Tuesday, March 30, 2021

On the Coffee Table: Smiley's People

Title: Smiley's People
Author: John le Carre

First, a moment to acknowledge John le Carre's passing in December.  Born David Cornwell in 1931, he was an active MI5 officer when he published his first spy novel in 1961.  Many of his characters, including both George Smiley and Bill Haydon, were based on people he knew in the service.  He was never shy about expressing his political opinions, an outspoken critic of both Brexit and Donald Trump.  He died of pneumonia at the age of 89.

via Wikipedia

Smiley's People is the seventh George Smiley book and the third and final installment of the Karla Trilogy.  It begins, at least from George's perspective, as a murder mystery when one of his agents, General Vladimir, is killed in London.  Except it's not exactly a conventional case because whodunnit is obvious and therefore irrelevant.  The KGB (known in-story as "Moscow Centre") did it.  The more important question is "Why?"  What information did Vladimir have that the Soviets - or was it just one Soviet? - was trying to bury?

It takes a while for various narrative threads to weave together and Smiley's victory, when it finally comes in the end, is quiet and anti-climactic.  A man crosses a bridge, drops a cigarette lighter on the ground and gets into a car.  No big shoot out.  No fanfare.  George doesn't even seem comfortable with the duly earned pats on the back.  It's just over.  Such is le Carre's style and as ever, it's thoroughly believable.

Smiley's People includes a more modest travel itinerary than The Honorable Schoolboy, mostly hovering around England and Central Europe.  Le Carre does offer a loving portrait of Bern, Switzerland, a city where the author himself lived as a student.

Apart from George, the character who benefits most from the author's masterful development is Karla, Smiley's Moscow Centre nemesis.  We rarely see much of Karla in any of the books.  In fact, he never gets a spoken line in the BBC adaptations.  But we learn quite a lot in this final tale about his history, his motivations and finally, his vulnerabilities.  On screen, it's the perfect part for an actor who can make a lot out of a little, Patrick Stewart in the TV version. 

There are more George books.  The Secret Pilgrim is next up.  It's on the wish list but it could be a while for me.  The TBR shelves are overflowing at the moment.  However, there may be more le Carre in the near future...


  1. Brilliant writer. Haven’t read all the Smiley books, but will probably get around to it. Read the final one, A Legacy of Spies, earlier this year.

  2. Although I recently reviewed a "Spy Thriller," I'm not really into the genre. But I did read with my men's book club a year or so ago, "A Legacy of Spies."

    1. Obviously, I love them. Funny, though, as I peruse my shelves, I don't have a lot more spy books on hand - one more le Carre but then nothing. Detectives, yes. Spies, no.