John le Carré’s agents are tired, bitter, and lonely men desperately trying to hold on to the vestiges of their ideals and illusions, to keep away from the abyss of cynicism and despair. Alec Leamas, the protagonist of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, has been in the field too long but allows himself to be talked into undertaking one last assignment, only to be deceived by his masters, spiritually destroyed, and killed. There are no heroes or villains on le Carré’s Cold War battlefields: Everyone uses everyone, and conspiracies lie everywhere, like mines.
In a 1974 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, le Carré said that his novels differ from most thrillers in which the plot is imposed on the characters. He said that he writes the kind of book in which “you take one character, you take another character and you put them into collision, and the collision arrives because they have different appetites, and you begin to get the essence of drama.” When bringing about these collisions, le Carré is less interested in the events than in how the characters respond, that is, their moral behavior.
Le Carré’s novels reflect his belief that people barely know themselves, that in human relations “we frequently affect attitudes to which we subscribe perhaps intellectually, but not emotionally.” He considers such relations “fraught with a nerve-wracking tension.” Such a view of life in which this tension leads to conspiracies is appropriate for a writer of espionage fiction. The espionage novel, according to le Carré, becomes “a kind of fable about forces we do believe in the West are stacked against us.”
George Smiley is the perfect le Carré protagonist because of his ability to see conspiracies of which others are unaware. In Call for the Dead, his suspicions about the suicide of a Foreign Office clerk lead to unmasking the duplicities of one of his closest friends. (Betrayal of one’s friends is a major le Carré theme.) In A Murder of Quality, a straightforward mystery, Smiley enters the closed world of the public school—an institution le Carré finds almost as fascinating and corrupt as the intelligence establishment—to solve the murder of a schoolmaster’s wife. After appearing as a minor character in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Looking-Glass War (1965), Smiley reaches his fullest development in the trilogy that pits him against his Soviet opposite number, known as Karla. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1980) show le Carré working on a much larger canvas than before with dozens of characters serving as the chess pieces that Karla and Smiley deploy all over Europe and Asia in their deadly battle of wits.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Smiley is forced to accomplish his goals not only without the help of his superiors but also often despite their interference. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Control, the longtime head of the Secret Intelligence Service (always referred to as the Circus, for the location of its offices in the Cambridge Circus section of London), has died and is replaced by the unctuous Percy Alleline. Control had suspected that the Soviets had placed a double agent, or mole, in the higher echelons of the Circus. (Le Carré is credited with making this use of “mole” popular.) He had therefore sent Jim Prideaux, one of the Circus’s best agents, to Czechoslovakia to uncover evidence about the mole’s identity, but a trap is laid, resulting in the wounding and torture of Prideaux.
After Control’s death, Smiley, with the help of the delightfully colorful Connie Sachs, head of Russian research, slowly and painstakingly tracks the mole through the records of intelligence operations. This procedure is hampered by the lack of cooperation from Alleline, whom the mole cleverly manipulates. Smiley learns more and more about the head of Moscow Centre, Karla, the man behind the mole, the then-unknown agent Smiley once had in his grasp. He discovers that the mole is Bill Haydon—the Circus’s golden boy, the lover of Ann Smiley, and the best friend of Jim Prideaux. (Haydon clearly suggests the infamous double agent Kim Philby; le Carré wrote the introduction to a 1968 study of Philby.) Before Haydon can be swapped to the Soviets, the shocked, disillusioned Prideaux kills him. Because Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy centers on the quest for Karla’s mole, it more closely resembles traditional mystery fiction than any of le Carré’s other espionage novels.
The Honourable Schoolboy
The Honourable Schoolboy, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Gold Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association, focuses on Smiley’s efforts to restore the credibility of the Circus. Again with the help of Connie Sachs, he backtracks through the files to attempt to learn what information Haydon has covered up or destroyed, discovering that Karla has made large gold payments to a Hong Kong trust account. Smiley’s legman, Jerry Westerby, a dissolute, aristocratic journalist, goes to Hong Kong to help unravel the strands of the multilayered plot.
The trust proves to be controlled by Drake Ko, a Hong Kong millionaire, whose supposedly dead brother, Nelson, is Karla’s double agent in China. Nelson Ko intends to sneak into Hong Kong to be reunited with Drake, but Saul Enderby, Smiley’s new boss, has been working behind his back and has arranged for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to reap the rewards, including details of China’s military capabilities. Westerby has fallen for Drake’s beautiful English mistress and attempts to disrupt Nelson’s capture and is killed.
In Smiley’s People, the now-retired Smiley learns that Soviet agents in Paris are attempting to establish a new identity for a Russian girl. Piecing together bits of seemingly unrelated information, he, with the assistance of Connie Sachs and other old friends, discovers that Karla has a disturbed daughter in a Swiss sanatorium. Smiley is his own legman this time as he travels to Hamburg, Paris, and Berne to ferret out the facts and obtain satisfaction from his nemesis. By detecting that Karla has illegally used public funds to care for his daughter, Smiley forces the Soviet superspy to defect. As with Jerry Westerby, Karla’s downfall results from love, a particularly dangerous emotion throughout le Carré’s works, as Smiley’s feelings for his adulterous Ann particularly...
(The entire section is 2712 words.)