This is the last volume in a trilogy which, without any doubt, the best spy story ever written in English. _Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy_ began it with the story of George Smiley's uncovering of the mole in British Intelligence HQ, known as "the Circus." _The Honourable Schoolboy_ -- which largely stands alone from the first and third books, and is a superior piece of work by itself -- tells of Smiley's first steps toward revenge against Karla, head of Moscow Centre and his personal enemy for nearly thirty years . . . only to be denied the fruits of his own success by political machinations at home. _Smiley's People_ brings everything to a very satisfying conclusion, via the discovery that Karla has an unsuspected human side, which makes him vulnerable. As always, Le Carre's development of his characters is masterful and his dialogue and descriptive passages make it clear why, at his best, he is considered an exceptional stylist. The pace of the action in the early part of the book is purposely rather slow, drawing you in, making you pay attention to what's happening and thinking about what secrets might be behind it all -- just as one imagines George is doing. But as the story develops, the pace picks up, until the last quarter is nearly a headlong gallop toward a triumphant final chapter. Unreservedly recommended.
The Cold War ended a couple of decades ago, but John LeCarre's classic spy novel, "Smiley's People", is still an astonishingly good read. It is actually the concluding piece of a superb espionage trilogy that begins with "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and continues with "The Honorable Schoolboy." The rather dense plot of "Smiley's People" will likely make more sense if the novels are read in sequence.
As the story opens, a former agent of the British Secret Service is found horribly murdered outside London, after making contact with his old employers. George Smiley, once head of the Secret Service, is summoned out of an unhappy retirement to make sense of the mess. What he discovers is a secret so important to an old adversary that it was worth killing for.
With official license renewed, the patient Smiley follows a faint trail of clues across Europe and his own history in the Cold War. He will call upon old friends and comrades for information and assistance, while trolling the sad wreckage of his own personal life. At the end of the trail may be the opportunity for the supreme act of professional revenge on a Russian spy master, or a deadly ambush...
LeCarre has a unique writing style, intermingled with a cynical take on the espionage business, that requires close attention from the reader. His hero, George Smiley, is almost the antithesis of the James Bond stereotype. However, the patient reader may find that George Smiley's own considerable gifts for his craft can make for a very compelling story. "Smiley's People" is very highly recommended to fans of espionage novels in general and those of John LeCarre in particular.
Smiley's People is the final installment of the trilogy that tells of the struggle between George Smiley, British spy extraordinaire, and Karla, his Russian counterpart. George is called out of retirement to investigate the death of a Russian defector from his earlier days at the agency. As usual the trail is absolutely Byzantine, but it leads him toward an opportunity that could finally bring his nemesis Karla down. I won't reveal any more of the plot because novels like this depend too much on the specific twists and turns for their entertainment value.
To some extent, it's a waste of time reviewing the third book in a trilogy. If you haven't read them, you should really read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy before even thinking about this book. If you have, and liked them, you want to know how the story ends and you'll read Smiley's People regardless of the reviews. If you didn't like them, then even glowing reviews probably won't be enough to get you across the finish line. For the few people on the fence, here's my two cents.
Le Carre' is an undisputed master of the spy novel and in many respects he's on the top of his game here. Of the three books in the trilogy, this was by far the easiest and most straightforward to read. It's the only one that uses a classic third party narrator perspective and the story is relatively simple (for a spy novel). I found the story and many of the characters interesting. It moves along at a steady pace and there was a sufficient sense of menace to feel some tension even if the stakes aren't as high as some of the other stories.
On the negative side, George and his dithering about a wife who cheats on him constantly has gotten a bit tiresome for me. And the ending seemed contrived to show us that George's life has lost all meaning both personally and professionally. This was not exactly satisfying to me after investing about 1300 pages or on the character. I would also warn readers that Le Carre' gives away the ending in the Introduction to the book... a truly foolish thing to do no matter how long it's been in print.
All in all, I recommend this book. If you've read the first two books and enjoyed them then it's worth finishing. It's also easier to read than the first two so if you've struggled with that at all, you can take heart.
In this John le Carre novel we have the final confrontation between George Smiley and Karla, his long time nemesis. This is my first book by the author and I did not feel like I was starting in the middle. So you do not need to read the two that precede it. This is not just a spy novel, but also a well-written book. And the author is able to allow us to have a strong sense of picturing the characters. They are well thought out and three-dimensional.
