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Building a World
on 27 October 2017
I am in no way a LeCarre completeist. I started with Tinker Tailor after watching the glorious BBC series (greatest TV dramatisation ever?). Considering buying the new novel, I decided to read the Spy who came in from the cold, on which the new book is based, and which I was aware was a Smiley novel. I was surprised to find two earlier books.
In this, the first Smiley book, he interviews Fennan, a minor foreign office official about his community party past. The interview goes well, and Smiley tells him not to worry. Shortly afterwards, Smiley is called by the head if the circus, telling him that Fennan has committed suicide, citing the pressure of the interview. What follows is a repeatedly twisting spy story as Smiley uncovers the involvement of a hostile intelligence service.
This very much reads as the work of a developing novelist. It is a very decent thriller, in which we learn a great deal about the history of George Smiley. It doesn't have the smooth sophistication of the later works, particularly LeCarre's masterpiece about the hunt for the mole, Gerald. The pieces of the plot clunk into place, rather than effortlessly meshing. It is to an extent overwritten, with regular expositional pauses as the plot to date is explained just before the next twist.
Possibly the most fascinating part of the book is seeing Le Carre test out ideas and characters for later books. George Smiley is pretty much himself, particularly in his disillusion with the Circus. Peter Guillam is rather more old school than the dashing thug of the later books. We are introduced to Smiley's sidekick from the Met, Mendel. The head of the Circus, Maston, politically sensitive, but operationally incompetent, is clearly Percy Alleline's successor. The degree of sympathy between hostile secret services is reminiscent of The Perfect Spy. Tellingly, at the denouement of Call for the Dead Smiley questions his morality, measured against the yardstick of his opponents, in a way which is later echoed in Smiley's people.
So, this is an excellent thriller, a chase through foggy London is particularly good. It is a very good work by a new novelist. It's understandably not quite up to the level of the author's later work.