First published in 1979, this is the ninth book from the pen of Le Carre, and the eighth to feature his most famous creation George Smiley. It was written as Alec Guinness was appearing as Smiley on television in the BBC’s epic ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, and Le Carre was so impressed with the performance that he here subtly changes certain aspects of his own depiction of Smiley to better reflect Guinness’ TV persona.
Following form Tinker and the Honourable schoolboy, this is the triumphant conclusion to the Karla trilogy. The second book in the trilogy, the overbloated and at times tedious Honourable Schoolboy was a bit of a let down, but I am pleased to report that this book finds Le Carre on his top form, with a gripping tale and tight plot that really nethralls.
Smiley is summoned out of retirement to rake over the traces when an old Circus contact is found dead. The powers that be are concerned that there is no scandal attached to the Circus, and ask Smiley, as the last of his generation, to tidy up the legacy of that generation. Smiley starts to look over the last days of the General, and soon finds a trail that leads to very dark places. Does he quietly tidy up as he has been asked, or does he use the knowledge gathered to settle some long standing scores and lay many old ghosts to rest?
It’s a brilliantly constructed and told tale. Smiley is aided and abetted by many old faces from his past, as he tries to resolve the big unresolved question from his time at the Circus. Le Carre draws each of them beautifully, and I often felt that these were real people and that I was in the room with them. Toby Esterhase in particular makes a great impression in this book. I also liked the character of Herr Kretzschmar, the morally dubious but fundamentally decent man who goes a long way ‘for the sake of friendship’.
The story falls into two main sections. In the first, and longest, Smiley quietly and carefully investigates the last days of the General, locating clues and unravelling a tangled skein. Once he has all the pieces of the puzzle he is then ale to be proactive, to set up a cunning scheme that may lead to redemption for him and his generation. The second part of the tale is a tense and nerve-wracking read as his scheme comes to a climax. It’s a 5 star book of excellently crafted paranoid spy games.
I have eulogised about Michael Jayston's narrations a few times before, especially those that he has done for the Adam Dalgleish stories, but here he raises his usually high game to a new level in this unabridged reading. It probably helps that he co-starred in the late seventies TV production of Tinker that starred Alec Guinness. His delivery here is an absolute joy. With the merest light inflection of his voice he differentiates the myriad of different characters. In a stroke of genius he makes Smiley sound a lot like Guinness, with a very calm and reassuring tone. He narrates with a real feel for the rhythm of the book, and captures the atmosphere as the crisis is reached. It's a joy to listen to, and the hours just fly by. On twelve discs it is nearly 14.5 hours long. The discs are in a spindle case. Liner notes are limited.
A great reading of a great book. 5 stars.
on 30 August 2012
In the final part of leCarré's Karla trilogy, George Smiley is recalled from his unhappy retirement when one of his former agents suddenly reactivates. The now toothless and politically driven intelligence service wants a quick, clean closure to the case to which they attach little value. Smiley, however, begins an independent investigation; at first out of respect for his old agent but increasingly because he begins to scent his nemesis, the Russian intelligence chief, Karla.
Smiley's People is more similar to Tinker, Tailor than the middle novel, The Honourable Schoolboy. Like the first part of the trilogy, Smiley is firmly in the operational heart of the plot. He travels across Europe following the trail and with his unique, detached insight reconstructs the puzzle.
The `people' of the title are the many returning characters -Connie Sachs, Peter Guillam, Toby Esterhouse- who join Smiley's private army, operating at the very greyest edges of the intelligence community. It is a genuine pleasure to again spend time with all of them, such is leCarré's mastery of their characterisation. If anything elevates leCarré above other thriller writers, it is the literary precision with which he constructs his characters and environments in addition to the byzantine plots. His style is lean, precise but never skimping on detail or humanity.
The novel explores the toll of living in the clandestine world of espionage on the participants. Karla, once a faceless, shadowy bogeyman who lived only for the soviet mission, is humanised but it is that chink in his armour that Smiley pursues. Smiley, meanwhile, casts aside not only the remnants of his `civilian life' but also many of the ideals by which he lived to pursue his one chance to strike directly at his opponent. The reader is left wondering, after all the death and damage, is it worth it for the individuals or the nations they represent?
It can be no accident that the imagery of chess continually appears in this novel. The intelligence chiefs of leCarré's world construct operations like grand masters, thinking a dozen moves ahead, analysing their opponents' strategy and willing to make any sacrifice to preserve their long game. The difference in this novel is that Smiley and Karla are no longer playing at a distance: they are both on the board.
Of course, the ultimate game player is leCarré, who confidently moves his character around a complex and mesmerising plot. He is clearly at home in the western European theatre and revels in bringing the contest between Smiley and Karla to a conclusion in a way that resonates across all of the Smiley novels, not just this trilogy. If there is any criticism at all, it is that perhaps Smiley's people is a little less disciplined and compact than Tinker, Tailor but the result is no less satisfying.
I have just re-read this after about 35 years, and it is still very good indeed. There's not much in the way of violent action, although its aftermath does feature, but le Carré's brilliant storytelling keeps the tension high and kept me reading well after I should have gone to sleep.
I think what makes this so good is le Carré's mastery of character and dialogue. He knows the world of Intelligence intimately, of course, and he peoples it with plausible, beautifully drawn characters. There are also moments of description which encapsulate and idea or experience quite brilliantly, like "the unclearable litter of old age" or "a clarifying loneliness." These lift the book above just being a very good spy novel and make it a very fine novel in itself, I think.
