The Honourable School Boy, John Le Carré (Penguin Books, 1977{Penguin Audio, Narrator: Michael Jayston})

Grade: Δˡ — A good read, but only if you like the genre.

In brief:

The Honourable School Boy is the second volume in the Karla Trilogy by John Le Carré.  It is a stand alone book, but is more enjoyable if read as part of the trilogy.  It continues the story of George Smiley‘s ultimate quest, and while it is probably the weakest of the three novels (as middle books are wont to be), it remains a superior spy tale, even if it is a bit James Bond-y in places. 


1973 Britain and South East Asia, with most of the action occurring in London and Hong Kong, but with substantial bits taking place throughout South East Asia. 

 In Depth:

The Honourable School Boy is the second volume in the Karla trilogy by John Le Carré and my least favorite in the series.  Even so, it is a solid bit of espionage thriller and far better than I had remembered it.[1]  Having said that, I can’t help but feel that the story was a bit strained and spent a bit too much time looking at events surrounding the U.S. pullout from Vietnam; the topic of the aftermath of that war had grown a bit threadbare by the time of the original publication of the book, not to mention decades after. 

Still, there is a great deal of “tradecraft” described and detailed in this book that comes across with a realism that most spy novels never come close to.  The characters are both sympathetic and believable, particularly Smiley, Guillam and the other denizens of the Circus, and the inter-agency politics are remarkably realistic.

As for the tale itself, The Honourable School Boy focuses on the aftermath of the events that are chronicled in LeCarré’s masterwork: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. George Smiley is now Interim Head of the Circus (an unspecified part of the British Intelligence Community, most likely MI6), and charged with getting the service back on its feet. He has, however, become a bit obsessed with Karla, the man who placed the mole who so greatly damaged the British Secret Service

The book also follows the story of Jerry Westerby, an ‘occasional’ operative who Smiley recruits to uncover a possible Chinese agent working for Karla.  Westerby is the ‘Honourable Schoolboy‘ of the book’s title, and lives a life that is anything but honourable.  He is a womanizer, a poor but guilt ridden father, and in his role as an agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, does some necessary, but rather unfortunate things. He is also very sympathetic, in a dark kind of way.

It is the Westerby storyline, however, that somewhat failed me in this book. While it is very exciting, even thrilling, it is also a bit of a period piece. It focuses a great deal on the events in Southeast Asia in the dark years of 1973.  Air America, The fall of Saigon, the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the doom-and-gloom nature of the collapsing American presence in the region are all centre focus in this story line. To that end, it is a storyline that has been done a bit to death;[2] having said that, the more action-packed-spy-thriller nature of Westerby’s story arc is likely going to be quite appealing to most fans of spy stories.

Added to this, the reader knows right from the opening lines of the book that it all fails terribly in the end.  The first pages tell you that the whole affair blows up, and that while good information was gained, the Dolphin case (as it is code named) ends more or less disastrously for Smiley, Westerby and the Circus. What is more, at various points through the story we are reminded of this.

To that end, there is no mystery to the tale, and no anticipation that things might really work out okay. Thus, there is no riddle to work out, no real intrigue to question and no sense of threat: the threat is known and we know it comes to fruition.  All we have left is to wonder in what manner our protagonists fail, and that is not quite enough to make this a must read book.

Having said that, the writing is excellent, the central characters are superb[3] and the tradecraft and discussion of methods is brilliant.  End result?  A good read if you want to read about spycraft, or follow the Smiley story arc, but really only highly enjoyable to those who love espionage novels

Notes about the Audio Edition:

Michael Jayston did a brilliant job of narrating this book on two levels:

No, I haven’t seen Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Smiley yet, though I understand it is very good. All the same, he will probably always be Alec Guiness to me…

The first, and most important, is that he delivered his read in a manner that added to the text, rather than distracted from it.  He spoke with a clear beautiful voice that changed for different characters, but never in a manner that made me think about it.  It was just clear who was talking at different times. 

Secondly, Jayston does the best “Alec-Guinness-playing-George-Smiley-voice” I have ever heard.  I swear to God as he spoke, the image of Alec Guinness in that role came immediately to mind. Yet, Jayston’s reading wasn’t just an impression. He made the role his own while building upon the portrayal of him that Guinness initiated.  It was wonderfully done.

Slightly less convincing was his American accent, which tended to be a little overdone, particularly when doing regionals, such as the Southern USand Boston Accent.  Even so, he did them reasonably well, and his use of accent didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.  What is more, he is a British Actor and the majority of the characters are British so the bulk of story sounds authentic.[4]  His reading was his own, but harkened to the most famous portrayal of George Smiley, at least the most famous one at the point of the recording of this audiobook

In short, this is a great production of a solid book and well worth a listen, assuming you like Espionage novels, that is.

[1] I had first read it some years ago, and much of the subtly was lost of me. 

[2] Even in 1977 it had been done quite a bit.

[3] Though some of the secondary characters come across a bit stereotyped.

[4] Really, I can’t figure out why some producers have audiobooks read by actors (and actresses) who fake an accent through the whole thing.  Most American’s who think they can do a good British accent can’t, or if they can they can do one such accent, not the whole range.  The same is true of British playing Americans.  It really does grate to hear it .  Next time you have a book full of characters of one nationality, use someone OF that nationality to read it.  If there are mixed nationalities, do what they did here: use an actor of the same nationality of the principal POV and/or the majority of the characters in the story.  I will be ranting about this on an upcoming review, by the way.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Chronicle, Espionage, Identity, Series, Spy Thriller, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Thoughtful Espionage Tale, Trilogy, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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