toby Esterhase, now a shady art dealer, to help him in the end game, in a delightful sequence of cat and mouse as the old rejected guard, relishing its unexpected new relevance, closes in on the conspirators, orchestrated by Smiley.

Apart from the tight plot, there are two other aspects of the novel that I liked a lot. Both concern Smiley, who is the heart of the book. First, Smiley is nearing the end of his days, and his thoughts (to which the reader is privy) are coloured by his gradual detachment from matters that did concern him intensely in his youth – his hopeless love for his flagrantly unfaithful wife Ann, his irritation with the petty ignorance and arrogance of the current Circus staff, and his reflections on what has been important to him as he looks back on his life – his love of German literature as a young man, and his research at the St James’s library for example. Second, is Smiley’s relationship with his nemesis “Karla”, which began as a straight war of wits, but by the final showdown at the end of this novel, Smiley is almost uninterested. As the novel closes, there is a final twist to the symbol of the cigarette lighter, and we witness in the background (through the filter of Smiley) the reactions of the Circus staff to events, but Smiley remains detached. The reader can decide for him/herself where Smiley has arrived on his life’s journey – does his reaction indicate his own disgust at his ruthless pursuit which has rendered him not much different from his enemy, as some have suggested, or does it indicate a more general detachment from the emotions and passions of life that concern younger people, that comes to everyone as they reach old age?

Smiley’s People was written and set 40 years ago, in very different times – 10 years before the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union was a cruel enigma to the West, and before many of today’s technological marvels that we take for granted. Yet it is utterly contemporary in its analysis of national paranoia in the face of identified enemy countries; the plight of immigrants who flee from repressive regimes and try to settle in more palatable countries; our lack of ability to deal with injustice and cruelty in the world – when we find out about it.

I read the first US mass market paperback edition of this novel (Bantam/Random House – UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton), purchased at the time, now yellowing with age and with multi-cracked spine. The flyleaf proclaims that “not a word has been removed” from the hardback edition, but even so some words have evidently been altered – for example when Lacon’s daughters play Monopoly, they argue about the rent payable on “Park Place”. Never mind, it’s an excellent book! The novel is still in print and can be obtained cheaply in online bookstores.

Smiley’s People entry on Wikipedia, based on an essay by Neal Stephenson in The New Republic.

The BBC version of Smiley’s People at the IMDB. The 6-episode DVD can be bought very cheaply, for example it is £4.99 on UK Amazon.


8 thoughts on “Smiley’s People by John Le Carre

  1. Maxine – Ah, you’ve reminded me of a great, great literary character :-). Thank you :-). I absolutely must go back and re-read that series. It’s been far too long…

  2. This reminds me to read some books by Le Carre, who has always fascinated me. Thanks.

  3. I am sure Le Carre is one of the best, but the crime subgenre of spy thrillers is one of the few I *never* read. Spies may be very important, but the whole business seems to me a rather silly boys´ game.

  4. I agree, Dorte, a bit like science fiction! This particular one, however, is as much a classic detective story as anything else – the spy plot becomes irrelevant to the detective in the interests of uncovering the main event – which has nothing to do with spying as it happens……

  5. Well, since it’s not really a “spy” novel, I can try it as that is not my genre of choice. But my father read Le Carre’s books and he never steered me wrong on reading.

  6. I think I started reading Le Carre because of my father, too, Kathy. I read a very early Smiley book where he investigated a crime in a school – before he became a spy 😉

  7. By the way, anyone hear from Mr. Crime Scraps, haven’t seen him blog at his website or at any of his usual haunts. Hope he is okay. And he has his quiz’s answers to post.

  8. Pingback: Smiley’s People by John Le Carre | Petrona Book Reviews archive

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