Smiley’s People, John LeCarré (Penguin Books, 1979 {Penguin Audio, Narrator: Michael Jayston)

Grade: Α  — Great book, must read regardless of what Genres you enjoy.  Makes you think of things beyond the scope of the book

In brief:

Smiley’s People is the last installment in the Karla Trilogy, and the penultimate volume (to date and likely ever) involving John LeCarré‘s master spy: George Smiley.  While not quite up to the level of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy[1] it is a masterpiece of espionage fiction.  Tense, intriguing and wonderfully written, this book pits Smiley directly against his nemesis in a tale of cold war spying at its best.


The UK, Paris, Hamburg, other bits of Germany and Switzerland at the height of the Cold War in the 1970’s.  Though I don’t believe any specific date is given,[2] we do know it occurs not too many years (and indeed possibly even just a few months) after the conclusion of The Honourable Schoolboy, which was set in 1973.

In Depth:

“Tell Max, that it concerns the Sandman…”

Smiley’s People, John LeCarré’s final installment in the Karla Trilogy, brings the epic espionage battle of George Smiley to a close. As such, it is very difficult to discuss in a manner that does not include spoilers of the previous two novels; even so, I will try.

Like its predecessors in the series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), Smiley’s People is a stand alone novel that could be read quite happily without ever having picked up its predecessors. It is, however, probably best read after having concluded the other two books.[3]

It begins with a Russian émigré and dissenter who is contacted by a thug of a Soviet official regarding her long lost daughter. Thus a series of events are set in motion that pits George Smiley directly against Karla, the Head of Soviet Intelligence’s 13th Directive.  The result is a masterful game of strategy and espionage played out between Karla’s people and Smiley’s.  Indeed, implied throughout the whole book, but never once stated, is the nature of these two men as reflected by the individuals whom each rely on for their final conflict.  The differences and similarities between them beautifully illustrates the strengths and weaknesses, not only of the characters, but of the organizations and ideologies they represent.

Written ten years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this novel beautifully demonstrates the fundamental differences between the way the Soviet Union and West functioned, and in that sense foreshadowed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and indeed many of the struggles the West has faced since.  Was this intentional?  Well, in one sense, yes obviously, but in another, obviously not.  It seems likely to me that LeCarré (whose real name is David Cornwall) was simply putting literary form to the intelligence bodies he knew so well,[4] yet it is a testament to his understanding of both political entities and the cultures they represent to see how penetrating his view was.[5]

Yet even without the deeper sociopolitical commentary, Smiley’s People, and indeed the whole Karla Trilogy, is a tense and intelligent mystery and thriller that follows the story of sympathetic and believable characters.  Here at last, Karla emerges from the shadows and we come to know Smiley’s enemy as a man.  Here also we see Smiley’s many of own faults come to the forefront as he enters the final conflict with his old adversary.

Now, I should note, that despite my hyperbole, this is NOT a Bond-or-Bournesque story.  If you expect lots of sexy-action packed Spy-Thriller type of combat, move along down the road.  This is a realistic novel where an old man uncovers a series of riddles; it is conflict of minds and mysteries where guns appear, but are seldom used.  Oh there is violence in this book, but much of it occurs off page.  What you see, for the most part, is the aftermath, not the act. To that end, each single gun shot that happens in this book is far more effectively portrayed than a hundred gunfights. Having said that, this book’s conclusion is one of the tensest moments found in any spy story, for the stakes are so very high.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

I have said this before, and I will say it again: Michael Jayston does a brilliant job of narrating John LeCarré’s book, and he does it on two levels:

The first, and most important, he narrates in a manner that adds to the text, rather than distracts from it.  He has a clear and beautiful voice that changes between different characters, without ever making me think about it.

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.

In short, this is a great production of a wonderful book and well worth a listen.

[1] Well, what is and what could be?

[2] Though in a brilliant bit of writing, there are several phrases that make one think that a date was given. Indeed, the second chapter starts with the phrase, “The second of the two events that brought George Smiley from his retirement occurred a few weeks after the first, in early Autumn of the same year.”  Yet no year was given in the first chapter.  As a result, one is given the illusion of having a precise date, but in fact one is never actually told.

[3] Actually, one could probably quite happily skip The Honourable Schoolboy without losing much.  That is a very good book that builds the personal and professional stakes set out for Smiley, but both Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People are so well written they lay out the stakes quite nicely on their own.  Having said that, it would be a pity to miss out on such a good read as the The Honourable Schoolboy so….

[4] David Cornwall had served in Her Majesty’s Secret Services prior to his career as a writer.

[5] The depth of this can also be seen in The Secret Pilgrim.

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.
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5 Responses to Smiley’s People, John LeCarré (Penguin Books, 1979 {Penguin Audio, Narrator: Michael Jayston)

  1. Geoff W says:

    Oh – I didn’t realize it was an actual trilogy. I have book one on my reserve list at the library, but will have to find the other two!

    • Thomas Evans says:

      It is! But I will warn you that there are descrepencies through both the trilogy and through the Smiley series as a whole. Characters sometimes undergo mild transformations from one book to another. For example, when Peter Guilliam is first introduced in “THe Looking Glass War” (or I *tink* it was the Looking Glass War… it was certainly one of his early books), he is clearly Smiley’s peer. In Tinker Tailor and the subsequent books, he is clearly Smiley’s protoge.).

      Even so, it works brilliantly and George himself, and the big plot items, remains consistent.

  2. silver price says:

    An espionage agent or spy; a citizen who is recruited by a foreign government to spy on his own country. This term should not be confused with a member of an intelligence service who recruits spies; they are referred to as intelligence officers or more particularly case officers.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Mostly, this is true when discussing the real world of espionage, though an agent is usually defined as an official representative of a government, such as an FBI Agent or a CIA agent. The term may, however, also be used to refer to sources within a targeted organization (thus, you may have an agent planted within the State Department of a foreign body, or an agent planted within a drug cartel that may or may not be an official representative of the intelligence organization who has planted and/or recruited them).

      A spy, in real world espionage lingo, is of course a person who has infiltrated an organization or group for the purpose of providing intelligence about them. Thus, most spies are not official representatives. In the case of international espionage, they are mostly individuals working for a foriegn (to themselves) intelligence agency. Thus a Russian citizen working for the CIA is a spy, a US citizen working for Mossad is also a spy. In the case of individuals working for an intelligence agency and gathering information within their own country, however, they can also be referred to as spys (thus one could say that their is a spy planted in a drug cartel… though normally this is referred to as an informant).

      Representatives of the CIA who ‘run’ spies are normally called Case Officers, though that is not the situation with every intelligence agency… for one thing they don’t all speak English.

      In both literature and colloquial language, however, the term Spy is used to refer to anyone working for an Intelligence Agency. Thus, James Bond is a spy. To call George Smiley a spy is a bit of a misnomer, though he has gone undercover, though mostly for the purpose of running or recruiting sources within foreign agencies. Still, within the media business, calling him a spy is an effective form of short hand.

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