Author: John le Carré
Smiley has been forced out of the Circus, the nickname of his (fictional) agency within the British Secret Service. Control, his former boss and main supporter, is dead. Powerful people outside the agency, however, are worried about the current state of affairs at the Circus and they recruit Smiley to sort it out. An agent has come in from the field and it soon becomes obvious his cover was blown. In fact, Circus agents are being blown all over the world, most conspicuously in an incident in Czechoslovakia. Some suspect a mole within the agency and Smiley sets about finding him.
Le Carré's genius is character building. As noted above, Smiley was already clearly established for those who had read previous books and we also get beautiful development for several in the supporting cast including his right-hand man Peter Guillam, his rival Bill Haydon, field agent Jim Prideaux and Smiley's deliciously enigmatic nemesis Karla (Patrick Stewart in the Guiness interpretation, an empty chair in Oldman's). Smiley's interview of Karla is the highlight of the tale in all versions. In the end, the story becomes an exploration of motivation. What keeps you in the game? What could inspire you to betray: patriotism, loyalty, money, ideology, love, adventure?
Le Carré shares Martin Scorcese's gift for realism. His spies are neither James Bond nor Jason Bourne. They are the unassuming English gentleman walking home from work, the little old lady next door who dotes on her dog, the eccentric French teacher at a boarding school. As a reader, it was a jarring experience trading off this ultra-realism with pure Harry Potter fantasy.
I know both the Guiness and Oldman versions so I already knew whodunit. However, the film versions take significant liberties with the book. I am eager to revisit them now that I know the original story better.
And, of course, I'm excited for the next book: The Honourable Schoolboy.