Our hero George Smiley is brought out of retirement by some antics and death of an old retired contact. And we follow Mr. Smiley as he works to solve the case or close it any way he can. Of course George Smiley does his utmost to solve it. And it is this journey he takes that leads us to his old time foe from the Soviet Union, Karla.
Smiley does not seem like a spy, but his methods, instincts and powers of observations are exceptional. But what any person attuned to his surroundings would have. It is nice to have a normal human hero. One who shoes us his range of emotions and thought process. And the realistic ending. Yes it may seem anticlimactic. But I prefer the realism of it all.
"Smiley's People" is the third and final book in British spymeister John LeCarre's outstanding cold war trilogy. It opens with one of the author's thrilling set pieces in Paris, and closes with another, a white-knuckle scene at the Berlin wall. In between, it neatly wraps up the epic struggle between George Smiley, British spy; and his Russian Moriarty, Karla, who is described by one of his underlings in this book as "the head of the independent Thirteenth Intelligence Directorate, subordinated to the Party's Central Committee, who is known throughout Centre only by his workname Karla. This is a woman's name and is said to belong to the first network he controlled."
The book is a compendium of LeCarre's great virtues as a novelist: his first-hand experience of spycraft; his witty, terse writing; his ability to fashion complex, yet clear plots; to create a Dickensian canvas's worth of individual, recognizable characters, and to provide them with sharp dialogue. It also, as many of his later books do, pays great attention to the characters' language. At one point the author writes, "Saul Enderby drawled in that lounging Belgravia cockney which is the final vulgarity of the English upper class." "Smiley's" brings back many characters from the earlier books; Smiley, Enderby and Karla, of course. Also Peter Guillam, now newly-married and preggers; Connie Sachs, settled down for her final innings with a lesbian lover; Doc de Salis, Inspector Mendel, Toby Esterhase, Sam Collins. It also, at last, brings Smiley's eternally beautiful and unfaithful wife Ann on stage for the first time.
Smiley is out of favor again, and forcibly retired -- as are his friends-- when the book opens. One of Karla's Russian hoods approaches Mme. Ostrakova in Paris: the Soviet Union has decided to give her long lost daughter Alexandra an exit visa so she can join her mother in the West. Ostrakova has only to do the paperwork. Smiley comes to learn about this after the murder of a friend/former spy of his. The English spy, with his lifetime of experience, realizes that Karla is behaving in an irregular manner that may finally enable the British to bring him down. Smiley plots his course, making what the Hungarian refugee Esterhase calls his "flucht nach vorn," which, the author tells us, nobody can translate except in the most literal sense as an "escape forward." In his unravelling of the mystery of Karla's behavior, Smiley returns to the German-speaking world where he was educated, his longtime second home: Berne, Switzerland, Hamburg, Germany, and eventually, Berlin and its menacing wall.
Karla had set a mole-- a term LeCarre invented, meaning a spy put within a sensitive organization, in deep cover, not to be activated until the time matures-- within the circus, the fictional name LeCarre assigned the British secret service. This mole had nearly destroyed the circus, and Smiley's marriage, as well. In the final struggle between these two dedicated men, Smiley comes to realize that any triumph over Karla will not be without cost. "On Karla has descended the curse of Smiley's compassion; on Smiley the curse of Karla's fanaticism."
on October 21, 2001
I have recently become a fan of Le Carre, and this is my favorite book of his that I have read thus far. The immediacy of the personalities, amdist the larger world of geopolitics, shines through in an unforgettable way.
I have read and enjoyed most Robert Ludlum novels with their fantastic, yet unrealistic story lines. Le Carre's protagonists, particularly George Smiley, do not possess the near superhuman powers, the "eyes in the back of the head", that are necessary for a Ludlum protagonist to survive from chapter to chapter. But Le Carre's stories have more of a poignance, an immediacy, and an appeal to the human element that connects his readers to his protagonists. His writing is exceptional, as well as his style of portraying British speech and outlook. He reveals the minds of the persons whose lives have been continuously shaped and buffeted by the vagaries of the cold war.
