The Honourable Schoolboy | Book Review


The Honourable Schoolboy is the second book in John Le Carré’s “Karla Trilogy,” in which George Smiley of Britain’s MI6 engages Russia’s KGB in clandestine warfare. In the first book—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—Smiley exposed a long-time mole in the “Circus,” the nickname for Britain’s Now, Smiley reorganizes the “Circus” and chases down a “gold seam” of Russian money in a Hong Kong bank.

Set in the Far East, The Honourable Schoolboy introduces readers to sometime British spy, full-time journalist, and impoverished noble Jerry Westerby, whom Smiley taps to follow the money trail. Westerby follows the money, gets frustrated in the long days when Smiley isn’t sure what his next move should be, and falls hard for a woman who through some combination of bad choices and bad luck has fallen in with the wrong crowd.

The Honourable Schoolboy contains more action than Tinker, Tailor, and Westerby is a character more easily loved than Smiley. And yet, somehow, this novel still felt slower than its predecessor—hence the four-star review. Still, this is a page-turning novel set in the hottest part of the West’s long cold war with the East, and it is well worth reading.

 

Book Reviewed:
John Le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy: A George Smiley Novel (New York: Penguin, 2011; orig. 1977).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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Review of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ by John Le Carré


James Jesus Angleton, the legendary (and controversial) chief of CIA counterintelligence, described his work, borrowing a phrase from T. S. Eliot, as a “wilderness of mirrors.” In such a wilderness, it is difficult to discern between reality and reflection. Add the element of danger, and the wilderness induces paranoia in the viewer. The setting of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is this wilderness of mirrors.

The story takes place in 1973. It opens with Jim Prideaux, former British agent, being hired as a substitute teacher at a boys’ prep school. “Control” (head of Britain’s intelligence service, MI6) has died, George Smiley (Control’s chief lieutenant) has been sacked, Operation Testify (Prideaux’s last op in Czechoslovakia) ended in abject failure, and “Circus” (MI6), has been reorganized under a new chief.

Then, a British agent named Ricki Tarr comes across information that the Soviets are running a mole in the Circus, who is code-named “Gerald.” Oliver Lacon, the Civil Service officer responsible for MI6 oversight, approaches Smiley and asks him to investigate. As the novel unfolds, Smiley discovers that there is a mole, he is a double agent feeding the Circus bad Soviet intel, and he is responsible for blowing Prideaux’s op.

It is a testament to John Le Carré’s skill as a writer that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a page-turner despite the fact that it contains so little action. Instead, the plot moves forward and the truth is revealed by means of conversations, flashbacks, and Smiley’s seemingly inexhaustible memory. Smiley walks us through the wilderness one mirror at a time until we see reality.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the fifth of seven novels in which George Smiley plays a part and the first of Le Carré’s famed “Karla Trilogy,” in which Smiley matches wits with “Karla,” head of “Moscow Center” (the KGB). It is followed by The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. Of the five novels I have read so far, this and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (in which Smiley plays a small role) are the best.

Interestingly, Le Carré is releasing what is billed as a new George Smiley novel in September. It’s called A Legacy of Spies, and I look forward to reading it after I finish this series.

Book Reviewed:
John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A George Smiley Novel (New York: Penguin, 2011; orig. 1974).

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré


The Looking Glass War is billed as “A George Smiley Novel.” It is the fourth installment in the series of John Le Carré books where Smiley plays a part, but his role here is very small.

The main story concerns the U.K.’s “Department” (military intelligence) competing with its “Circus” (political intelligence) for glory. The Department ran agents against the Nazis during World War II but has since fallen in missions, personnel, and funding. The Circus, on the other hand, seems to be gobbling up all those things. So, when the Department receives intelligence of a possible missile program in East German, it reactivates an old agent to confirm that program’s existence. The program doesn’t exist, the agent is captured but his fate left unknown, and Smiley is sent by Circus’ “Control” to communicate the reorganization of the Department.

While The Looking Glass War has some interesting bits about interdepartmental rivalry, the training of spies, and the perils of espionage to those who are carrying it out, on the whole, the novel failed to capture my imagination. I read it more out of duty than delight. Even Le Carré admits in his Introduction that it was received poorly by critics. After reading The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, this novel was a disappointment. Thankfully, Le Carré followed The Looking Glass War with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I am currently reading, and that is a real page-turner.

If you, like me, prefer to read series’ novels in order, I can honestly recommend that you skip this one and go directly from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. You won’t be missing much.

 

Book Reviewed:
John Le Carré, The Looking Glass War: A George Smiley Novel (New York: Penguin, 2013; orig. 1965).

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘A Murder of Quality’ by John Le Carré


A Murder of Quality is John Le Carré’s second novel as well as the second (of seven) in which ex-spook George Smiley plays a role. When the wife of a tutor at a prestigious public school is murdered, a friend of Smiley’s asks him to look into the case. Smiley’s attention—and everyone else’s, including the reader’s—is focused on a suspect until the very end when the truth comes out. Le Carré describes A Murder of Quality as “a flawed thriller redeemed by ferocious and quite funny social comment” in the Introduction to this edition, and the book is that, although I wouldn’t say it is fully redeemed.


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Book Reviewed:
P.S. John Le Carré, A Murder of Quality: A George Smiley Novel (New York: Penguin, 2012; orig. 1962).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ by John Le Carré


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a masterpiece. Set in the early Cold War period, it tells the story of the lengths a spy will go to for revenge. It is a testament to John Le Carré’s skill as a writer that even though we know the truth from the beginning—that protagonist Alec Leamas is putting one over on East German intelligence—we are carried along by his storytelling to the very moment when we discover that our “truth” isn’t even true.

 

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Book Reviewed:
John Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: A George Smiley Novel (New York: Penguin, 2012; orig. 1963).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘Call for the Dead’ by John Le Carre


Call for the Dead is John Le Carre’s first novel, and the first of eight novels featuring George Smiley, a career British intelligence agent. In it, Smiley investigates the suicide of Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office employee Smiley had just cleared of disloyalty. The more he investigates, however, the more he comes to believe that Fennan was murdered. But why? And by whom? Answering those questions take Smiley into the murky territory of espionage during World War II and the early Cold War period.

This is the first Le Carre novel I have read. I like to start at the beginning of a series in order to follow the personal evolution of the lead character. Call for the Dead is short and gracefully written, and it kept me turning pages from the time I sat down with it till I finished the book. I will definitely move on to the next book in the series, which is ‘A Murder of Quality.’

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P.S. If you found my book review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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