This is the third in the Karla Trilogy, and it's best to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy first, but this can be read on its own with great pleasure, too. I would recommend it very warmly – it is the work of a true master at the height of his powers.
on 22 November 2011
WELL, I was motivated to read this after I saw the recent film 'Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy'. It was my first Le Carre, and I enjoyed it immensely. Chock full of spycraft, and though I'm not sure that spies REALLY WERE like this in the Cold War (I suspect they were even more inscrutable), the narrative reflects a world where there are layers upon layers of interpretation, allegiance, and subterfuge. Le Carre is highly skilled at embedding implication in the narrative - we are guessing what's going on in the same way as Smiley et al, and there's a wonderfully dark world-weariness permeating the whole story.
It certainly isn't James Bond; this is an entirely different take on what was (for oldies like me who REMEMBER the Cold War) a time when our 'enemies' were more obvious, their activities more subtle, but who were in many ways just like us.
on 22 October 2012
This is John Le Carré reading from his brilliant book "Smiley's People". I know the book well, and have read it many times. Having enjoyed other recordings of Le Carré reading of his own work, I was looking forward to this. However I was disappointed. The work has been truncated to quite a great extent: chunks of original text are missing, and lots of the details. I realise that works are sometimes abridged for audio, but this time it was too much, in my view. Sudden leaps are made, which makes me wonder if someone not familiar with the text would follow the logic. Why did Smiley suddenly fish a plimsoll from the water? In the book, it's explained, with smooth detailed inevitable logic.
Even the great scene near the end, following the chess game, classic Le Carré, is cut so much it almost loses its point.
I have to confess I am a Le Carré enthusiast, and so I notice when bits are missing. Others might be perfectly happy with it. But when the text is there, and gives so much pleasure, why leave bits out?
Have another go Le Carré, and this time unabridged?
The third of the Karla trilogy Smiley's People brings events started in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to a conclusion. You can't really read this as a stand-alone novel, you really need to read TTSS and The Honourable Schoolboy (in that order first).
Smiley is called upon to cover up and tie up the loose ends of a murder.
As he starts the process he uncovers the reasons for the murder and it starts to lead to his old nemesis Karla. Bringing old characters such as Toby, Connie and Lacon as well as others this book works at a faster pace than THS, its shorter and all the better for it. You get glimpses of George Smiley the field operative as well as the intricate workings of the spy game as has already been shown in the previous two books.
Smiley's People brings things to a conclusion and whilst there may be some questions left to answer you get the end game you have been craving since the unmasking in TTSS. It covers cold war Europe well and its intricate detail and well observed narrative is as enjoyable as ever. Its thin on action but then that's been true of all the books in the trilogy. It does deliver the story satisfyingly to its conclusion and if you enjoyed TTSS then this is the destination you should head for and enjoy.
on 19 October 2011
Smiley's People is the third story in the John Le Carre George Smiley/Karla trilogy. I've now read the first and third books.
In this book George Smiley (the retired temporary head of MI6) is asked to investigate the death of General Vladimir (a former spy). Vladimir was a former Russian officer who spied for the British year ago, and lived to retire. The problem was that the General was trying to make contact with MI6, after he is contacted by a Russian emigree in France. The question is, why's he calling? Smiley tries to find out.
As the investigation continues, the death of a "stringer spy" (Otto Leipzig) sees Smiley's concerns confirmed, and he and Karla (the head of the Russian "service") do battle to see if Smiley can come out on top in the third stage of their personal duel.
It's not a bad book, but it feels... old. I can see it's well written, but I think it drags a little (and not just because it's set in a time that doesn't exist any more). The book was written in 1978/79, and in the intervening years I think people have got more used to pace in their books.
on 22 April 2014
Surely Le Carre’s magnum opus – the final book in the George Smiley/Karla chess-game trilogy begun by Tinker, Tailor…and The Honourable Schoolboy, is absolutely a master class in tightly-plotted, finely detailed, and absorbing literature; very much the pinnacle of the writer’s distinguished career to date. As the innocuous ‘tubby, bespectacled unassuming spy’, George Smiley has dedicated much of his career to the tracking-down and ensnaring of his Russian nemesis, codename Karla. Hiding a fierce intelligence behind his everyman exterior, Smiley has had to endure witnessing his adulteress wife Ann used by the Russian spymaster to corrupt one of the Britisher’s own top agents, whilst seeing his own empire crumble as Whitehall interferes in and chops-up his beloved service. Of course, this summary doesn’t come anywhere near to doing Le Carre’s masterpiece justice – nor does it even scratch the surface of his humble yet driven protagonist. All I can say is that on finishing the novel, I felt bereft for some days; perhaps absorbing some of Smiley’s own strange ambivalence at the essential hollowness of his ultimate victory.
on 27 August 2013
John le Carre is a brilliant espionage writer but his Smiley books need to be read in sequence to fully understand the ongoing plot.
on 12 May 2012
As far as spy thrillers go this is a perfect storm. Pacing, characterisation, mood, the lurking threat, it's all done brilliantly. Do yourself a favour and read this at a measured pace on a sunny day when there are no other calls on your time. It deserves your attention and if you give it a chance this book will run away with you.