Foremost, is Le Carre's hero George Smiley, whose personal life history has been irretrievably shaped by his immersion in cold war espionage, and for whom, no victory or defeat will ever come without mixed emotions.
on July 1, 2011
`Smiley's People' is, of course, one of the best spy novels ever written, and a must read for lovers of the genre. That said, it's the weakest of the Karla Trilogy. While certainly less confusing, confounding, and imposing than `The Hounrable Schoolboy', it's also less engaging. It certainly feels less brilliant than `Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy', a novel, I would argue, that is the best spy novel ever written. This was a book that was written when the character George Smiley was already a literary star; it is not a book, however, that made him a literary star, and the result is a story that artificially parades out a litany of Smiley's `people' like the contrived movie star guest appearances on a bad sitcom. Worse, the story, while still composed of that le Carre brand of believability, is by and far the flattest of the three novels. If you've read the first two, then this is a definite buy, but it's not a stand alone novel, and is definitely not the best place to buy in to the Smiley novels. Yes, the prose is still le Carre strong, but his remaining attributes (the subtlety, the moral nuance, the Dickens-esque characters and Dickens-esque gray) feel a bit phoned-in, a bit forced, a bit of an accidental caricature of itself. In all, a little too self-serving.
That said, the Karla trilogy is to spy novels what the Earth is to the planets, and I'm not sure how much higher praise can come. John le Carre successfully defined himself against the ostentation of Ian Fleming during the prime of the latter's career, but amazingly, he is still defined against the plethora of outright horrid novels breeding like weeds in the genre (Have you read a Vince Flynn? He makes Tom Clancy look like Flaubert). For those few who enjoy the Smiley novels and other well-written genre novels, I can't recommend enough 'The Untouchable' (brilliant), le Carre's own 'The Perfect Spy', and maybe try Cooper's "The Spy". And for those who are curious about "Smiley's People", you'd best start with `The Spy Who Came in from the Cold', or `Tinker...'. `Smiley's People', I'm afraid, is an encore for the fans, a sermon to the converted. But to the unconverted I say, the le Carre cult is a great place to be.
Other people have written more complete reviews of this book, but I just had a few comments to make.
LeCarre's book's have claims to serious literature, not just spy novels, and I think this is one of his best. LeCarre, like all great novelists, is good at characterization, and a great observer of people.
Which brings me to my main point. You don't ever want LeCarre describing your face. He is always noticing odd things about people's faces, especially the moisture on a person's face. I noted this several times before. He'll make you sound like a greasy second-story man no matter what you look like, it seems.
My point notwithstanding, LeCarre is a great novelist.
on April 13, 1999
The most remarkable procedural thriller I have read, surpassing even "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy". Hints and suggestions held together by a narrative which even by Le Carre's standrads is extraordinary. The novel takes the story of Smiley and his arch rival Karla to a wonderfully gripping yet human conclusion. A must read.
on November 16, 2005
Super-spy George Smiley comes out of a fitful retirement for one last bite at the apple. Summoned from his reviews of ancient and tedious poetry, Smiley is called back into service by the horrendous murder of a long-time associate in central London. By the time the Circus has put this behind them, the next victim turns up in Germany.
Smiley's successor asks him to clean up all the loose ends, actually to bury the whole mess. Of course, Smiley finds the real story, eventually convinces the new regime, and gets a legitimate charter to go after his arch-enemy Karla.
It turns out Karla has secrets that he can not trust to his own people in Moscow Center, so he sets up a rogue band of amateurs and hoods to manage it. Smiley and his long-time associates quickly penetrate this rag-tag band and get the goods on Karla. The irony is that Smiley is using Karla's methods to flush out Karla. Ultimately the ball goes back into Karla's court and he needs to make a decision where he thinks his chances of survival are highest.
I listened to the excellent audio version, which is highly recommended for the clever ability to keep all the accents and voices straight. Still this thing is complex, especially if you have not read the earlier Smiley books. LeCarre takes us on a torturous path from London to Paris to Hamburg to Berlin with a wide panorama of under-world characters including black-mailers, hedonists, prostitutes, and pornographers.
The companion BBC mini-series is also very good, featuring the taut acting discipline of Alec Guiness. At about six hours, it is quite manageable. LeCarre wrote the screenplay and made a few story changes, mostly to introduce some attractive women into the mix. Patrick Stewart plays Karla, although he does not appear until the final minutes, and then does not speak.