George Smiley is asked to follow up on the murder of General Vladimir--not to investigate it but to "sweep up the bits," as he later tells Toby Esterhase, who is currently posing as an art dealer named Signor Benati. Smiley goes to Vladimir's flat first and finds a few clues, including a telephone bill with charges for some calls to Germany. On his way out he meets a "temporary postman" on the bottom floor. Smiley touches the man's elbow and says:
"If you've anything at all for flat 6B, I can save you the climb."
The postman rummaged and produced a brown envelope. Postmark Paris, dated five days ago, the 15th district. Smiley slipped it into his pocket.
George Smiley is always represented, in both Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, as mild-mannered, soft-spoken, nondescript, and maladroit. One might wonder how such a man, who can't even handle Scotch tape, could have become a master spy. But this little incident with the temporary postman illustrates how Smiley's apparent deficiencies are his strongest assets. The postman thinks nothing of handing a letter over to a complete stranger--so long as the stranger is someone who looks and talks like George Smiley. Who could ever suspect such a man of being an imposter, much less a secret agent? Smiley was able to spend the years of World War II in Nazi Germany without being exposed as a British spy just because of his humble manner and totally unmemorable appearance. Smiley knows the postman will be glad to be spared the climb to 6B, which must be on the sixth floor of this walk-up building. The letter he obtains is of great importance because it comes from Maria Ostrakova in Paris.
Throughout Smiley's People, George Smiley behaves in the same modest, ingenuous, low-key fashion. But his "tradecraft" is extremely effective. Behind his humble persona, Smiley conceals his intelligence, intuition, experience, and remarkable courage. He sees everything, although he seems to notice nothing. He interrogates a number of people (these are "Smiley's people") and always succeeds in getting the information he wants. He goes far beyond the limits of his assignment "to sweep up the bits." Rather than taking care of such routine matters as paying Vladimir's bills, vacating his little flat, and erasing him from public memory, Smiley finds himself, at this late stage in life, in a duel of wits with his long-time enemy Karla, the Soviet spymaster.