Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
The honourable (very English) schoolboy of the title is Jerry Westerby, the son of an English peer and the product of English public (i.e., elite private) schools; a gruff, hale-fellow-well-met who works for the British Secret Service while posing as a freelance journalist. Westerby’s boss is George Smiley, le Carré’s most memorable character — middle-aged, somewhat portly, the cuckold of a beautiful wife, brilliantly insightful, and a bit ruthless. The year is 1975 and the Vietnam War is drawing to its awful conclusion. The British Secret Service, known as MI 6 (Military Intelligence, Section 6) or more informally as “The Circus,” has been compromised by a Russian mole, discovered and exposed by Smiley in an earlier book. Not knowing whom he can trust, Smiley must rebuild the Circus’s network of agents.
The Circus gets a break when it discovers that Karla, Smiley’s counterpart and nemesis in Moscow Center, has been funding an activity in Hong Kong through bank payments originating in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Smiley assigns Westerby the task of following the money. The story is told through the eyes of a semi-omniscient narrator, who seems to be getting the facts by reading and commenting on the Circus’s files. Le Carré thus creates some ambiguities by leaving gaps in the files.
The cast of characters is very diverse and extremely well drawn. We learn of their motivations by way of thorough background investigations of their earlier lives. There are no one-dimensional portraits or mere caricatures among the principal actors. The plot is byzantine, and the dénouement is satisfying if not quite inevitable.
Discussion: This is the second of le Carré’s “Karla trilogy”, the first being Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the third Smiley’s People. Unlike some less artful trilogies, it is not necessary to have read the first book to enjoy the second. I listened to the audio version of the book, read by Michael Jayston, a very competent British actor. Jayston renders numerous characters in recognizably individuated voices and different realistic accents, ranging from English public school, to American Midwest, to Australian, to Chinese, to Mexican-American. Moreover, his standard narrator’s voice (English upper class) is an audio delight.
Evaluation: This is not just an excellent spy tale, it is an excellent piece of writing, and Penguin’s audio edition is superb.
Note: John le Carre is the pseudonym of David Cornwell, who was a member of the British Foreign Service from 1959 to 1964.
Published unabridged on 16 CDs by Penguin Audio, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2012